Road test: rating the 2018 Ford Mustang GT Fastback
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The key to creating an effective film sequel is to give the audience just enough pay-off to quench their satisfaction.
It’s something that’s descended into a formulaic science for most franchises. Dominic Toretto’s ideas get more and more needlessly illogical, Batman’s cars and gadgets get darker and more brash, and the Avengers ... well, I’ll let you fill that in yourself.
The automotive world has its own sequel equivalent; the midlife refresh.
These, too, follow formulas, and the humble Ford Mustang refresh is perhaps the simplest of them all — add angrier styling, add power, add noise, and stir vigorously.
Not exactly. With buyers becoming savvier by the day, manufacturers can’t afford to issue lazy updates anymore. The goal posts are shifting, and the new Mustang’s changes had to be comprehensive.
We first drove the blue-oval pony car in March at the national launch, clocking several hours behind the wheel on a run through the curly roads between Ford’s Highbrook head office and Waihi.
But while such jaunts are good for crafting first impressions, they’re no substitute for living with one of these snarling beasts for a few days.
Pricing for the V8-powered GT Fastback kicks off at $79,990, but thanks to spiffy optional Recaro bucket seats, this tester rolls in with an as-tested price of $83,490.
The addition of high-pressure direct and port injection has gifted Ford's 5.0-litre Coyote unit with 33kW more power and 26Nm more torque than the pony it replaces. This makes it one of the most advanced V8s Ford has produced, and helps it break the 100km/h barrier in less than four seconds.
The other significant mechanical changes come with the addition of a new automatic transmission — a 10-speed SelectShift box co-developed with General Motors — and new optional MagneRide suspension.
Of course, none of this will be news to you if you read our launch report. But, after proudly declaring that the gearbox is the “single best thing about the new Mustang”, I need to add a slight qualification.
Indeed, it’s a huge step forward on the six-speed of old. It’s clever, sharp on upshifts, and generally quite predictable. But in daily usage it highlighted one previously concealed characteristic — it’s busy.
When you’re gunning the GT, the 10-speed automatic functions as you’d expect it to. But in more relaxed usage, it’s too frequently eager to jam itself into its highest possible gear. I assume that this is to improve fuel economy (we achieved a not-too-surprising average of just over 10L/100km). But it can get on your nerves quickly when you feel the urge to plant your right foot only to find you’re travelling at 60km/h in eighth gear.
It might sound like blasphemy in this institution of beer-guzzling V8 lunacy, but this could probably be solved with the addition of an “Eco” driving mode for cruising.
And why not, when many other elements of the ’Stang showcase a newfound appreciation for maturity. The new active-valve exhaust system includes a surprisingly effective “Quiet” mode for example to prevent deafening the neighbours every morning on start-up.
The interior continues this trend, with a satisfying number of new toys to play with. The 12.3-inch LCD digital cluster is the obvious hero. A feature more often associated with Mercedes-Benz and Audi models rather than blue-collar blue-ovals, it’s simple to use via a bevy of steering-wheel buttons.
The addition of SYNC 3 compliments this, with navigation through the relevant menus all occurring much quicker than before, coupled with satnav that finally looks and feels like something created this century.
The rest of the interior is unchanged; stiff plastics and squishy leathers the order of the day. Most of it carries an attractive retro-chic aesthetic, only to stumble at the last hurdle — like the neat row of metallic rocker switches that can be pressed upwards but not downwards.
It’s easy to forget, but remember that back in its homeland this Mustang is a budget performance car — and is built as such. It still doesn’t feel like $80k of car when you’re inside, but the added technology and well-sculpted Recaros (not too tight, easy to hop in and out of, but without heating and cooling capabilities like the standard armchairs) do help bridge what used to look like an insurmountable quality gap.
Safety tech, a big talking point on the Mustang, has been given a boost through camera-assisted additions such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure/lane keep assist, and autonomous braking. ANCAP safety testing is still to come, so just how much “safer” this makes the formerly two-star Mustang remains to be seen.
At the launch, we sampled two models, both of which came fitted with the optional MagneRide suspension set-up. And it was a change that worked well through the winding coastline roads, producing limited body roll and instilling grown confidence in the Mustang’s ability to hold the road.
But in the real world, it’s the standard sports suspension that does it for me. Far from falling apart in the corners, the standard set-up offers still impressive road holding while being less coarse and more pliant in general commuting.
In keeping with the interior's theme of customization, drivers have a myriad of adjustable modes to rattle through. Driving modes range from the tried and true 'Normal' and 'Sport +' to 'Snow / Wet' and the all-too-tempting 'Drag' mode.
Sport + is the go-to for fun-having on twisty roads, with sharper throttle response and more flagrant use of revs in each gear. It'll leap from a standstill quickly, too; though Drag mode produces a more instantaneous bite with improved low-down response.
In the straight-line stakes, it's difficult to see anything procuring more smiles and muffled laughter than the Mustang — a magical exhaust note (set to Sport or Track mode, of course) the icing on an already comprehensive cake. Especially when the needle-made-of-pixels ranges above 6,500rpm.
Each and every one of those 33 extra kilowatts can be felt as your body carves its outline into the back of the driver's seat.
In a literal sense, handling is still the Mustang's weak spot. Though the steering is also adjustable, all three different settings feel pretty similar thanks to an electric steering system that (like many others) numbs out any potential feel from the road.
And on traditional Kiwi roads (the fun kind that you'd get car-sick on as a child while getting rag-dolled from left to right) it feels a bit big. That long bonnet becomes imposing as a driver, making the nose occasionally hard to place.
But, these elements are simply part of the Mustang experience. On a wider scope, they're characteristics that became part of the Aussie-made Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon's charm. They're par for the rear-wheel drive V8 course, and when gazed upon in this context the new Mustang has to be appreciated for its capabilities.
'Driving around the weight of the car' is where the satisfaction lives for those behind the wheel, and the new Mustang gives you more tools than ever before to enjoy that challenge. How that will compare to the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro? We'll just have to be patient.
The reality is that, when push comes to shove, the GT’s finite handling ability, interior quality, fuel economy — or indeed its safety — probably sit quite low on the list of relevance for passionate Mustang faithful.
Like most sequels, the die-hard fans will come back over and over again no matter what.
Cynics often call it complacency. But, in certain cases, you can call it dedication.
2018 FORD MUSTANG GT FASTBACK
PRICE: $83,490 (as tested)
PROS: Impressive power upgrades, sounds amazing, new tech makes GT price easier to swallow
CONS: ANCAP safety test still to come, cabin quality and ergonomics, fuel consumption
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