It hasn't been long since I last removed my race helmet, pulled off my gloves, and leaped out of my 650-hp IndyCar. I'm used to speeds in excess of 230 mph and I'm in my element sliding a 1,600-lb missile on wheels through a bend just inches from a concrete wall. One of my jobs, as a race car driver, is to evaluate a car's performance at triple-digit speeds and find its true essence.
My most recent mission: To evaluate the all-new 2013 Ford Mustang — on the city streets of Portland, in the rain.
Growing up, I had a poster of the 1968 Mustang on my bedroom wall, and used to imagine being hurled around the hairpin streets of San Francisco by Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." It's the world's icon for muscle cars, and for 2013 Ford's tweaked the modern Mustang design that draws from that '68 pony car with a dollop of 21st-century aggression.
I felt like I was holding back a great white shark from a feeding frenzy.
Ford's engineers have kept pace with the pony car wars by raising the power from the 5-liter V-8 in the GT to 420 hp from 412, while the 3.7-liter V-6 keeps its 305 hp rating from last year. This year's model also sports a 4.2-inch LCD screen featuring Track Apps, which allows the driver to monitor performance measures such as g-forces, acceleration times, and other novelty items that sound wonderful but aren't particularly useful in the real world.
As I climbed into the GT, I was assailed by enough plastic to keep a Beverly Hills surgeon in business for years, with flimsy latches concealing storage bins. The rest of the interior seemed far better finished, from the suede-and-leather seats to the panoramic sunroof. But if I'm buying a new suit at Nordstrom's, why would I finish it off with a pair of Faded Glory flip-flops from WalMart? Clearly some corners had been cut to keep the price tag on the top-end GT to a reasonable $42,075; the base GT starts at just $34,300.
But pressing the start button and hearing the V-8 roar showed that no expense was spared when it came to the engine. The torque twists the car as you rev; I felt like I was holding back a great white shark from a feeding frenzy, desperate to be unleashed.
So, I did just that.
The car channeled McQueen. As I approached a tunnel I rolled down the window, dropped into second gear and let the V-8 snarl. I smirked like a schoolkid sticking a "kick me" sign on the principal's back. A forest of trees blurred into a green haze as the car effortlessly blitzed through its crisp manual gearbox. It was absolutely captivating.
As the wet roads through the mountains began to twist, I got a feel for how this Mike Tyson of a car handled — and, much like Tyson, emotional problems soon emerged. It was as if the front and rear wheels were engaged in a death match, each pair desperately trying to prove that they could cling to the road longer than the other — but the loser of this battle would vary with each turn. This left me unsure of exactly how the car would behave at high speed, and as any race car driver will tell you, that's not a comfortable feeling to have. Even in Portlandia weather, the Mustang had plenty of grip, but you need some predictability. In faster turns, when the front gave way, I could feel the rear tires pushing the car straight on. When the rear did surrender to the front and break loose on tighter bends, it did so with a nasty chattering feel. On power down, the rear tires squirmed like Evander Holyfield grabbing his ear.
The problem remains the Mustang's solid rear axle, a design other sports cars have evolved beyond. Ford defends itself by contending the suspension setup saves money and weight and can go faster on a track, but I just don't buy it. The weight that the axle saves does not overcome its deficits, and with the success of the Chevrolet Camaro, this should have been addressed by now.
To be clear, the handling surpasses most other cars at this price — but it could still be better. The shortfalls are masterfully disguised by its wickedly wonderful surfeit of power. If you're going to spar with Mike Tyson, you need to keep your guard up.
While I raced for the wheel of the GT model, Ford had the V-6 on hand as well; for a base price of $22,995, it's a great car with decent performance. However, I wouldn't buy one, because the V-6 is missing what makes the 'Stang so iconic. Your date might be impressed you drive a Mustang, but sooner or later, you'll see a GT and wish you had a V-8.
Maybe it's greedy of me to drive the car from my childhood dreams and wish for just a touch more, but the Mustang became part of history by surpassing expectations. Fulfillment might have to wait for the Boss 302 and 650-hp Shelby GT500, yet as the prices rise, I'd be even less willing to settle for some of the faults in the GT. All that said, this GT still connects with a mighty punch, and there's little else that can deliver similar performance or swagger at $42,000. It's a reminder that driving isn't always about having the best handling and the slickest interior. Sometimes, it's about how a car makes you feel — and at its best, the 2013 Mustang made me feel like Steve McQueen.
2013 Ford Mustang GT specifications
Two-door sports car
Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Six-speed manual or automatic
18/25 mpg manual; 15/26 automatic
Base price (excl. destination charges)
New software powering older hardware