2015 Ford Mustang

LOS ANGELES — West Hollywood traffic at 9 a.m. moves as quickly as molasses on a cold day, especially when you have the promise of a run up the Angeles Crest Highway ahead of you. Yet here we were stuck behind half a dozen other 2015 Mustangs and a city bus, attempting to make a left turn against bumper-to-bumper traffic that refused to make any openings. Far from taxing my patience, it became an unexpected opportunity to see how far Ford’s revamp of the Mustang extended.

No matter how much I would learn about the car on the tight two-lane road north of the Los Angeles Basin later that morning, this is where buyers will spend most of their time with the car: in traffic. Say what you will about the advantages of independent rear suspension over a live axle, or of the increased brake size, or even of the 5.0-liter’s ability to pull to its rev limit, this traffic snarl would tell if the 2015 Mustang is a car you can live with day-to-day.

Throughout its history, the Mustang has never been a paragon of precision. Driving in stop-and-go traffic, at slow speeds, and in the city unmasked the car’s humble beginnings. Driveline shunt — that annoying sloppiness that sends a shock through the drivetrain as you get on or off the power, especially at slow speeds — being a particular problem.

Then you had to contend with a gear linkage that was more brawn than brain, and a clutch so heavy that, after an hour in rush hour traffic, you’d be walking in circles due to having one overdeveloped thigh muscle. If this wasn't enough, Mustangs throughout the years also were saddled with lifeless steering, mushy brakes and low-rent interiors. In my mind, no amount of slick styling or Wild West imagery could overcome these drawbacks. I loved what the Mustang stood for, but never much liked the car that carried the name.

It didn’t take long to determine that this is not just another Mustang, however. We pulled out of the parking lot at Mel’s Diner, hung a left onto Holloway Dr., and followed with another left onto North La Cienega Boulevard in order to go the opposite direction on Sunset Boulevard. While crawling through traffic in the first two gears, it became apparent that the driveline shunt of previous Mustangs has been effectively eradicated.

First, the fly-by-wire throttle takes up smoothly, feeding just the right amount of fuel at the right time to keep the car from lurching and pogoing forward. Second, even though take-up occurs slightly too high off the floor, the clutch is light and communicative. Third, the linkage for the Getrag-Ford six-speed manual has been thoroughly revised. The linkage is smoother and more precise, the shift throws are shorter, and the efforts reduced. The synchronizers have been redesigned, as have the gears, and the lever and rails are new.

But the positives don’t stop there. The ergonomics are vastly improved. The interior is laid out more logically, the center console is the perfect height, the cupholders are no longer in the way, there are honest-to-God large knobs for adjusting the radio, and the previous car’s hard plastics have been banished. In addition, the firewall and rear bulkhead have been lowered, and this does wonders for outward visibility as well as for imparting a sporty feel.

The previous generation Mustang (the 2015 is the sixth generation) felt like a cut down four-door sedan with a fastback roof, big and bulky. Finally, the electric power steering, which can be shuffled though one of three driver-selectable effort levels (Normal, Sport and Comfort) via a console-mounted toggle switch, is nicely weighted and reasonably precise, if a bit numb.

A few items, however, sat on the other side of the ledger. The outside mirrors are not tall enough. Their size (and shape) may help aerodynamics, but they aren’t tall enough to give a good look at what’s behind. And while the large, horizontal trim piece cutting across the instrument panel is made of real aluminum, it takes a bit of imagination to see how it is shaped like the leading edge of an airplane wing. It takes even more imagination to determine why you would want such a thing slicing through the instrument panel of your Mustang.

If that’s not enough, the aviation metaphor gets a little silly when you see the legend “Ground Speed” in block letters at the upper edge of the of the sizable speedometer. Also silly is the “Revolutions Per Minute x 1000” wording instead of the more compact, and simple, “RPM x 1000” on the tachometer.

The brief time on the freeways underlined these initial observations, and also proved that the Mustang is surprisingly quiet. Road noise is muted, a surprise considering that our EcoBoost Premium Coupe was fitted with the Performance Package and 255/40R-19 wheels and tires. Engine and exhaust sound (it would be unfair to call it “noise”) never interfere — you can carry on conversations in normal tones — yet fill the cabin with a full-noted burble.

Even more surprising was the fact that the ride has an underlying suppleness you don’t expect from a Mustang. It was not as surprising, however, as the way the turbocharged four-cylinder pony car behaved on the Angeles Crest Highway. Was it perfect? No, but it was a revelation.

Despite all the talk about the independent rear suspension, the subframe-mounted double lower ball joint front suspension not only makes room for larger front disc brakes, it preserves steering feel by reducing the wheel offset that would be necessary to clear the larger brakes, and increases the suspension’s freedom of movement in multiple planes of travel without introducing ride harshness. Couple this with a solidly mounted subframe that improves the rigidity of the front structure without increasing mass, and steering precision is increased.

When coupled to an independent rear suspension and a roll couple that has each end of the vehicle working together, you get a car that points into turns with confidence, handles mid-turn road irregularities and bumps with authority, and gives the driver the confidence to lean on the car in the expectation that it will follow his commands.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the tighter sections of this unforgiving road through the San Gabriel Mountains. With a sheer rock face and gravel to one side and a minimal shoulder bordered by steel guardrail on the other, pushing to the limit is not advisable. You have to leave some room for error. Even with this margin calculated, it was possible to hunt down the Mustang GTs ahead, despite giving away 125 horsepower and 80 lb.-ft. of torque.

The twin-scroll turbo pulls cleanly from low revs, and gains strength on its way toward the redline. Credit the standard active noise cancellation for the lack of the thundering “boom” for which large displacement fours usually are known, and the 3.55:1 limited slip differential for the ability to pull well out of the corners.

But the real party trick is the real world fuel economy the EcoBoost returns. Rated at 22 city/31highway/26 combined by the EPA, the frisky inline four-powered Mustang returned an indicated 22 mpg on the run up the Angeles Crest Highway. Granted, nothing is as accurate as comparing miles traveled to gallons used, but the EcoBoost four lets you carry a higher gear than you might otherwise choose as it has a broad torque curve, as shown by its effect on the onboard fuel economy meter that charts consumption in five-minute increments.

Unless pulling away from a dead stop, first and second gears weren’t used. Third could be held to the upper limit of the rev range, and both fourth and fifth were called upon when the tempo and pace allowed. Running up and down the gears is satisfying, the pleasantly light clutch and gear shift making it easy to swap ratios quickly and cleanly. Also, boost that comes on in controllable waves, not thundering tsunamis. You can modulate the throttle and, by extension, the cornering attitude without worrying that the balance suddenly will be upset by a thunderclap of turbo boost.

I’ll admit to not being the most capable at the art of heel-and-toe downshifting, but the pedals are well placed should you decide to try such a thing. Each has a similar feel and weighting, and the brakes are free from slop and fade unless you push long and hard on a tough road. With the Performance Package the EcoBoost Mustang is fitted with 3.9 in. x 1.26 in. vented discs clamped by 1.8 in. fixed aluminum calipers up front and 13.0 in. x 0.98 in. vented discs and single piston 1.77 in. floating iron calipers.

Unfortunately, the 15.0 in. x 1.34 in. vented front discs with six-piston fixed aluminum Brembo calipers are only available on GTs fitted with the Performance Package, while standard issue GTs get the same brakes as the Performance Package EcoBoost model.

After lunch, it was time to step into a V8. Aware that our return trip would not be as fun as the drive up, and would be in the heart of rush hour, a GT Premium automatic was chosen. As we exited the area, we noticed thick black stripes ahead, vibrant testimony to the Line Lock feature that lets erstwhile drag racers lock the front brakes and spin up the rear tires for maximum grip.

There’s also launch control on manual-equipped cars, and both these features are standard on even base GTs. Optional, but nonetheless fitted to both the models driven, are high-backed leather Recaro front seats that lock you in place, but don’t demand that you become anorexic in order to enjoy them.

The first thing that you notice about the V8 is its sound: Deep, guttural yet strangely refined. Like the EcoBoost four, it fills the interior with sound, but remains in the background until prodded when it sounds like the Hounds of Hell — upscale and refined Hounds of Hell but hounds nevertheless — have been released. You notice the increased acceleration and drive out of corners, but you also notice the difference in weight over the front wheels. The GT feels brawnier than the 3,532 lb. EcoBoost driven earlier, and loses some of the friskiness of the smaller displacement car in the process, despite carrying nearly three pounds less per horsepower.

From the driver’s seat you can see the scoops located on either side of the hood bulge that evacuate hot air from under the hood, and also help reduce front end lift; a good idea on a car electronically limited to 155 mph. Little else is different, though the automatic comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. These snap off up- and downshifts quickly, with automatic rev matching on the downshifts. It has the same driver selectable steering boost and drive modes (Normal, Wet/Snow, Sport, Track) that comes on every Mustang, and which flummoxed my co-driver and me.

Unlike a number of other selectable steering and ride programs out there, the ones in the Mustang are subtle in their action. They are neither on/off, nor wildly different from step to step. The drive mode selector affects how the throttle responds, how much and how hard the vehicle stability control system kicks in, and how much steering boost is applied. This last item can be overridden by the steering selector toggle switch. What perplexed us, however, was that toggling from Normal to Sport to Track had a significant effect on the ride motions as we pushed the car along Angeles Crest Highway.

It was almost as if the damping curves of the individual shock absorbers were being altered to reduce the amount of body float over uneven surfaces or while transitioning from one direction to another. How this was possible was beyond us as the damper valving is unalterable, yet both of us felt the change. It was only at dinner that night that we heard a possible explanation: the reduction in steering boost damped inputs into the steering system that would cause an increase in body motion. Whatever the case, it made a difference in body float on this challenging road.

Coming as it did one week after driving the Lexus RC350 and RC F, the Mustang drive put the original Pony Car up against some stiff, and expensive, competition that was fresh in my mind. It also caused me to reevaluate the price of the two test Mustangs. From a base price of $29,170, the EcoBoost Premium rose to an as-tested price of $38,455, while the GT Premium — which starts at $36,100 — carried a sticker price of $46,075.

It’s hard to wrap your head around such seemingly stratospheric pricing from a sporty Ford, even when it contains items like adaptive cruise control with collision mitigation, voice-activated navigation, blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert and more. However, based on the first impressions gained in and around Los Angeles, the Mustang gives its owner more value for the dollar than the Lexus coupe. The Mustang GT may have 41 fewer horsepower than the RC F, but it has 11 more lb.-ft. of torque, weighs significantly less, and has the same 4.4-second 0-60 time.

Ditto the EcoBoost Mustang, which has four more horsepower, 43 more lb.-ft. of torque, weighs 118 lb. less than a base RC350, and can hit 60 from a dead stop in 5.4 seconds. Given the Mustang’s apparent capabilities, it’s hard to justify the massive difference in price between it and the Lexus.

Which leads me to one conclusion I hope to verify with a week-long test later on: The Mustang isn’t back, it has finally arrived.

— Christopher Sawyer (The Virtual Driver)