The debate over whether the Ford Mustang should be called a muscle car or a sports car is a long-standing -- and pointless -- one, but I think the 2011 model's new drivetrains and chassis refinements give fodder to both sides of the argument.
With a new 305-horsepower V-6 engine and new six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, the V-6 model rivals the 315-hp 2010 Mustang GT's V-8. The 2011 GT, with its 412-hp V-8, moves into an entirely different class. Despite the increases, gas mileage is also up across the board, including an amazing EPA-estimated 31 mpg highway for the V-6 automatic.
The 2010 Mustang received substantial exterior and interior upgrades, so we wouldn't have been surprised if the 2011 model got new drivetrains and no more. Actually, the new model enjoys a slew of changes.
The V-6 Performance Package shines
After driving multiple engine, transmission and body style combinations at the 2011 model's national introduction, I walked away plenty impressed overall, but what truly stuck out was the V-6 with the optional Performance Package, which will be offered late this summer. It adds a 3.31 rear axle ratio in place of the standard 2.73, along with the suspension and brakes from the V-8-powered GT and 19-inch wheels shod with Pirelli P Zero summer tires. This car is a blast.
More than ever, engines are proving that size isn't everything. The 305-hp, all-aluminum V-6 is a 3.7-liter, lower in size and weight than the previous generation's 210-hp, iron-block 4.0-liter. Ford engineers say numerous technologies came together to boost both power and efficiency in the new engines, but it's the dual independent variable valve timing that makes the biggest difference, improving torque at low rpm and efficiency across the board. Many manufacturers are turning to direct fuel injection to achieve similar goals, and Ford uses it in EcoBoost turbocharged applications, but Mustang engineers said the prospect of direct-injecting these engines didn't pass the cost-benefit test. Its absence means one very important thing: They can add it later and get even more out of these power plants. Both engines now have four valves per cylinder where the old V-6 had two and the V-8 three.
With the 3.31 rear axle, the V-6 has enough grunt to launch the car like a V-8 -- and chirp the tires in second gear -- for zero-to-60 sprints of under 6 seconds. The short-throw shifter is a pleasure to operate -- truly one of my favorites -- and I like the clutch, too, which engages relatively low in the pedal travel and is easy to modulate. At practically any speed, if you choose the right gear, the new V-6 will jolt you back in your seat, revving freely up to its peak horsepower at 6,500 rpm, just shy of the 6,850 rpm redline.
The car sounds good, too. Having fewer cylinders, it can't really sound like a V-8, but somehow it sounds like a Mustang just the same, with a deep rumble under heavy throttle. Under light acceleration and cruising, it's much quieter, and as of the 2011 model, so is the whole car -- remarkably so. Ford implemented sound-damping materials seemingly everywhere, from the roof to the transmission tunnel and the hood to the trunk. There are new sound absorbers in the fenders, strut towers, firewall, C-pillars ... I could go on. It really works, making for easy conversation between driver and passenger. It's not just quiet for a muscle car; it's quiet in general. The Performance Package's summer tires were also nice and quiet, and when their soft rubber pitched a salvo of gravel at the rear wheel wells, a new liner muted the racket. I certainly heard it, but it didn't sound as high-pitched and bone-jarring as it would have been.
The tire choice makes a difference, though, as I found when I drove a V-6 with the 18-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero Nero all-season tires, which made their presence known on rough asphalt. They weren't outrageously loud, but they were predominant in the noise buffet as no single dish had been in the other car. They also rode softer.
That's not to say the 19-inchers and GT suspension made my V-6 Premium ride rough. There was no doubt I was in a sporty car, but the ride quality was more than livable. Suspension changes for 2011 were extensive, involving not just bushings and spring and shock absorber rates, but also stabilizer bars and control arms.
I felt the same driving the V-6 Performance Package on winding canyon roads. When pushed, the car understeers a bit, but the V-6 now has enough torque that you can balance things out with the throttle if you aren't in too high a gear. Ford says the aluminum block has helped to even out weight distribution, but preliminary specs say it's roughly 54/46 percent (front/rear) with either engine in the coupe body style, which would be unchanged from 2010.
Between the quieter cabin and the car's poised handling, it's easy to go faster than you realize, and here the grippy, 255/40ZR19 rubber paid off, as did the standard electronic stability system, which adds a Sport mode in the Performance Package that makes it less intrusive and allows some sliding about. One shortcoming I experienced in dynamic driving was on roads with sudden elevation changes, where the car tended to get too light. The steering lost its precision, the wheels lost contact and I lost confidence. All Mustangs now have a standard limited-slip differential, and underbody aerodynamic work for 2011 is claimed to reduce lift.
Impressive electric steering
I was also pretty impressed with the steering, which had a nice weight and appropriate assist levels at all speeds. This is a new electric power-steering system, which eliminates the hydraulic power-steering pump and its parasitic load on the engine. EPS is becoming widespread for its fuel-saving advantage, and it's theoretically a superior approach, but overwhelmingly it fails to live up to the performance of hydraulic power assist. As for the Mustang's steering, I don't think I would have noticed it was electric if I hadn't known ahead of time.
What's good about the Performance Package is that its estimated price is less than $2,000, and it will be available on stripped-down V-6 models, providing a great performance car for less than $25K.
The 2011 Mustang hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Because the changes for 2011 are mainly drivetrain related, 2010's ratings likely apply, but we'll need to await the IIHS' verdict to be sure. The 2010 coupe scored Good (the highest possible) in frontal impacts and Acceptable in the side test. The convertible scored Good in both tests.
Standard safety features include frontal and seat-mounted side airbags with head extensions, but no curtain airbags. Also standard are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control.
Mustang in the market
One of the things I admired about the 2010 GT in our test is how well all its systems and attributes worked together -- a unified whole. We all thought the Mustang was simply fun to drive. Now it has the speed, too, and the immunity idol of relatively high gas mileage will defend it from being voted off Tree-Hugger Island.
The 2011 is much more than just a quicker Mustang. Its power is matched by the various other upgrades, and once again it's a very balanced, unified package. From one perspective, its greater refinement is also a downside: I deemed the 2010 consistently and appropriately unrefined -- just rough enough to make it what a muscle car should be. If the 2011 isn't a sports car, it's certainly closer than ever. I guess you can't stop progress.
2011 Ford Mustang snapshot
Starting MSRP $22,145 -- $37,845
305-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 (regular gas)
412-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 (premium)
6-speed automatic w/OD
6-speed manual w/OD
New or Notable
* More powerful engines for 2011
* Rear-wheel drive
* Manual or automatic transmission
* Coupe or convertible
* Available navigation system, backup camera
What We Like
* Interior quality
* Affordable pricing
* Standard stability system
* Many available luxury features
What We Don't
* Relative ride quality
* Front-seat comfort
* Too much body roll with normal suspension
* Not as eye-catching as competition
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Car review: 2011 Ford Mustang