Los Angeles — It seems Europeans crave rumbling, rib-rattling V-8s as much as we Yanks do.
Ford’s decision in 2015 to sell its sixth-generation, iconic Mustang muscle car internationally has been a runaway success. The best-selling sports car in America for half a century is now the best-selling sports car in, for example, Germany — outpacing that country’s own performance icons, the Porsche 911 and BMW M3. Mustang’s international sales have kept Ford’s Flat Rock Michigan assembly plant humming even as domestic sales have softened.
The global launch has also come with surprises.
“To be honest, we thought it was going to be a majority Ecoboost take because of better fuel economy,” says Ford cars marketing manager Corey Holter in reference to the lower-cost, turbocharged “Ecoboost” 4-cylinder. “But for 50 years a lot of customers haven’t been able to get Mustang, so fuel economy maybe was less a priority than getting the most iconic engine.”
That iconic V-8 engine is woven into the fabric of American auto culture — a culture that glorifies open roads and has been exported in Hollywood films for decades.
“Ford spent 50 years building up equity for the Mustang,” says Kelley Blue Book executive publisher and auto analyst Karl Brauer. “It was the forbidden fruit abroad. Foreigners saw it in movies like ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ and salivated. Now it’s available internationally and Ford is meeting pent-up demand.”
While U.S. sales dipped 13 percent in 2016 after a breathtaking 122,395 units sold in 2015 (up nearly 50 percent over gen-5 sales), Mustang’s international sales climbed 6 percent last year to almost 45,000 as Ford expanded the pony’s presence to 140 countries. Six more countries are being added to the stable this year including Brazil and the Ivory Coast. In addition to Germany, Mustang is the sports car sales-leader in the world’s biggest car market, China, with business up 74 percent in 2016 and another 33 percent so far this year.
Since 2015, some 395,000 sixth-gen ‘Stangs have rolled out of Flat Rock — 98,000 of them sold overseas.
“Taking Mustang international has been a smart move,” says KBB’s Brauer. “It’s tougher to justify the cost of a new sports car with a small number of domestic sales. But now you can justify it because it sells all over the planet — and helps the model survive the ups and downs of the U.S. economy.”
The 2015 redesign was met with rave reviews for its menacing good looks, sophisticated suspension, and efficient, powerful 4-banger. A major mid-cycle refresh introduced to media here this November piles on the latest tech toys including a digital, 12-inch gauge cluster and quick-shifting, 10-speed transmission. Mated to the turbo-4 (a third, V-6 engine option was available only in the United States until this year), the 10-cog promises even better fuel economy for foreign markets like Europe where gas prices can push $6-a-gallon.
But outside of China, where buyers pay a huge premium for the Mustang’s high-displacement, 5.0-liter engine, global customers have ignored fuel economy for good ol’ Yankee horsepower. Holter says European sales have run 60/40 for the V-8 over the Ecoboost. In Australia where gas prices nudge $5-a-gallon, V-8 orders are running at 80 percent of sales.
Since it invented the affordable, so-called “pony” sports car in 1964, Mustang has consistently innovated in a competitive segment that includes cross-town rivals Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger. Ford’s retro-styled, 2005 car breathed new life into the segment — and the current, sixth-gen car was the first to go global.
“You can count on one hand the truly iconic cars. The Porsche 911. The Jeep Wrangler. From a brand equity standpoint, they are gold,” says KBB’s Brauer. “Ford has two of them: the F-150 pickup and the Mustang. Ford realizes that and they’ve worked hard to maintain that brand equity.”
He says Chevrolet and Dodge should take note.
“They would be brilliant to follow Ford’s lead,” Brauer says. Like Mustang, the two-door Camaro (“Transformers”) and Challenger (“Fast and Furious”) have co-starred in international blockbuster films.
“Dodge especially has done an amazing job at turning its car into an international icon in a few short years,” he continues. Born in the ’60s muscle car wars, Challenger disappeared in 1974 — only to find new life in 2008. As Fiat-Chrysler develops its rear-wheel-drive Giorgio architecture as a global platform for all its performance steeds — from Alfa to Dodge — the Challenger has an opportunity to follow in Mustang’s footsteps. As does Camaro, which shares the same bones as GM’s nimble, luxurious Cadillac ATS.
“International strategies can save brands,” says Brauer. “For example, China’s market saved Buick, not the US.”
The same applies for Motor City muscle cars. “The Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger look like nothing else aboard,” he says. Their V-8s sound like nothing else, either.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.