But as he drills down to specifics, Donohue's assessment is upbeat. "The engine's a stump-puller," he says. "It doesn't matter what gear you're in. And the brakes are excellent." Almost too good, in fact. "Under hard braking," he says, "it almost feels like axle hop. There's so much weight on the nose that the rear lifts up and the ABS kicks in."
The biggest flaw, though, is persistent understeer. "It wants to push just about everywhere," Donohue says. "I even tried pitching it on the way into the corners to wag the rear end out, but that just caused the front end to wash out worse--and earlier. So it's not nimble. But it's not nervous, and it doesn't want to bite you. It's a friendly car that you can get out of shape without worrying about going off the road."
Jones is up next, and I'm expecting him to be unhappy with the Mustang's old-school live axle. But he's amped when he pulls off his helmet. "It's very well balanced," he says. "It doesn't have a lot of push, and the longer I ran, the looser it seemed. I was getting some wheel spin off the slow corners, but it's pretty good in the tight stuff. You can miss your mark and still make the corner and have a good lap."
Jones's major gripe is the brakes. Also, the gearing is such that he was caught between second and third in several corners--an annoying problem because the engine didn't seem to come on the cam until about 4000 rpm. But the big picture looks awfully appealing. "The Mustang is very predictable and real forgiving," he says. "It's a car that you can hustle."
Next, the drivers swap cars. When this session is over, Donohue is the guy wearing the big smile. "Just driving down pit lane, the Mustang seemed much lighter," he says. "The low-speed grip is so much better, and you can toss it into the corner sideways." Jones, on the other hand, looks worn out by the Camaro. "It's a pig," he says bluntly. "The brakes are much better, but it just won't turn. The Mustang is a lot more fun to drive."
Fun? We're not here to have fun. This is a racetrack test, and the measure of success is speed. To our surprise, and based on the lap times posted in each car, the Camaro is 0.7 second quicker than the Mustang, which translates into an average speed of 80.9 versus 80.3 mph on the 2.25-mile Thunderbolt circuit. (Comparative lap times suggest that this isn't too far off the speeds that Trans-Am racing cars would have posted back in 1969.) When Jones and Donohue return to the track for some wheel-to-wheel dicing, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the cars become painfully obvious.