People complain about a recent loss of civility in American life, but the truth is, folks, there ain’t nothing recent about it. We live in a land where just about everything has always been worth fighting over, as the 2004 presidential election demonstrated.Always on the lookout for emergent trends in societal discord and bad vibes in the vehicular realm, we here at Automobile Magazine predict that in coming months, the nation can square off on another crucial question: the issue of exactly which qualities make for the ideal affordable, high-performance car.
By way of putting this debate of great national importance into better focus, the editors of this magazine dispatched its New York bureau to the center of American disharmony, our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Our mission: to compare two prime exemplars of what President Bush might refer to as “different philosophies of government.”
We speak, of course, of the new GT and the WRX. Although it takes about the same amount of dough to buy them ($27,395 for the Ford, as tested; $26,970 for the Subaru), these candidates couldn’t be farther apart on the issues. One’s a stalwart of American muscledom, born again forty years on and just hitting the stump after having undergone its first truly comprehensive make-over since 1979. The challenger from Asia is better known as the poster child for the increasingly popular practice of granting homely econoboxes liberal amounts of horsepower and grip at the factory. Two fine automobiles in the mid-$20,000s range, both with abundant horsepower and the avowed intention of going fast, yet two cars whose constituencies couldn’t agree less on what makes for a winning combination of power and road smarts.
On this side of the aisle, the all-American Ford, a coupe with a muscular 300-hp V-8 and the old school’s solid-axle, rear-wheel-drive setup; across the way, the brainiac Subaru sedan with its idiosyncratic, 227 hp of righteous turbo boxer four with smarty-pants all-wheel-drive system.
The Ford may have had a major midlife makeover, but in concept, it stands in line with enough muscle cars of yore to fill a large VFW hall’s parking lot. The other candidate was born in Japan, which many voters these days will excuse, but in its technical and stylistic expressions, it might as well be the representative from Mars. Either one of these road burners will get you to the maximum national mandatory retirement speed of 60 mph in a jiffy, but, we wanted to know, which one will make you a prouder, happier American?
There are two types of patriots in this country: those who want to do it the way they’ve always done it and those who vote for progress in all things. Obviously, the Mustang falls in with the former camp.
Ford puts the best spin possible on going the solid-axle route, an anachronism in a world now fully acquainted with the many practical and theoretical benefits of an independent suspension. Fordsters insist that most of their customers don’t care much for suspension talk and that those who do want a solid axle out back. One suspects it didn’t hurt that the cost accountants wanted it, too.
Mustang hearties, particularly drag racers, prefer the live rear, Ford spin masters assured us, because it’s the best thing for putting their car’s prodigious horsepower to the ground. Right, we thought. Better phone up BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Ferrari, and all the other high-performance adherents of independent rear suspensions to point out the error of their ways. And give the boys at Ford’s SVT department a ring; they’re planning to put IRS in the upcoming Cobra.
Cost control was the obvious goal, and the reward is a six-cylinder Mustang that starts at less than $20,000. The Mustang team was not immune to the legitimate needs of the driving public, so it deigned to fiddle with location strategies for its solid axle, repositioning links, installing a new Panhard rod, and placing coil springs on the axle instead of on the trailing arms. Up front, A-frame control arms become L-shaped ones made of high-strength steel; true damper-in-coil MacPherson struts finally get the call. The new suspension delivers desperately needed improvements in ride and handling. Although we found tire noise at highway speed intrusive on the Jersey Turnpike, the 2005 is an altogether quieter and smoother proposition than its predecessor. Credit, too, a stiffer structure.
Overall, our pollsters found comfort positives trending upward for the new Mustang. Requiring less in the way of wily skill and he-man inputs whether pottering or pressing on, it’s a much easier car to drive. But steering is not responsive enough, paying only lip service to the concept of turn-in under braking. And as far as roadholding goes, we found the new GT–at least when staked factory-issue Pirelli P Zero 235/55WR-17 all-season tires and explored in the wet–worthy of caution. In rain, the candidate from Flat Rock, Michigan, proved alarmingly prone to completely reversing positions mid-campaign–i.e, spinning out–under the most mild provocation. But at least you know where you stand with the Mustang. It’s not a sports car, it’s a pony car–a handful and proud of it.
As with the best muscle machines, you’ll choose to accommodate it because of its engine. The GT sounds better than it ever has, especially when it’s getting down to the people’s business of revving hard to its 6000-rpm redline. Forty hp up on its predecessor and boasting an 18-lb-ft climb to 320 lb-ft of torque (at 4500 rpm), it goes faster than ever. An automatic with five forward gears–a very liberal allotment of ratios, for Ford–is optional. But running through the Tremec 3650 five-speed manual in our test car and the GT’s standard 3.55:1 rear, the 4.6-liter, 24-valve SOHC 90-degree V-8 spurs the Mustang to reel off 0-to-60-mph runs in 5.6 seconds, on its way to a 143-mph maximum speed. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with the feel of the shifter, which is dramatically improved over the rock crusher in the outgoing GT. It’s pleasant, even. Operating the clutch is no longer a hamstring-threatening endurance test, either. And the four-wheel disc brakes are bigger, better, and biteier.
Call it retro, call it slavishly reminiscent, we call it a Mustang. To our eye, there’s nothing wrong with the way the GT looks. The restyle by Ford designer Larry Erickson (of CadZilla fame) looks tough and mean.
There’s no doubting that the cost cutters camped out in the interior for weeks, but it’s not an irredeemable stinker. The dash top is flimsy, the door panels unrelentingly plastic, but overall, one experiences a sense of occasion when seated behind the wheel. One optional feature, called (in a stroke of desperate unhip-ness) “My Color,” allows the driver to choose from among 125 hues of dashboard lighting. Part of a $450 interior upgrade package, it’s trippy enough the first few times around but pans out as something less than the most exciting innovation of the microchip era. The gauges themselves look pretty cool, if a little cheap.
We’re not going to stand here and tell you that the WRX looks better than the Mustang, because that would be like trying to suggest that Ross Perot traveled far on his good looks alone. We’re not going to ask you to believe it sounds better, because it doesn’t. It certainly provides a fast and furious soundtrack when wound up, thanks in part to a bigger muffler and single pipe for 2005, but if you prefer your exhaust system to be your number one calling card and megaphone and you’re leaning toward the Subaru, the aftermarket is standing by to help.
We’ll not claim that the WRX will do a hell of a lot in the way of introducing you to members of the opposite, er, party. Because it won’t. Unless they’re techno-nerds, die-hard foreign-car fans, or members of some clannish Southern California subculture, most Americans like Mustangs better. We’d note this truth time and again, as a representative sampling of the District population, from teenagers to truck drivers, lobbyists to layabouts, pored over our early-production GT, recognizing instantly what it was, and approving, plus or minus three points.
So the WRX isn’t the prettier candidate. It has a different worldview and reflects different values from the Mustang, taking a more nuanced yet highly commendable view of freedom. It will not pound roads into submission the way its burly opponent does but will use and giddily subdue them with a viscously coupled four-wheel-drive system and a chuckable, independently sprung chassis. It will give drivers the ability to corner sharply, whatever the weather. The WRX (along with its even more switched-on sibling, the $32,000, 300-hp WRX STi) offers the additional freedom of greater visibility owing to the more upright body style. A redesigned interior for 2005 relieves the hot Subaru of a measure of the econocar drabness that has let it down in the past.
Surprisingly, in terms of accommodation, the Mustang matches or exceeds the WRX in many dimensions, although there’s a two-inch rear-legroom deficit and no seatbelt for a theoretical third rear passenger. With seven inches of additional wheelbase compared with the outgoing model, the new Mustang has its largest, most comfortable cabin ever. It also serves up a bigger trunk than the WRX’s (12.3 cubic feet versus a minuscule 11.0).
Trading the V-8’s wail for the intercooled two-liter turbo four’s mad urgency, you access the economic benefit of using less fuel–27 mpg on the highway versus the Mustang’s EPA highway figure of 20–and bask in the eternal moral value of lower consumption. And it’s only fair to point out that the Mustang’s economy drops quickly into the twelves and lower in the city, when you addictively launch the muscle machine away from stoplights with antisocial glee.
The Subaru can get thirsty, too, but is more readily driven in economy mode. With a turbo and just 217 lb-ft of torque, it needs to be caned to get going its fastest. Although the WRX is only a tick slower than the Mustang to 60 mph, at 6.0 seconds, the Ford encourages smoky burnouts, while the Scooby is hands-down chairman of the agility committee. It’s a trimmer machine by 420 pounds (3180 pounds versus 3600), which is like carrying a couple of extra lobbyists in your Mustang everywhere you go.
Accordingly, the Mustang remains true to the slow-in, fast-out handling tenets of the pony-car faith. Comporting itself more like a sports car, the WRX stands for a more cerebral kind of driving excitement, held back only by curiously inert steering. The all-season Bridgestone 205/55VR-16 Potenza RE92s might be part of the problem.
Being both strange-looking and boring-looking, attributes that seem to cancel each other out, the WRX is blessed with relative stealth. It blends into crowds better than the Mustang. The aerodynamic wing on its trunk doesn’t help, but it’s optional, and at least the one on the WRX is less extreme than the one on the WRX STi.
So, which way to go? American traditional? Or original-flavor video-game rally star? Un-doubtedly, more people will cast their lot with the Mustang. It’s an American icon and an emotional touchstone for the faithful. The WRX will appeal more to the reality-based community. Fortunately, in the world of cars, we get to choose for ourselves who wins, so differences of opinion can be settled to each person’s complete satisfaction. You can even vote twice. What could be more civilized than that?