Purists might argue that a Ford Mustang isn’t a true Mustang if it’s not a hair-on-fire tribute to Frank Bullitt and the Steve McQueen who played him in the famous movie that set the standard for cinematic car chases.
To be fair, Ford Motor has not tried very hard to dissuade us of the notion that a Mustang is a pure American muscle car, not some effete “European” sports car with a small displacement, forced-induction engine and lively responses. The thing is, Ford launched the latest generation Mustang (No. 6) with a turbocharged four-banger aimed at a global audience not obsessed with V-8s and displacement. And I just tested it.
As I did, my mind drifted to the countless Bullitt special editions I’ve run with over the years. Some years back, I drove a Bullitt up, down and around the same streets of San Francisco that witnessed Frank Bullitt’s shoot-out with thugs driving a nasty black 1968 Dodge Charger. It did not end well for them, nor for Bullitt’s 1968 Highland Green Mustang GT fastback with its thundering 390 cubic inch V-8 mated to a four-speed manual.
I have also been to a handful of Mustang revival and tributes, where I had the pleasure of swapping stories with those who worship at the Mustang alter. The most fevered of them wax eloquent about a list of other thundering versions of that original pony car – including the Mach 1, the Boss 302/429 and the Mustang Cobra, not to be confused with the Shelby Cobra. It’s a decades-long love affair.
But one also bumps into some who are less obsessive about smoking tires and howling V-8s. I’ve met those who marvel at the whole Mustang phenomenon, who argue something broader, that the Mustang in all its forms is central to the American car story.
Even so, I have from time to time heard that a Mustang isn’t a Mustang unless it has at least a 289 V-8 under the hood. I’m talking small-block V-8s, like that 289 and Chevy’s 283. If you came of driving age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they’re magical.
The truth is, though, the 1964½ ‘Stang was launched with some pretty modest engines. The starter was a 170-cu-in (2.8-litre) six-cylinder, a perfectly appropriate powerplant for a 2+2 coupe based on the humble Ford Falcon. We’re talking 101 horsepower.
The first Mustang V-8 was a plain 260 cu-in V-8 rated at a 164 hp. Sure, the 289 came along quickly and it delivered 210 horsepower, while the upgraded six-cylinder jumped to 200 cu-in (3.3-litres) and a whopping 120 hp. But Ford has sold millions of V-6-powered ‘Stangs.
And a lot of four-cylinder ones, too. True, the Pinto-based Mustang II introduced in 1973 was an abomination, best forgotten. But this new 2020 Mustang coupe I’ve tested, with its high-performance, direct-injection Ecoboost four-cylinder (330 hp/350 lb-ft torque), six-speed manual, 265/40R Pirelli P Zero Corsa4 summer tires on wider 19×9.5-inch rims and a bunch of other cool bits as part of the $6,500 high performance package – well, it’s quite the bomb.
True, that little engine (138 cu-in or 2.3 litres) doesn’t rumble at low speeds; sounds more like a sewing machine, to be honest. But once you dip into the throttle and starting rowing the gears, stretching as much as you can to the 6,500 rpm redline, the sounds get more interesting and the responses are terrific.
The performance package among other things stiffens the block and head with a high-tensile liner, a high-strength cast aluminum head and an improved ring pack. This is a serious motor with a stainless streel exhaust pushing through dual polished stainless tips. The final drive: a Torsen 3.35:1 limited-slip rear end. I expect that in the next few years, as the greening of the auto industry takes greater hold, this sort of motor will become a rarity, and very expensive.
For now, we have here not just a terrific motor, but also a very good gearbox, along with the right exhaust, wheels, tires and electrically-boosted rack-and-pinion steering. The four-wheel disc brakes with ABS (anti-lock braking) and electronic stability control allow you to manage your exuberance. Safely, no fuss. To be clear, Ford threw in some chassis bits from the GT, MagneRide® dampers and stiffer sway bars, too.
Honestly, if you want to appreciate this coupe, book a track day. As-tested, this full-on Mustang came in at $52,665 (including $550 for the Twister Orange paint) and I’d say it delivers full value, given the hardware, software and, I should mention, the sweet design. Sure, that’s about $50,000 more than the first-generation Mustang at launch, but as a performance car, that original was a poseur. Not this.
Okay, I wish Ford had spent a bit more on the front bucket seats, which lack the overall support and lateral hug for long drives and hard cornering. But I can’t really fault the cabin layout, nor the infotainment bits that really matter here in the age of smartphones.
As for you V-8 purists, give this ‘Stand a try before passing judgement.