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2018 Ford Mustang: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Ron Sessions November 2017

Photography by Ron Sessions

It's been a knock-down, drag-out battle between the first ponycar, the Ford Mustang, and its primary competitor, the Chevrolet Camaro, for the better part of a half century. Since the introduction of the current-generation Mustang in 2015, Ford's ponycar has held a sales advantage, but the Camaro, also new for the 2016 model year, has been steadily chipping away at the Mustang's lead. This year, the Blue Oval folks aim to staunch the Camaro's gains by imbuing the 2018 Ford Mustang with more power, some key chassis upgrades and interesting technologies.

There are also some styling updates for 2018, although you'd probably need the 2017 model parked alongside the new one to notice the differences. The 2018 Ford Mustang's hood loses the longitudinal ribs and power dome of last year's model for a lower, cleaner-looking one with a pair of tastefully executed extractor vents. The grille has a revised shape, as does the front fascia. But the biggest visual change is the move to more dramatic LED illumination for the headlamps, running lamps, tail lamps and on GT models, fog lamps.

More Kick for the Pony

The big action is under the skin, where the 2018 model gets more muscle. Last year's 300-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 is dropped, and although that's certainly a loss for airport rental counters at vacation destinations around the country, the new Mustang's 2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder and potent 5.0-liter V8 are massaged to more than make up the difference.

The 310-hp EcoBoost 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder gets a bump in peak torque, up more than 9 percent over last year's 320 lb-ft to 350 when fed 93-octane premium fuel. As for the Mustang's 5.0-liter V8, it receives a 25-hp power boost for 2018, courtesy of the implementation of a new dual fuel-injection system that combines the best features of high-pressure direct injection with the existing port-injection system, better flowing cylinder heads, a slight increase in bore size and some tuning changes. The 5.0-liter V8 is now rated at 460 horsepower (which coincidentally is 5 hp higher than the output of the arch-rival Camaro SS's 6.2-liter V8). The V8's power curve is not only fatter with more heart, but adds usable revs up top for better staying power. Redline is now a toe-curling 7,400 rpm. Torque rises 5 percent for the 5.0-liter, from last year's 400 lb-ft to 420.

Both EcoBoost and GT Mustangs get updated manual transmissions in 2018 for increased torque capacity, but the V8 box also receives a dual-mass flywheel and twin-disc clutch to improve modulation and engagement feel. And both engines are now available with an optional 10-speed automatic transmission. With a wide spread of available ratios, the 10-speed does a better job of keeping the engine in a speed range where it's most responsive and efficient.

Pressing the pulsating start button on the dash makes it happen as we did recently for several hours behind the wheel of both EcoBoost and GT Mustangs on the winding canyon roads of Malibu, California.

True Grip

Beginning with the new-generation Mustang that debuted for the 2015 model year, it's been functioning at a much higher level courtesy of its stiff structure and independent rear suspension that both deliver a contemporary balance of ride and handling unlike the live-rear-axle versions of yore. Even in the base trim, handling is much more predictable now, and the car doesn't bound or flop around. Bumpy roads impart some mild rocking, but no rude jolts. Braking performance is confidence-inspiring, even with the base binders: 12.5-inch rotors with dual-piston front and single-piston rear calipers on EcoBoost models and 14-in front rotors with 4-piston calipers and 13-in rear rotors with single-piston calipers on GT models. There's plenty of cornering grip for everyday use, even with the standard 17-in all-season tires. The electric-boosted steering is satisfyingly accurate and surprisingly talkative. Three driver-selectable effort settings are available. New for 2018 is a cross-axis joint to aid rear-suspension lateral stiffness.

The 2018 Mustangs Ford made available to us for evaluation were equipped with a Performance package, a $2,495 upcharge on EcoBoost models and $3,995 on the GT. It includes items such as a higher-numerical final-drive ratio, a Torsen limited-slip differential, extra-sticky 19-in Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer tires, uprated springs, larger brakes (Brembos up front on the GT), a strut-tower brace, upsized rear anti-roll bar and sportier chassis, ABS and stability control settings -- all stuff you want if you're exploring the adhesion limit of the tires and the balance point of the chassis. Optional $1,695 MagneRide shocks, recently used with much acclaim in the Shelby GT 350, Corvette and others, were also installed in the Mustangs we drove.

The Sound of Performance

First out was the EcoBoost car. It's the one your left brain wants you to drive -- lighter, more fuel-efficient (21 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway with the standard 6-speed manual) and easier on the wallet. And even though it's relatively quick (zero-to-60 in just over five seconds), handles well and looks great, it just doesn't get the juices flowing the way the V8 Mustang does. The 4-cylinder just lopes along when out of the boost at low engine speeds, and doesn't really feel like it's making 310 horsepower. It doesn't sound the part of a performance car either; it drones where the V8 GT roars, and that's with what Ford thinks are good engine sounds pumped into the cabin via the car's speakers (yes, a pre-recorded soundtrack) to enhance what's actually emanating from the engine. I saw an indicated 20 mpg in a couple hours of admittedly anti-social driving in the canyons of Malibu, California. Not bad, but no reason to forgo the much juicier 5.0-liter V8. Anyway, who buys a ponycar to save the planet?

The GT is solidly in right-brain territory. Sixty miles per hour arrives from rest in the low 4-second range, even sooner with the new quick-shifting 10-speed automatic. Shift with the paddles and downshifts are rev-matched with alacrity. Toggle the drive mode switch to Sport+ or Track and you can play toss and catch with the rear end around corners with judicious use of the throttle. Or select the new Drag mode with the automatic and feel the V8 surge and lurch the car forward with each successive shift. The $895 Active Exhaust option (only on the V8 at this time) makes for a very lively horn section with delicious crackles and lusty pops broadcasting from the four big-diameter exhaust pipes. Ford even thoughtfully included a quiet mode, accessed via a dash-mounted toggle switch, that lets the driver attract less unwanted attention when appropriate. Lots of interactive toys here.

Video Game Tech

Ford recruited some video game developers to introduce more driver-facing technology in the 12-in reconfigurable digital gauge display in the optional GT Premium package. There are no less than eight possible gauge layouts. A MyColor feature lets the driver customize the display with 900 different hues. To get the most out of the 2018 Mustang, you'll want one of the Premium packages to get the SYNC3 system with its larger 8-in center stack infotainment screen and access to technology such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for seamless cellphone connectivity.

But be careful with the options. Check all the boxes on a GT Premium fastback and you'll be well north of $50,000 -- make that close to $60,000 -- for a fully loaded GT Premium convertible. The stakes have been raised in the battle for America's best ponycar.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Ford Mustang: First Drive Review - Autotrader