Just as it was in 1967, the 2011 Ford Mustang and 2011 Chevrolet Camaro are natural rivals, not only in their design and performance, but also in showroom sales. So we didn’t need Ford to tell us that the Camaro is the most cross-shopped vehicle for Mustang buyers. We were surprised, however, when Ford revealed the second most cross-shopped vehicle. We suspected — as you may — either the Dodge Challenger, the Hyundai Genesis coupe, or the Nissan 370Z. After the Camaro, though, Ford says shoppers are most likely to compare the Mustang with the Honda Accord coupe. So we gathered the two coupes for head-to-head comparison.
Ford’s emotive pony car stands in dramatic contrast to the conservative styling, family-sedan roots, and front-wheel drive of the Honda. The pairing, though, starts to look more natural once we have keys and window stickers in hand. Both cars offer the sporty image of a coupe with high-output V-6 engines and six-speed manual transmissions and just $600 separates the two cars we’re driving. The Accord — an EX-L with navigation and no other options — is the more expensive at $32,055. Standard equipment includes leather, heated seats, a ten-way power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, and a seven-speaker audio system.
The premium-trim Mustang starts at $26,695 but is priced at $31,445 here. Upgrading from a base car to the premium package is worth it simply for the meatier leather stitched steering wheel that replaces the wimpy, cheap molded plastic wheel. You’ll also get leather seats, a partial power driver’s seat, and Ford’s Sync system that connects cell phones and portable audio devices. Our options included the cosmetic Mustang Club of America package ($995), security package ($395), backup camera ($385), a shorter 3.31:1 rear axle ($395), and heated seats with a partial power passenger’s seat ($595). Our test car also boasted the $1995 performance package, which is a must-have in our opinion. It adds a firmer suspension similar to that in the Mustang GT, 19-inch wheels, Pirelli PZero tires, upgraded brakes, and a sport mode for the stability control. Navigation, while not here, can be had in combination with automatic climate control and HD radio for $2350.
It doesn’t take a perfectionist or experienced critic to identify several poor fits among the Mustang’s interior panels. The center stack in particular shows several uneven gaps and panels that aren’t flush where they meet. Honda wins hands down if you are picky about such details. Beyond that minor caveat, the Ford interior is smart, fashionable, and rich. The materials, style, and ergonomics are far more appealing than the cluttered spread of controls on the Accord’s center stack. The cabin and seats are more confining in the Mustang, but comfort in the two cars is similar. Ford can also tout extra touches like the convex blind spot mirrors and customizable colors for the gauges and ambient lighting.
The Mustang does have one fatal flaw, though. The steering wheel doesn’t telescope. Senior web editor Phil Floraday was so bothered by the long reach that he deemed it a deal-breaker. The Honda buyer also gains the convenience of a power seat recliner and the comfort of adjustable lumbar support. The Accord also offers more utility if you intend to regularly use the back seat. With an extra 3.3 inches of legroom for third and fourth passengers, adults might last an hour in the back of the Honda. By contrast, rear-seat passengers in the Mustang are typically ready to get out the moment you slide the front seat back into position. There’s even a fifth seatbelt in the Honda should you dare to use it.
The Mustang’s new engine boasts 95 more horsepower than last year’s V-6. The long overdue powetrain upgrade, though, is initially underwhelming. Despite output of 305 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, the engine is slow to rev and breathes like a shot-put thrower running the steeple chase. From the cabin, the sounds and vibrations deliver the feel of a beefy 4.0-liter unit that belongs in a truck like Toyota’s FJ Cruiser rather than a dynamic sports car. There’s also the feel of a massive flywheel bolted to Ford’s V-6, causing revs to hang when changing gears. In contrast, Honda’s 3.5-liter zings to redline eagerly and feels just as smooth at 6500 rpm as it does at idle. Rated at 271 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, the Honda engine doesn’t pull as strongly from low rpms, but it’s able to keep up with the Mustang.
Of course, we’d be misleading you if we didn’t tell you the objective truth about this revitalized V-6 Mustang. It’s fast. As in 5.3 seconds to 60 mph. And that starts to influence our subjective opinion. Like an addicting narcotic, you quickly become blind to the V-6’s undesirable qualities and find yourself dipping into blissful gratification without thought or concern. Qualms about coarseness and engine attributes evaporate and it becomes difficult to accelerate at less than 70 percent throttle. Such performance does more move the Mustang quickly down the road. Dipping into the fun pedal quickly kills Ford’s excellent EPA rating of 19/29 mpg city/highway. Our Mustang mileage couldn’t even match the city number of the Accord’s 17/25 mpg rating.
While the Accord’s engine is entirely satisfying, the clutch and transmission work to detach the driver from the enjoyment provided by the Mustang. Light effort and long travel for both the clutch and stick make for slower, less direct gear changes. The six-speed stick is also somewhat sloppy compared to the excellent shift action we’ve come to expect from Honda products like the Civic Si and Acura TSX. Ford hits on the other end of the spectrum with a tight, stiff shifter and shorter, more linear clutch travel. When you’re hustling the car, the Mustang’s gearbox allows for quicker shifts that add to the visceral thrill of acceleration, and yet it’s no less friendly in relaxed driving. Honda’s approach may appeal to a few commuters, but we’re guessing those people all buy automatic transmissions.
In steady-state cornering — staying off the throttle in corners — the two cars handle at the same level. Both coupes are equally willing to turn in, though the Accord has slightly more substantial steering feel and feedback than the Mustang. Assistant editor David Zenlea was surprised that the cars felt so similar in their capability. “I’d take the Mustang,” he declared. “But it’d be more of a style decision than the performance advantage that I expected from the Mustang.” Of course, if you ask the cars to accelerate midcorner, the Accord’s front wheels quickly becomes overwhelmed and squeal for mercy. The Mustang is much happier to oblige, following the line without any rear-wheel-drive, oversteering antics. Breaking traction from the Pirelli rubber in a turn takes concerted effort. With its multilink rear suspension and softer tuning, the Accord rides better over all surfaces, but the Mustang’s live rear axle truly only feels like a liability on the roughest roads. The stiffer performance package suspension proves to be tolerable in relaxed driving and is only jarring over large bumps at low speeds.
In picking a winner, we have to admit that we fall for the smoke and mirrors of the Mustang, both literally and figuratively. A burnout just looks silly coming from the front wheels and we’re rather fond of Ford’s blind-spot mirrors. Then there’s the classic shape that equates to instant street cred and frequent compliments. You’d never get that in a Honda Accord coupe, even if it was slathered in Ford’s ostentatious grabber blue paint. However, the Mustang also earns enough merits in its performance to make it the rational choice. It offers better fuel economy (on paper), a more engaging gearbox, rear-wheel-drive, and the new V-6 is seriously fast, even if it’s not seductive in character. Not only does the 2011 Ford Mustang make the Honda Accord coupe look pedestrian, it also moves the needle on what we expect from an affordable sports car, both in terms of performance and interior comfort.