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First Drive: 2011 Ford Mustang

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.

Chassis changes
The switch from hydraulic steering assist to an electromechanical setup also improves fuel economy. Ford uses five different steering calibrations for the Mustang, depending on whether the car is a coupe or convertible, V-6 or V-8, or if it's a GT with the Brembo brake package. We weren't able to sample all five flavors, but we did detect a noticeable difference between a Brembo-equipped GT and the V-6 coupe. In our GT, the steering was so good - so even, precise, and communicative - that it drummed up thoughts of BMWs. The Brembo-package calibration isn't as heavy as the Bavarians would require, but it's just as consistent. The V-6 coupe's steering is also quite good, but it feels marginally overboosted and just slightly vague off center around 30 mph.

With new engines - and the resulting weight changes - engineers had to retune the spring and damper rates. Additionally, they've stiffened the front end with a Z-brace, tweaked anti-roll-bar diameters, and mounted firmer and grippier bushings front and rear. Relocating the mounts for the upper control arms also reduces axle hop during smoky launches. Of course, the Mustang stubbornly continues with its live rear axle, and Ford's best efforts will never conquer physics. The V-6 we drove transitioned between a jarringly stiff ride at low speeds and loose control at higher velocities. The GT, however, was much more constant in its responses and was composed over all but the harshest roads. If the wheels find a calm surface, handling is exceptional, with quick turn-in and flat body control.

Last year's looks
The Mustang received a significant face-lift for the 2010 model year, so the few subtle changes for 2011 (a brighter pony emblem on the GT, for example) are trivial and difficult to spot. Ambitiously - and somewhat oddly - Ford displayed an Audi A5 as the company's chief benchmark for interior quality. The GT features a wide span of genuine aluminum on the dash and attractive leather seating options. However, the Audi bogey is still a bit of a stretch for Ford's utilitarian radio and climate controls and dash plastics. Seat time in the Mustang did reconfirm, though, that the Mustang is the most comfortable and natural of the muscle car trio, with unparalleled visibility and a sporty feeling of compactness.

Mustang prices see modest increases for 2011, but the latest pony is well worth the extra cost. A V-6 coupe now starts at $22,995 including destination. That's up $750 from last year, but still $535 cheaper than a Camaro. V-8-powered GT models start from $30,495 to the Camaro's $31,795.

The good war
The 2011 Mustang delivers quicker acceleration, sharper handling, and a better driving character, yet its best quality may be that it's an agitator. By taking such a direct shot at the Camaro, Ford has forced Chevrolet to return fire. A mild power increase that will put V-6 Camaro output ahead of the Mustang should come soon, and you can bet that's not all Chevy is working on. The war is on, and it's shaping up to be a good one.

  • price range:

    • $22,995–$30,495
  • As Tested: $35,390 (GT)

  • powertrain

  • Engine: 32-valve DOHC V-8 (GT)
  • Displacement: 5.0 liters (302 cu in)
  • Horsepower: 412 hp @ 6500 rpm
  • Torque: 390 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm

  • Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6 (base)
  • Displacement: 3.7 liters (228 cu in)
  • Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6500 rpm
  • Torque: 280 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm

  • Transmission Type: 6-speed manual
  • Drive: Rear-wheel

  • Chassis  
  • Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
  • Suspension, rear: Live axle, coil springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
  • Tires: Pirelli PZero

    • (Brembo brake package coupe)
  • Tire size: 255/40WR-19

  • Measurements  
  • L x W x H: 188.1 x 73.9 x 55.8 in
  • Wheelbase: 107.1 in
  • Track F/R: 62.3/62.9 in (coupe)
  • Cargo capacity: 13.4 cu ft (coupe)
  • Curb weight: 3463–3621 lb
  • Weight dist. F/R: 53.9/46.1%, 55.0/45.0%

    • (V-6, V-8)
  • EPA Mileage: 17–19/25–31 mpg

Test Results

  • V-6
  • V-8
  • 0–60 mph (sec)
  • 5.3
  • 4.6
  • 0–100 mph (sec)
  • 13.1
  • 10.4
  • 1/4–mile (sec @ mph)
  • 13.8 @ 103
  • 12.9 @ 112
  • 30–70 mph passing (sec)
  • 6.9
  • 4.6
  • 70–0 mph (ft)
  • 156
  • 164
  • Cornering L/R (g)
  • 0.94/0.91
  • 0.98/0.99

Techtonics: Mustang Spooked by Coyote
Don Sherman

Rumors of the V-8's demise were exaggerated. To add kick to the 2011 Mustang GT's gallop, Ford has revived the 5.0-liter badge for a new 412-hp V-8 called Coyote.

The first 5.0-liter V-8s earned Ford the 1966 manufacturer's championship in the SCCA's over-2.0-liter Trans-Am class. Since America was still struggling with the metric system, the street edition was called Boss 302 (as in 302 cubic inches) when it was added to the 1969 Mustang lineup.

The new 5.0-liter engine, which descends from Ford's twenty-year-old modular V-8, keeps long-standing bore-spacing and deck-height dimensions to shorten the development process and to permit use of existing manufacturing tools. Like the 4.6-liter V-8 it succeeds, this engine has a nearly equal bore (92.2 mm) and stroke (92.7 mm).

The new aluminum block has six-bolt main-bearing caps securing a forged-steel crankshaft. Cast-aluminum pistons cooled by oil jets squeeze the fuel/air mixture with an 11.0:1 compression ratio. The aluminum heads have high-flow ports and four valves per cylinder opened by dual overhead camshafts via finger followers. Both the intake and the exhaust cams provide variable valve timing as reflected in this engine's Ti-VCT (twin independent variable cam timing) official designation. A single 80-mm-diameter throttle meters air into the molded-plastic intake manifold.

Direct fuel injection did not make the cut, but according to program manager Mike Harrison, space is reserved for both that upgrade and a supercharger. Premium fuel is required to achieve the full 412 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque; skinflints who fill their tanks with regular will suffer losses of 10 hp and 13 lb-ft.

To throw a bone to Mustang V-6 customers, the previous 4.0-liter base powerplant has been ditched in favor of Ford's more modern DOHC 3.7-liter engine. Weight-saving features include a die-cast aluminum block and oil pan and a molded-plastic intake manifold and cylinder-head cover. The DOHC heads feature four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust tracts. Regular fuel is permissible with the 10.5:1 compression ratio. The 305 hp at 6500 rpm that the new V-6 produces is a satisfying 95-hp jump over the outgoing engine. Ford proudly notes that the 2011 Mustang is the first 300-plus-hp car to top 30 mpg in EPA highway mileage tests.

5-liter Fame

The 5.0 Mustangs of the 1980s can't match the iconic status of the 1960s and 1970s 'Stangs. Dodgy looks are the likely reason that the 1979-1993 car has made so few television and movie appearances. However, 157 hp in 1982 was serious power, and drag racers have formed a cult around raising output, with complete engine builds making more than 600 hp.

After a year on the market, the third-generation Mustang, commonly known as the Fox body, drops the vintage 302-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) V-8 in favor of a 119-hp, 4.2-liter V-8.

Ford replaces the 4.2-liter with an updated "5.0." Although the actual displacement was only 4942 cubic centimeters, Ford liberally rounds up.

At the request of the California Highway Patrol, Ford produces the Special Service Package with more durable hardware and the 5.0 under the hood. The SSP becomes a popular alternative to slow, heavy cruisers, particularly with state police agencies. Some 15,000 units are sold through 1993.

Rapper Vanilla Ice celebrates his own V-8 'Stang (a white convertible) in "Ice Ice Baby," rhyming,
"I'm on a roll/It's time to go solo/Rollin' in my five-point-oh/With my ragtop down so my hair can blow."

Vanilla Ice shows his creative range when he releases a single called "Rollin' in my 5.0" that is complemented by a music video full of spinning tires and bad green-screen effects. Ice's claim of "Zero to sixty/Four seconds/No play" was pure creative license.

The fourth-generation Mustang arrives, featuring a contemporary, softer shape.

Ford kills the pushrod 5.0 and replaces it with a single-overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8.

Ford reintroduces the 5.0-liter V-8 in the 2011 Mustang GT at the Detroit auto show with the help of Grammy Award-winner and hip-hop star Nelly.