Ford Lobs a 5.0-Liter Grenade Into the Escalating Pony Car War
Karl Brauer , Editor in Chief
We're 10 years into the 21st century, but some things never change. The Yankees are world champions, the national debt is at record levels and the 2011 Ford Mustang GT is powered by a 5.0-liter V8. But while the latest Mustang's engine size sounds familiar, just about everything else under the hood is radically different. Major mods include an advanced new all-aluminum V8 engine capable of 412 horsepower, a new V6 power plant making over 300 hp and two new six-speed transmissions.
All this comes just one year after an aggressive exterior and interior upgrade for the iconic pony car, and Ford says the emphasis for the 2011 Ford Mustang is on craftsmanship, fuel economy and technology. This is over and above the looks and performance emphasis the company feels every Mustang has received throughout the car's history (well, maybe not the Mustang II). Craftsmanship efforts can be seen in the higher-grade interior materials and reduced road noise at highway speeds.
Fuel economy takes a leap forward with EPA ratings of 19/31 mpg for automatic-equipped V6 models and 18/25 mpg for 2011 Ford Mustang GTs. Finally, technology makes an appearance in features like the latest voice-activated Sync system for audio and navigation control, and the new MyKey system that allows parents to restrict the Mustang's top speed and audio functions when their children are behind the wheel.
Why has Ford put so much energy into improving its venerable 45-year-old pony car? Fans might suggest it's Ford's way of paying homage to one of the longest-running and iconic nameplates in the automotive world. Cynics would likely point to the increased pressure on the Mustang coming from Chevrolet's new Camaro and Dodge's recently revived Challenger.
Did Ford really need to wait this long to retire that boat anchor of a 4.0-liter V6? Did a certain 3.6-liter, direct-injected V6 (with GM badging) play a part in the decision? Regardless of the forces behind these upgrades, the 2011 Ford Mustang represents a vastly improved performance coupe at the start of a new decade.
Performance has long been an integral aspect of the Mustang GT equation, but reviving the historic 5.0 badge brings a new level of expectation from the Ford faithful. An all-aluminum block with four-valve heads forms the basis of the new V8, but the big news for 2011 comes in the form of variable camshaft timing for the intake and exhaust valves.
This technology allows the 5.0-liter engine to offer seamless thrust from just off idle up to its 7,000-rpm redline. Horsepower peaks at 412 at 6,500 rpm, while torque peaks at 390 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm. The 5.0 engine, when mated to the new, slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission as on our test car, can deliver the Mustang GT from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds (4.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout, as on a drag strip).
These numbers have the 2011 Ford Mustang GT handily beating the last Chevrolet Camaro SS and Dodge Challenger SRT8 we tested. The new GT, equipped with a manual transmission, also trumps the Chevy and Dodge competitors with EPA fuel-economy ratings of 17/26 mpg.
Additional performance upgrades for the new Mustang GT include chassis improvements that increase torsional rigidity by 15 percent, revised spring and shock rates, new rear lower control arms and tighter stabilizer bar bushings for improved handling response. A slalom speed of 67.3 mpg is about 1 mph slower than the 2010 Mustang GT we tested last year, though that's close enough to be a fluke of testing conditions, as the new model feels as planted as ever.
All of this suspension tuning work would be for naught if the Mustang's new electric power steering offered the same artificial feel and feedback we find with many electronic systems. Thankfully, the Ford engineers appear to have mastered the art of re-creating hydraulic steering response through a computer programming algorithm. After several hours behind the wheel we had to ask ourselves, "If Ford told us the new Mustang's steering was still hydraulically based, would we believe them?" The answer: "Yes."
A car's power and handling can be improved, but if stopping power lags behind, it means reduced confidence at best (and twisted metal at worst). New for 2011 is a Brembo Brake package with 14-inch vented rotors grabbed by four-piston calipers up front and 11.8-inch vented rear rotors grasped by two-piston calipers in back. Our test car included the Brembo package, and stopped from 60 mph in a confident 109 feet while providing excellent pedal feel.
Ford engineers told us they specifically targeted unpleasant driving sounds when working on the 2011 Ford Mustang. The 2010 GT we tested emitted 73 decibels of noise while cruising at 70 mph, but this new one is down to 69 decibels at that same speed. Efforts to reduce wind and road noise, while enhancing the new V8's low exhaust burble, were confirmed when we drove the new GT back-to-back against a Camaro SS.
While both vehicles offered a similarly appealing exhaust note from outside the cabin, when seated within it was obvious the Camaro transmitted a notably higher degree of tire hum and wind roar. Seat comfort and lateral support are excellent in the Mustang GT, with no aches or lingering effects after several hours behind the wheel.
Following years of bizarre seat-to-wheel-to-shifter positioning for drivers of Ford's icon, the current-generation Mustang GT provides a fully functional seating arrangement. Our remaining gripe centers on the non-telescoping steering wheel. Thankfully, the wheel's position seems to fit most drivers without an uncomfortable reach, but we'd like to see Ford do here what it did for the Flex, and give us a fully adjustable wheel.
The Mustang's outward visibility, enhanced via new blind spot exterior mirrors, is about as good as it gets in a fastback coupe, and far better than the Camaro or Challenger. With 13.4 cubic feet of trunk space it's got about a 2-cubic-foot cargo advantage (along with a much larger opening) over the Camaro, but a 3-cubic-foot deficit compared to the Challenger.
Items like steering wheel controls, one-touch up and down windows, an interior trunk release and automatic headlights come standard on every 2011 Ford Mustang GT, with Premium models adding a six-way power driver seat, Shaker 500 audio system and Sync voice-activated communications and entertainment features. These features really do give the GT a premium feel, even without adding our test car's $2,340 Premier Trim package with dual-zone climate control, HD radio and a voice-activated navigation system.
Design/Fit and Finish
When it comes to the Mustang's interior, Ford likes to say, "If it looks like metal, it is." That's true of the metallic surfaces inside the cabin, but alongside many of those metal pieces are large swaths of hard plastic, including much of the door panel and center console real estate.
These pieces still offer a visually appealing texture (versus a shiny, cheap appearance), and the supple leather steering wheel and seat covers found in the GT Premium almost made us forget those plastic panels. The metal shift knob in our test car was a joy to see and operate, and the bright instrument gauges feature a classic font that further elevates the Mustang driving experience.
Who should consider this vehicle
For driving enthusiasts of all ages, the 2011 Ford Mustang GT continues to represent the quintessential American sport coupe. It's seen consistent improvement in the areas of performance, styling and interior design since the 2005 revamp, but the last two model years have proven a major leap forward in these areas. For longtime fans waiting for a Mustang that offers technology and personalization options to match its iconic styling and high-performance capabilities, the wait is over.
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