God bless the Chevrolet Camaro. If it weren't for the 2009 revival of the General's muscle car, we might still be driving Mustangs saddled with old, underpowered engines. But last year, the Camaro's V-6 was just 11 hp shy of matching the Mustang's V-8 output. Ford had to respond, because Chevrolet hadn't simply won the spec-sheet battle; both six- and eight-cylinder Ford engines were unreasonably crude for duty in anything claiming to be a sports car.
Action comes in the form of two new engines for the 2011 Mustang that pit Blue Oval versus Bowtie as never before. The new 305-hp V-6 rings in exactly one horsepower stronger than the Chevy six-cylinder. It also produces 95 hp more than the outgoing V-6 Mustang. The headliner, however, is a new V-8 that brings back Ford's famous 5.0 badge.
Rollin' in the 5.0
At 412 hp, the 5.0-liter falls short of the 426 hp in a Camaro SS but the Mustang GT also has a 244-pound advantage over the Chevy. Once we are behind the wheel, though, we aren't really inspired to draw comparisons with the Camaro. Rather, we're content to revel in the new mill's flexibility. As a distant relative of the 315-hp 4.6-liter, the 5.0-liter V-8 feels smooth and unrestricted at low rpm and willingly nips the 7000-rpm redline when it's pressed. And pressing it is exactly what you'll want to do, whether you're trying to get somewhere quickly or just destroy your rear tires with smoky burnouts. Tight canyon roads outside Los Angeles highlight the V-8's wide torque band; we leave the stick in second gear while we run from 2000 to 6000 rpm and back repeatedly. Inside the cabin, the exhaust note is a bit soft but the low wub-wub-wub warble has been piped into the cabin with an induction tube and sounds spot on. A sport exhaust, though, would complete the package.
A new V-6, too
While the 5.0 is the big news, the base Mustang actually receives a greater number of significant updates. In addition to the new 3.7-liter engine, the V-6 car now includes a limited-slip differential, a cold-air intake, and dual exhaust as standard equipment. There's also a new performance package, which Ford hopes will appease young enthusiasts who can't afford insurance on a GT. Upgrades include a numerically higher 3.31:1 rear axle, the Mustang GT suspension, a strut-tower brace, nineteen-inch wheels, Pirelli summer tires, and a stability control sport mode. Our V-6 tester didn't have the performance package, but it was equipped with the 3.31:1 final drive as a stand-alone option to deliver more eager acceleration. Yet within a few miles of driving the V-6, we were underwhelmed by the power delivery. The engine is slow to rev and acceleration feels more anemic than you'd expect from 305 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Still, it's a much better feel than the crass truck-engine character of the old 4.0-liter. The new engine is better described as a passionless, mainstream wheel-turner. Perhaps that's a function of the 3.7-liter's other duties in the Ford Edge crossover and Lincoln MKS and MKT. Whereas the Camaro led many to say that a V-6 needn't play second fiddle to a V-8, our recommendation for the Mustang is quite the opposite: find a way to get into the V-8.
The transmissions in both base and GT Mustangs have an additional cog over last year's gearbox, totaling six forward gears for automatic and manual units. The experience, though, is largely unchanged from last year's car. The short stick topped with a ball-shaped shifter requires firm throws to move through a tight and notchy pattern that's fitting for a muscle car. The more efficient engines and wider gear spreads result in fuel economy increases across the range. The most frugal V-6, an automatic coupe, returns 19/31 mpg. GTs are rated at 18/25 with the automatic and 17/26 with a manual.