Watch: Four cylinder or V8? Updated Ford Mustangs go head-to-head
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For almost as long as it’s existed, the Ford Mustang has been in the middle of two grand motoring arguments.
Its intense, ongoing battle against the Chevrolet Camaro is the most obvious clash — decades of motorsport rivalry and schoolyard arguments forging a lasting tribal warfare. But there’s also a more internal conflict to consider; V8 versus everything else.
Since its inception there’s been a dominant view that the only way to enjoy a Mustang is to get one with a V8 under the ‘hood’. But, a quiet counter-culture of enthusiasts opening their eyes to less cylinders is growing. Particularly in the nameplate's current era.
As I stood by watching the DRIVEN team line up Ford's latest EcoBoost four-cylinder and Coyote V8 Mustangs for our first drag race at Hampton Downs, all the colourised history bubbled to front of mind. What, if anything, would it mean for the world of Mustangs if the four-pot beats the V8?
Revs build, rear haunches hunker down, brakes release. The EcoBoost claims the early jump off the line, but is reeled in after about 100 metres. By the finish-line, the gap is over a car-length.
Phewf, thank goodness.
Neither of these ‘Stangs is quite your standard, straight-off-the-shelf fare. Ford’s quintessential muscle car got a significant mid-life refresh two years ago, which makes right now the perfect time to breathe life into the line and release some new go-faster models.
In the four corner we have the EcoBoost High Performance [pictured in orange]; supplementing an already quietly capable turbocharged 2.3-litre powertrain with an extra 12kW boost, and adding some new 19-inch shoes wrapped in bespoke Pirelli P-Zero Corsa4s, a retro-tastic egg-crate grille, a 3.55:1 limited-slip diff, and revised sway bars among other tweaks. It effectively replaces the standard EcoBoost in the Mustang line-up.
The four-banger's extra power stems from its European cousin, the (now extinct) Ford Focus RS. The longitudinally mounted 2.3 gains the Focus RS's larger 63mm twin-scroll turbocharger. Instead of raw numbers, Ford paid most of its attention to widening the EcoBoost's torque curve — resulting in sharper poke from a standing start and an excellent mid-range.
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The GT’s eight, meanwhile, is mostly untouched in Ford’s new RTR Series 1 package. Instead it focuses much more on the visual; adding in RTR’s signature demon-eyed LED grille and a gawking body-kit primed to instill fear into the eyes of kerbs, speed bumps, and ankles.
Staggered Michelin Pilot Sport rubber and the Ford Performance Track Handling Pack also make an appearance. And of course, there are numerous RTR and Ford Performance power upgrades one can sprinkle onto a GT should they want to join the 400kW or even 500kW club.
In its own way, each upgrade represents solid value. At $65,990 the High Performance is just a $3000 premium over standard, while the $89,990 RTR is $7000 more than an ordinary GT (acknowledging the model's 2019 price adjustment).
The V8's margin of straight-line victory becomes a little less impressive when checking out the numbers. It has over 100kW more power to its credit; 339W/556Nm dwarfing the 236kW/448Nm of the High Performance. And, as we found out later in the day, the GT is only a poor launch away from losing.
Impressively similar straight-line performance, similarly finished cabins, and an equal amount of turned heads when parked on Queen St. It's enough to think that, maybe, there's no real 'comparison' to make here. They're the same car, only one's gifted with the silky deep voice.
But, take them onto a challenging piece of road, and you'd swear they were totally different.
The RTR serves up a familiar mix of surprisingly smooth ride, visceral 5.0-litre roar, and charming simplistic rear-driven underpinnings. It's a concoction that conjures nostalgia for many still hurting over the death of the Aussie muscle cars that we worshiped for generations.
The quicker you go, the more it reveals of itself. The significant weight of the GT (and its engine) will make those pining for old-school thrills grin from ear to ear, while anyone wanting genuine sports-car chops and the ability to scare hot hatches and 911s will likely turn up their noses.
The 10-speed automatic, solid in general commuting, becomes a hesitant downer at speed in the eight. It behaves best when the driver's inputs are clearest. On wide-open throttle, it'll always feed you the best gear. Throw it 70 per cent throttle, however, and it'll fish around for what feels like an eternity.
It's less evident in the EcoBoost, where there's a much better grasp on the more modest power figure. In fact, the four-cylinder a much better grasp on everything.
The High Performance isn't just lighter than the RTR. All that engine-related weight loss (almost 100kg, making for a 53/47 weight distribution) is taken away from the front end, transforming it into one of the sports car world's best-kept secrets. The amount of mechanical grip and front-end composure is impressive in isolation, and just straight eye-opening when compared to the GT.
The vast improvement in balance places it on the same plane as things like the Toyota 86 and Mazda MX-5. Only it has far, far more power up its sleeve. My only extra wish is for a six-speed manual, which devastatingly can't be optioned on the High Performance.
It’s hard to argue that the four-pot EcoBoost (particularly with this valuable lick of extra grunt) is anything other than the better, more versatile driver’s car. And even when faced with a proverbial ‘good ol’ boys’ traffic light to traffic light showdown, it delivers.
The brash, bombastic GT RTR brings with it more challenges. It binge drinks and has a start-up procedure that will erode all neighbourly friendships. Despite its louder bark, it’s not much quicker than the EcoBoost. And the extra weight can make things interesting when the journey throws in a corner or two.
But, nuances can make a car. While the lavish looking RTR doesn’t have the sharpness of its counterpart, it also carries the torch of pony history with much more pride. The towering engine note, the memories it evokes, and the mutual arm wrestle of driver versus V8. Nothing else feels quite the same.
In short, the EcoBoost is a better sports car. And the GT is a better Mustang.
2020 Ford Mustang GT RTR Series 1
Pros: Good value, still sounds incredible, sinister looks, authentic to its history
Cons: Not much quicker than the four, 10-speed struggles
2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost High Performance
Pros: Retro styling tweaks, now almost as quick as the GT, the better steer
Cons: A lot to spend on four-pot, no manual, not much else