Henry Payne drives and talks about the features of Ford Mustang's Turbo-4 and V8 engine models.
Soundtracks matter. What would a Bond movie be without its opening guitar riff? Or “Titanic” without Celine Dion’s soaring theme song? Opening my 910 AM “Car Radio” show on Saturdays, I like Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.”
But I’m thinking the raspy roar of a 2018 Ford Mustang V-8 at full throttle might have them all beat.
The quad-pipe music is addictive. It resonates up your throttle leg to the base of the spine. It makes grown adult’s knees weak with desire. If the Sirens had sung it, not even the beeswax stuffed in the ears of Odysseus’ sailors could have kept them from crashing into the rocks.
Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system is the company’s best effort yet. But I never turned on the Mustang’s radio over two glorious days of testing the 460-horse pony — up 25 horses for 2018 — through the twisted canyon roads north of Los Angeles. The V-8 soundtrack was all I craved. My conversations with fellow motorhead co-driver Ron Sessions went something like this:
Man, that V-8 sounds incredible.
It sounds even better in Sport Plus mode.
And with the windows down.
Have you tried it in Track mode yet?
In the Second Golden Age of American muscle (the ’60s were the first), pony cars are leading the charge. Detroit’s terrific trio of coupes are the benchmark for emotional automobiles. Add the Dodge Charger and Kia Stinger sedans and there has never been more choice for sheer driving pleasure between $25,000 and $50,000. The joy is on display every day — music lovers in Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers laying into their V-8s for short bursts down Detroit highways.
Credit Ford with creating the pony class back in 1964, then rescuing it from extinction in 2005, and now updating it with modern styling and electronic wizardry for a new generation of millennials. Sure, the Camaro is my pick of the pony stable — its athletic Alpha chassis raising the handling bar — but Mustang is the class mascot.
I’m less thrilled to see Mustang axing its “mini-V-8” — the base V-6 — from the 2018 model lineup. The decision comes for all the right reasons as Ford pushes the class envelope by going international with its famous pony. International means a turbocharged 4-cylinder to deal with higher gas prices and government-imposed engine-displacement taxes.
Ford has done extraordinary things with turbo-charged mills (“Ecoboost” the company insists on calling them) from the LeMans-winning Ford GT V-6 to the bad boy Focus RS to the Godzilla-in-a-can, 1.0-liter Fiesta furnace.
But those solutions all fit their masters. The 310-horse turbo-4 is the wrong soundtrack for a Mustang. It belongs in a front-wheel drive Focus hot hatch, not a rear-wheel drive pony car. It’s like a Bond movie opening with a flute solo. Awkward.
Engineers reached into their electronics toy chest and enhanced the sound. But the 4’s sex appeal is no 10. Output of 310 ponies for just $25,585 is a bargain, but winning over V-6 customers (30 percent of U.S. Mustang buyers) will be a challenge, especially with Camaro’s superb, quick-shifting V-6 option out there.
The good news is Mustang has upped its game in every other respect.
Begin with the tranny: Where Camaro debuted its electronic, 10-speed (jointly developed by GM and Ford) with the track-carving ZL1, Mustang introduces its “SelectShift” in both the turbo-4 and V-8 models. The speedy unit matches dual-clutch transmissions in upshifts (if not downshifts) while bringing more options to the driver.
These options — Sport Plus, Track, Drag Mode and a personal configurator called My Way — have multiplied thanks to the digital programming. A digital 12-inch instrument screen — echoing the Ford GT supercar — is a must-have with the $4,500 Premium package. Like a computer game, it brings seemingly unlimited variation to the driver’s ability to configure their new toy right down to changing the the colors of the rev bar.
Not surprisingly, the V-8’s rich baritone makes the most of the new tech. Hustling the GT through the esses and switchbacks of Mulholland Drive, the 3,700-pounder would bark out rev-matching downshifts into apexes. On exit it would beg to be floored — the rear Pilot Sport 4 tires straining for traction — as the predator’s menacing bellow bounced off the canyon walls.
Sheepishly, I admit my loyalty to manuals is fading as laser-quick weapons like the 10-speed and Porsche’s PDK broaden the performance envelope. Pony cars still attract manual lovers, but the automatic’s bandwidth is superior.
Lighter by about 170 pounds, the turbo-4 Mustang is even more nimble through the curves. Soundtrack issues aside, there is no compromise on packaging. Wrap it in a signature Mustang fruit color — Race Red, Triple Yellow or new Orange Fury — with black wheels, and it stirs the loins.
The Turbo-4 gets the same vented hood as the V-8, the same “performance pack” wing and brake options, the same Line Lock Burnout.
Inside, the digital speedo goes a long way to modernizing a blocky interior still mired in the 1960s. I prefer the Camaro’s more modern, tablet-style console screen and big, rotary air vents. But Mustang buyers will appreciate the superior greenhouse visibility and door storage.
Exterior style remains a big difference between the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang. But the latter’s radical break in 2015 from the traditional, brooding, cowl look has worn well. The face of Ford NASCAR and countless SCCA GT class winners, it both represents the larger Ford brand — and looks like a Great White shark in the rear-view mirror.
True to its thrill-seeking customer, the Mustang can be optioned according to desire. Performance Pack ($2,495-$3,995), MagneRide shocks ($1,695), 10-speed tranny ($1,595), red Recaro seats ($1,595) can all be optioned regardless of engine. Be warned, these toys will tempt trouble.
Neighborhood-pleasing Line Lock burnouts will bring cheers from the kids, but char the street. I’m lucky my tire-smoking effort in the California hills didn’t light off a brush fire. Married to launch control, a new Drag Mode knocks a firm three-tenths of a second off the 2017 pony’s zero-60 time. And it attracts every cop within a five-mile radius.
The 21st-century pony is no longer a V-8 on roller skates. The Mustang is a modern marvel with good looks, sci-fi telemetry and sophisticated front and rear suspensions.
Just don’t forget the retro, V-8 soundtrack. Some classics can’t be replaced.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Ford Mustang
Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe
2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder; 5.0-liter
6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic
3,532 pounds (3,705 V-8 coupe as tested)
$26,484, base; $48,585 (GT as tested)
310 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 460
horsepower, 420 pound-feet torque (V-8)
0-60 mph, 3.9 sec. (V-8, Car and Driver est.):
EPA mpg est. 21 city/32 highway/25 combined
EPA mpg est. 16 city/25 highway/19 combined (V-8)
That V-8 soundtrack; high-tech digital instrument display
That turbo-4 soundtrack; rear seat for kids only
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★