HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Cruisin' in the dreamy Mustang Mach 1

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — My red 2021 Mustang Mach 1 was dressed for the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Muscled torso covered in black tattoos. Front spoiler out to here. Wicked black Magnum wheels. Mesh fascia with flared nostrils. Quad tailpipes the size of ship cannons. Swaggering down Woodward Avenue on Saturday morning, I noticed a Mustang Shelby GT350 pull up next to me, its high-strung, "Voodoo" V-8 engine gurgling menacingly.

A 2021 Ford Mach 1 poses during the Dream Cruise with a 1969 Mustang GT. The original Mach 1 was added to the Mustang lineup in 1969 and outsold the GT 15:1.

“How do you like it?” its jockey asked about my Mach 1 before correctly noting: “It doesn’t seem to have much growl.”

Then, to make the point, he downshifted the GT350 —SNORT! — stomped the pedal and — WAAUURRRGH! —  ripped up the strip with a shriek that sounded like a T-rex gargling razor blades.

The Mach 1 is not the GT350.

One of the most memorable names in Mustang lore (not to mention one of the coolest badges in all autodom), Mach 1 debuted in 1969 and brought distinctive style and power to the pony lineup. In my three decades cruising Woodward, the first-gen Mach 1s are instantly recognizable in their bright colors, black tats, rear wings, bulging hoods and outrageous wheels.

Conceived as the ultimate, V-8-powered grand touring (GT) model, the Mach 1 was the bridge between street-focused ‘Stangs and the twin-striped, trophy-winning GT350 track monsters made by Carroll Shelby’s shop.

After many years in the wilderness, Ford has successfully returned to that formula with its current sixth-generation Mustang. These are golden years. Producing the most extensive Mustang menu ever, Ford has offered ferocious Shelby GT350 and GT500 models as the ultimate expression of V-8 muscle. But for those who just want a GT with a few more calories, the Bullitt and Mach 1 special editions are on offer, too.

My 480-horse $58,490 tester deftly straddled the line between comfort and performance.

Framed by retro-Mustang elements like aviator air vents, T-shifter and engine gauges, the interior tech blew away pony enthusiasts who hadn’t been in a 'Stang for 10 years. A stunning 12.3-inch digital cluster transformed according to drive mode. Need system info? I toggled through menus with steering wheel buttons. Voice commands and finger swipes controlled the console touchscreen, while windshield wipers and high-beam headlights activated automatically when needed.

Try that on my pal Peter’s 1969 classic analog Mustang GT.

We’re a long way from the 20th century, Toto. Peter reveled in the car’s leather-wrapped luxury, while his wife lounged comfortably in the back seats.

When they swapped places, the Mach 1 eagerly accommodated Carol’s lead right foot. ROARRGH! The 5.0-liter V-8 spat as she quickly hit 60 mph on a two-lane lake road. The V-8 that had purred nicely at Peter’s hand in traffic (and mine on Woodward) belts a brassy tune when you really put your foot in it.

It’s not the wake-the-dead howl of the 8,000-RPM, 5.2-liter, flat-plane crank GT350, but it means business. And it’s a reminder of Mach 1’s performance envelope.

I didn’t have the opportunity to track Mach 1 during Dream Cruise week (my usual M1 Concourse playground was busy with its inaugural Dream Show), but the coupe’s sporting aspirations are apparent the moment you step in the car.

My tester was not equipped with the optional handling package, but Mach 1’s standard upgrades over the GT are plenty: bigger sway-bars, front springs, bushings; Brembo brakes; and two additional heat exchangers.

You'll know the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 by its signature "nostrils" in the front grille.

Miles from Woodward stoplights, I had a blast flogging Mach 1 through Oakland County twisties. Dialing up TRACK mode (the instrument display changing to a broad RPM band for easy visual reference), the MagneRide shocks stiffened and I could confidently rotate the car’s 3,900-pound heft through tight turns. I squeezed the accelerator on exit, pulling paddle shifts as I built speed.

I preferred the paddles because the 10-speed auto was the drivetrain’s biggest weakness. Upshifts are harsh and the multitude of cogs could occasionally get confused.

I’d opt for the old-school six-speed manual. Not only is it better suited for manhandling the brute — but it now comes with new-school rev-matching for quick downshifts into corners. At $58,000, the Mach 1 split the $93,000 BMW M3 and $45,000 Honda Civic Type R Special Edition I tracked just a week before at Grattan Raceway near Grand Rapids. Mach 1 does not have the Bimmer’s buttery-smooth auto tranny, nor does it boast the Honda’s light-footed athleticism. But with a manual mated to a bellowing V-8, it has an American personality all its own.

Given the Mach 1’s dual ID as Woodward cruiser/corner carver, most folks will prefer the automatic. When not on the boil, the transmission makes for easy upshifts — and less distraction from the interior’s shelf-full of technology.

While cruising in Woodward traffic, I received numerous phone calls; barked directions to Android Auto to find the best way home through Cruise gridlocks; and thumbed my favorite Sirius XM channels via touchscreen.

A pair of Mach 1s fronted Ford’s Kruse & Muer Royal Oak Cruise display next to the automaker's electric Mach-E. Ford has high hopes for its first electric SUV in its head-to-head battle with Tesla’s Model Y. It can credit a lot of that potential to the Mach 1.

In style and performance (though the lack of a V-8 compromises personality), Mach-E channels many attributes of the Mach 1 legend.

Alas, this Mach 1 will likely not reach the status of its '70s predecessors. Those cars boasted multiple V-8s as well as a signature "shaker" hood-scoop option — a mod noticeably missing on this generation. Speculation is the 2021 Mach 1 didn’t get the Full Monty because it was meant as a menu pairing with the electric Mach-E (after all, Ford is a long way from the heady days of 1969 when the Mach 1 model alone sold nearly 80,000 copies).

Whatever the reason, Mustang purists have noticed. Those folks may choose to sink their money into collecting 1970s models instead. But the good news is the 2021 Mach 1 does not make the mistakes of 1974, when Ford neutered its V-8 icon in deference to mpg concerns in the wake of the Arab oil embargo.

That '70s Show is back with governments forcing electrification. But this time, Ford has smartly separated the Mach-E while maintaining the Mach 1 as a pure expression of gas-fired muscle.

For sports-car buffs craving the intersection between daily driver and weekend warrior, there are few cars better than the '21 Mach 1.

► Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports car

► Price: $54,595, including $1,195 destination fee ($58,490 as tested) 

► Powerplant: 5.0-liter V-8

► Power: 480 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque

► Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 10-speed automatic

► Performance: 0-60 mph (4.3 sec., Car and Driver); top speed, 168 mph

► Weight: 3,913 pounds 

► Fuel economy: EPA, 15 mpg city/23 highway/18 combined 

Report card

► Highs: Tight handling; high-tech

► Lows: Lacks shaker sex-appeal of previous gens; rough drivetrain

► Overall: 3 stars 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.