Recently, there was a last great hurrah of ’60s rock. Desert Trip (or “Oldchella”) wrapped in Indio, California, with Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, and The Who playing to thousands of aging Baby Boomers looking to relive their glory days. Do a little digging, and every one of those artists has delivered some version of this line in interviews over the years: “I never thought what we were doing then would still be talked about today.” Frankly, it is astonishing. Cultural events from half a century ago continue to shape our world in indelible ways, and really, probably, this phenomenon is also why we still have the Ford Mustang.
It’s hard to imagine Lee Iacocca thinking that his youth-oriented personal coupe would end up on a postage stamp, or designer Larry Shinoda imagining that his Boss 429 Mustang would end up fetching six-figures, or that Ford would revive his stripe designs 42 years later. Today, ponycars are icons — a direct link to the good old days, making up an irreplaceable segment unto itself. But not long ago, they were in danger of going extinct. The Chevy Camaro was gone from 2002 to 2009. The classic E-Body Dodge Challenger disappeared after 1974, and the Mustang itself came dangerously close to disappearing several times in the ’80s and ’90s.
And it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Mustang’s layout (and to a larger extent, the ponycar segment as a whole) still harks back to a time that predates mandatory seat belts and reverse lights. The hood is absolutely massive, and our tester GT model had turn signal tattle-tale lights set into it. The back seats are unusable for anyone with legs. Rear visibility is poor, and trunk space isn’t exactly a selling point either. And while other powertrains are available (including the fantastic 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-four), our king-of-the-hill GT had the “Coyote” 5.0-liter V8, a throwback to the iconic 5.0 models of the ’80s and ’90s. The mill in those cars began life as the 302, a motor that first appeared in 1968.
Ergonomically, our current ponycars aren’t that different from a 40-year-old Chevy Monte Carlo or Ford Torino. They shouldn’t work in an era when compact crossovers rule the day. And yet, here they are, with the Mustang leading the pack, and arguably better than ever. One full year into its most comprehensive redesign in decades, we were thrilled with the most powerful, efficient, and best-handling version yet. With all its traditions and hallmarks, the Mustang has finally moved beyond a model hamstrung by its own history and is now a culmination of it. The ponycar that started it all has evolved into a world-class performance car. And as models of its caliber go, we also found it to be a surprisingly well-rounded daily driver.
After the retro-futuristic design of the fifth-generation car, the current Mustang perfectly straddles the line between classic and contemporary. It’s not a small car, but its muscular sheet metal and handsome 19-inch painted alloys give it a lean, muscular look — a trait that disappeared as the last generation car aged. Our GT tester had the California Special package, which added black accent stripes, a spoiler, embossed headrests, a unique grille, and a plaque on the dash (though no performance upgrades). Out back and in 3/4 profile, the GT screams classic Mustang, with its vertical taillights and fastback roofline. Up front, however, designers have done a remarkable job blending traditional ponycar elements with modern Ford cues, a move that keeps it from feeling too tied down by its past.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Two model years in, the Mustang still looks great.
+ Beautiful blend of classic and modern styling cues sets it apart from the more traditional Camaro and Challenger.
+ Rear sequential turn signals are some of our favorite design flourishes on the road.
– It may be lean, but it’s still a big car.
– Long hood goes on for days. It’s beautiful, and we wouldn’t change it, but it’s something to be mindful of in traffic.
Despite the classic 5.0-liter badge, the Coyote V8 is a far cry from the classic 302/5.0/Windsor motor, and that’s a very good thing. While the hottest Fox body “Five-Ohs” only ever put out about 235 horsepower, the Coyote churns an impressive 435 horses and 400 pound-feet of torque. It isn’t as much as a Camaro SS (455 horses and pound-feet), but it’s enough to rocket the 3,800-pound car from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds. Our test car was equipped with Ford’s six-speed “SelectShift” automatic, a $1,195 option. It isn’t as engaging as Ford’s great six-speed manual gearbox, but it doesn’t penalize you either. Manual or automatic, the GT is plenty lively and puts a lot of power at your disposal.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The big 5.0 is an engine that wants to be worked out every time you get behind the wheel.
+ From the roar as it comes to life, to its lumpy idle in traffic, it’s hard not to love the Coyote’s soundtrack.
+ Automatic transmission isn’t the fun-killer it used to be. The six-speed lets the engine rev, and is quick to respond to paddle shifting.
– Be ready to pay at the pump. We saw fuel economy in the low teens in city traffic.
– We never got sick of its exhaust note, but it might get tiresome if you’re allergic to fun.
– The Camaro SS has an edge on the GT in the power department. For now.
Interior pros and cons
The current Mustang’s interior has always gotten high marks, and it didn’t disappoint on our GT either. Ford has stuck with retro-futurism here (that dash is a clear relative of the ’67-’68 cars), but it seamlessly blends modern tech in a way that feels effortless. The engine-turned aluminum on the dash does a fantastic job of breaking up all that black, and the aluminum controls on the center console are light but still feel substantial.
The leather and microsuede GT/California Special seats are surprisingly comfortable and well-bolstered, keeping you comfortable during city, highway, and aggressive driving — as if the rumble of the V8 weren’t enough to make you want to drive a little longer. But the rear seats are another story; with the fastback roofline and virtually nonexistent legroom, they look great but won’t be able to fit more than a very small child.
+ Dash perfectly straddles the line between throwback and modern. Paired with that endlessly long hood, it makes for a hell of a view.
+ Steering wheel is thick and purposeful, but not cartoonishly chunky, a pet peeve of ours in performance cars.
+ Front seats are perfectly suited for a car that wears a GT badge.
– It’s better to think of the back seats as an upholstered parcel shelf.
– Aluminum-turned dash and red contrast stitching try to break up the monotony, but there’s still a lot of black here.
– For tall people or Boomers wanting to relive their glory days: Entry and exit into the low-slung seats isn’t always graceful.
Tech and safety
For a car that’s built around a big V8, the GT has a safety record to be proud of. With a five-star rating from the IIHS, and an overall “Good” rating from the NHTSA, there are front, side curtain, and knee airbags should the worst happen, as well as advanced stability control, and a wet/snow drive setting, helping you to keep from breaking grip at the worst possible times.
The center console is dominated by an 8-inch touchscreen powered by Ford’s Sync3 infotainment system. In our opinion, Ford has finally excised Sync’s demons, and it’s quickly become one of our favorite systems on the market. Paired with redundant physical controls for the radio and dual-zone HVAC system, we weren’t left wanting for anything whenever we reached to adjust the A/C or stereo volume.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ With all that power on tap, it’s reassuring to know that the Mustang’s safety credentials are sterling.
+ Sync3 is simple and intuitive, and the physical stereo and HVAC controls are within reach and easy to adjust without taking your eyes off the road.
– If you’re looking for a suite of safety sensors, look elsewhere; blind spot monitoring is offered, but that’s about it.
The GT is an addictive car. When you press that the red-rimmed starter button, it growls to life, then settles into a lumpy idle that you could listen to all day if you didn’t have some place to be. Step on the gas and pull into traffic, and it leaps out with purpose. It roars and crackles, conjuring up memories of every Ford performance car you’ve ever heard, whether it be in real life or the movies. The 5.0 sounds like an amalgamation of every great V8, and it’s more than enough for us to keep the radio off and windows down at a stoplight.
Then there’s the power. Mash the gas, and it hesitates for a split second, then it rears back, opens up, and does its damnedest to launch you through the back of the seat as the 5.0 drowns out the nearby road construction. And this is where the GT gets dangerous; it’s comfortable, compliant, and perfectly composed in almost any daily driving situation, but you know it can do so much more. When you see that open lane, or you’re first at the stoplight, your mind instinctually goes there. “Hey, I could open it up here,” you think. You want to get shoved back into that seat, you want to hear the engine roar. And you’ve already been lulled into a false sense of security. The driver seat holds you snuggly, and that long hood quietly rumbles as it stretches toward the horizon. You forget that a stiff chassis, big, progressive brakes, independent suspension, traction control, and adaptable driving modes don’t make you a better driver, and that 435 horses and 400 pound-feet is a lot to handle, even if you are a good one.
And it’s that impulse that’s made Mustangs — especially GTs — the butt of a thousand Cars and Coffee jokes. For what it is, the GT Premium is affordable at $36,395 (our well-equipped tester came in at $43,865), and it looks and feels built for speed, even if it doesn’t mind doing the daily errands too. We love and respect it for that, even if some owners don’t and end up on YouTube because of it. We wouldn’t change a thing about it; we just wish drivers would think twice before mashing the go pedal — this car is too good to be a joke.
Wrap up and review
The Mustang GT has gone from muscle car to sports car, and the automotive world has taken notice. Consider the last GT: tons of power going to a solid rear axle — a setup that dated back to 1964. It was a very good muscle car, but like its ancestors, it was best in a straight line. This current GT has a fully-independent suspension, sits lower, and loves to carve through backroads as much as it loves the quarter-mile. The muscle car GT was brute force. The sports car GT can do nuance too; it actually lives up to its Grand Tourer designation. But even with the better suspension and chassis, more power, and goodies like Track Apps and launch control, there was still that nagging question: Could we live with it? Could we do without a functional backseat, and with a tiny trunk, scary gas mileage, and a stiff suspension?
The answer is yes, and it was more of a resounding yes than we had imagined. The GT felt as comfortable on an open back road as it did in stop-and-go traffic. Its seats and interior were superb, as were the infotainment system, stereo with optional Kicker woofer in the trunk, and too-cool turn signal tattle-tales in the hood.
Over 50 years on, Iacocca’s sporty car does feel epochal. Like the legends at Desert Trip, the Mustang is worth celebrating and holding on to — a relic from the Space Age that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a car that couldn’t have happened today, and isn’t likely to happen again. But instead of resting on “the ’60s, maaaaaan” for laurels, Ford has evolved it to a point when the Mustang’s future seems even brighter than the past. We love the GT, and if the choice came down to a new one or a 1968 model, well, it would be a lot closer of a call than you might think. The Mustang GT isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best performance cars you can buy today. And times are pretty good — at least from an automotive standpoint.