LONG BEACH, California — Dense clouds of tire smoke and feverish electronica recently wafted over Long Beach after the party that is Formula Drift invaded the city’s grand prix circuit. Now, the skies are clear, Skrillex’s heavy bass drops are a thing of the past, and a salty breeze carries the sounds of Indy cars through the stands. But our attention isn’t on the nail-biting race between Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rather, it’s on the keys to the 2017 Ford Mustang RTR Stage 2, beckoning us to kick its clutch and do what its creator intended: atomize tires.
Mustang aficionados might not recognize the RTR nameplate. A recent addition to Ford’s catalogue, RTR is the brainchild of Ford Performance’s professional drifter, Vaughn Gittin Jr. According to RTR’s mission statement, the Mustang RTR “was built from the ground up to complement the Ford Mustang lifestyle with modern aggressive styling and street tested, track-proven performance characteristics.” Few will dispute this car is aggressive in personality; according to AUTOMOBILE senior copy editor Kara Snow, it is “a pink and purple mohawk among a sea of man buns.”
To the point, the RTR’s styling cues mimic Gittin Jr.’s Formula Drift race car. It’s low and mean with sharp angles accentuating the Mustang’s already aggressive stance. There’s a new front fascia comprised of an upper and lower element, and a set of unique, triangular LED grille lights that finish the car’s antagonistic front end. At the rear, there’s a new diffuser complimented by an RTR-branded decklid panel and a new spoiler. Finishing the Mustang’s new look, RTR gave the car a set of 20-inch RTR-built Tech 7 wheels that fill the Mustang’s wheel arches thanks to a set of RTR lowering springs and two-way adjustable dampers.
But don’t think of the Mustang RTR as mostly just a body kit. This car receives a host of performance additions that turn an already competent performer into a wicked machine meant to create smokescreens out of its gummy Nitto 555 Gen 2 tires.
The most noticeable modification: a dose of negative camber. It’s slight, not nearly as exaggerated as the amount run by enthusiasts in the “stance” culture or the specifications run on proper professional drift race cars, but it’s enough to immediately catch your attention and affect the car’s handling.
On-center steering feels more vague than it does in the stock Mustang GT. While it doesn’t have as much play as a 1965 Mustang, it takes a moment for the steering wheel to begin loading up. This is nothing drastic, but in today’s modern cars where steering is immediate, this characteristic is perceptible. An inch off on-center and the vagueness recedes, sending the road’s flaws back to your fingertips. Keep turning, and the extra camber, sticky Nittos, and trick suspension pieces let the car’s front-end grip the road like a rock climber scaling the Grand Tetons without a rope.
RTR’s two-way adjustable dampers make up the bulk of the suspension modifications. However, the team also upgraded to adjustable sway bars front and rear that let the owner tune for neutral handling, understeer, or oversteer. As it sits, the Mustang is setup to oversteer and provide the most tire-shredding experience available.
Under the hood you find the same 5.0-liter DOHC V-8 as in the Mustang GT, although for added oomph, RTR reflashed the stock Mustang’s ECU and equipped it with a new axle-back exhaust that bumps horsepower from the standard 435 up to 472 — plenty to compromise the 275-width rear tires. Unfortunately, traffic out of Long Beach after the IndyCar race was beyond atrocious, and there was no room to open up the taps and let the car dance. Finally, in downtown Los Angeles, among the abandoned industrial estates and broken buildings last in business during the Reagan administration, I was able to let the RTR off its chain, at least for a brief moment.
Graffiti ranging from gang activity to beautiful artworks seemingly covers the area’s every surface. Broken bottles, trash, bags, and other rubbish litter the roadside. Not a soul was in sight. Although deserted, fat, black strakes of melted rubber ran the length of the road, evidence I wasn’t the only one who had ideas of tire smoking.
With a swift kick to the clutch, right foot stapled to the gas pedal, the rear tires light up immediately. The new exhaust growls with a menace missing in the standard Mustang GT. The tone is deeper, more resonant, similar to its GT350 brethren. Mustangs always seem to sound better with a new exhaust, and this one is no different. And as the tires shriek, the car’s rear begins to slide left, and for a brief moment I let the steering wheel go, allowing the car to pivot sideways into an alley.
Unlike many other RWD performance cars that can be skittish when sliding, the Mustang RTR makes you think you could control the car enough to be door to door, wheel to wheel with Gittin, Ryan Tuerck, or Chelsea DeNofa on the streets of Long Beach during the Formula Drift competition. Smooth and smoky transitions are a breeze, and the lazy torque from the reflashed, naturally aspirated V-8 is progressive and allows the driver to modulate the throttle and keep the rears from spinning too fast to keep up with. It’s easy and completely controllable.
The cabin, however, is perhaps the only point of contention. It’s bone stock, which just doesn’t fit the rest of the car’s looks. Whereas the exterior screams “I’m a race car!” the interior screams, “I’m a rental car!” The seats are the low-cost, non-bucket option. The steering wheel is stock and cluttered with too many buttons, an issue with almost every Ford. The infotainment center’s appearance leaves something to be desired. The exterior evokes a bad ass, caged race car, but there’s nothing inside except a commemorative plaque expressing this car’s specialness.
It would be nice to see a Momo, Grip Royal, or some other suede aftermarket steering wheel, a set of fixed-back Sparco or Recaro seats, and an optional hydraulic handbrake with a big, machined-aluminum lever. While none of this would be practical, it would elevate this package.
Still, with a quick downshift and a sharp throttle stab, the interior’s letdowns fade away in a cloud of tire smoke and Coyote-orchestrated noise. But the Mustang RTR isn’t just a drift-happy lunatic. When heading to carve canyons, even in this more tail-swinging setting, its balance is superb — as long as you temper your right foot. The new springs and dampers are soft enough to soak up mid-corner undulations, while sufficiently stiff to keep all four contact patches glued to the pavement — unlike Gittin’s Formula D car that has habit of picking up the inside front wheel.
When you finally decided to open things up down long straights, the Mustang RTR’s longer gearing is suited nicely for extra-legal speeds. Here, when grabbing the next gear at 7,000 rpm, the reflashed Coyote V-8 sings, its melodious baritone resonating through the exhaust. A lighter flywheel would also be a welcome addition as speed would build a little faster. That said, the lazy acceleration in tight corners allows you to control the throttle more precisely without needing to shift down or up and upsetting the car’s balance.
Brass tacks, the Mustang RTR Spec 2 package costs $11,950 installed, and that’s on top of the $33,195 a standard V-8 Mustang GT fetches. But considering you’re getting a drift-setup car straight from the factory, with a warranty and the ability to be serviced by any Ford dealer, it’s a wonder RTR isn’t charging more for the modifications.
This car might not have the brand cache of a Shelby or the presence and performance of a Roush or Saleen, but for the driver who wants a V-8-powered drift car with all the creature comforts of a brand-new automobile and not a ratty, perpetually broken Nissan S13, the Mustang RTR hits all the right notes. What’s better is that you don’t need 10 years of drift experience to get this car sliding and shredding tires, though you should get a bit of schooling first — maybe take a Drift 101 class — before you start scraping walls.
2017 Ford Mustang RTR Spec 2 Specifications
|PRICE||$45,145 (as tested)|
|ENGINE||5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/472 hp, 420 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||15/25 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H||188.3 x 75.4 x 54.9 in (est)|
|WEIGHT||3,700 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||4.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||160 mph (est)|