Cylinder-Envy No More



My first car was a used 1981 Ford Mustang. It was a complete piece of garbage, but it was the best I could do with $900 worth of hard-earned busboy tips. It only had one side mirror, the power steering fluid had to be filled every two weeks and there was a nail in the dashboard. I would have removed that last bit of nonstandard hardware, but whenever the Brown Bomber didn't want to turn over, touching the nail for luck seemed to work. But compared to my friends' cars, mine at least looked the fastest. Looks don't win at the stoplight, though, and my rust-colored 'Stang featured the double whammy of a 109-horsepower 2.8-liter V6 and an automatic transmission.

To say that my Mustang's powertrain was a disappointment could be the understatement of the century, but I wasn't the only V6-powered Mustang owner suffering from horsepower humiliation. It would be another 30 years before Ford would offer a V6-powered Mustang with anything more than mule muscle, but that's where we are today. The 2012 Mustang boasts a legit 305 horsepower, or more punch than the 4.6-liter V8 under the hood of the 2009 Mustang GT. I have no doubt that the 2012 Mustang is vastly superior to my 1981 shame machine, but does that 305 horsepower and a vastly improved rear-wheel-drive chassis make this Mustang one of America's great performance bargains? Hit the jump to find out.

If you've made it this far, you've probably noticed that our review vehicle is not the newly debuted and tweaked 2013 model. We generally make an effort not to review vehicles after significant changes are announced, but with so many Mustang variants available, we just couldn't publish all of the Mustang reviews we had lined up before the changes were announced. Besides, we're still a few months away from getting our hands on the newest Mustang V6, and it appears that its hardware will be largely the same as the 2012 model we sampled. 2013 Mustang V6 changes include updated front and rear fascias, new wheel options, available Recaro seats and the availability of our tester's V6 Performance Pack on automatic-equipped models for the first time. Ford hasn't announced upgraded V6 power numbers for 2013, so we're operating under the assumption that the 3.7-liter V6 will continue to pack 305 horsepower.

2012 Ford Mustang V6 side view2012 Ford Mustang V6 front view2012 Ford Mustang V6 rear view

Having said that, our Race Red tester is a budget-minded, Mustang-loving enthusiast's dream. We're talking about a base 2012 Mustang Coupe with but one option box checked: the V6 Performance Package, which adds 19-inch Argent Painted Machined aluminum wheels mated to Pirelli P-Zero 255/40 ZR 19 rubber and a host of performance improvements for just $1,995. That Ford offers this impressive package on even the most basic Mustang is commendable, and it's a must for the enthusiast on a budget.

Even with the Performance Package our tester still came in at an extremely reasonable $24,850. As you can imagine, that low MSRP means that there aren't a whole lot of high-tech standard features, but the V6 Mustang still offers a few creature comforts. Among the standard fare is a tilt steering wheel with speed controls and a rich-sounding premium stereo with an auxiliary audio input jack for your MP3 player. If you're looking for a longer list of accoutrements, you'll have to step up to the V6 Premium, which starts at $26,310 and doesn't include the Performance Package.

In the past, the V6-powered Mustangs were not only devoid of power, they also looked toothless when contrasted with the GT model. Gaudy stickers, smallish wheels and a general atrophied look just screamed "Rent me!" Ford has done a terrific job making the V6 Mustang look less like a white flag of inferiority and more like a powerful ride with some personality.

2012 Ford Mustang V6 headlight2012 Ford Mustang V6 wheel detail2012 Ford Mustang V6 taillight2012 Ford Mustang V6 exhaust tip

This look is enhanced with the Performance Package, thanks mostly to those massive 19-inch wheels that draw attention to the Stang's aggressive looks. Proof of our tester's improved visual appeal comes in the form of the many compliments we received during our week with it. Past V6 Mustangs were more likely to elicit questions like "Why didn't you get the V8?" – not what you want to hear after dropping over $20,000 on a new pony car.

The Mustang usually looks interesting from the outside, but the same compliment shouldn't be directed to its typically bland interior. That changes to some degree with the current generation model, as aesthetics and materials have been greatly improved. A once rock-hard dash has been replaced with far cushier fare, and the cloth seats are comfortable and have plenty of side bolstering. The Mustang also earns points for ease of use, as its buttons and knobs are logically placed and easy to reach and operate. Of course, it helps that our tester was largely frill-free, so SYNC, Bluetooth and navigation were all left out of the equation. We were especially pleased with the seat comfort, which only made us want to spend more time in the cabin. The Mustang also impresses with superb visibility from the driver's seat, a claim that its Bowtie-wearing competitor most definitely cannot make.

There is no doubt that the Mustang's cabin is much improved, but this is no luxury interior. Once inside, the eyes are greeted with an ocean of stark-looking gray and black tones. The center armrest is far short of comfortable, and the plastic steering wheel is a constant reminder of the manageable MSRP (a leather-wrapped unit comes standard for 2013). While we don't expect a muscle car to have a massive trunk, the Mustang features a respectable 12.3 cubic feet of room. Unfortunately, the boot opening is small enough that larger and awkwardly shaped items likely won't fit.

2012 Ford Mustang V6 interior2012 Ford Mustang V6 front seats2012 Ford Mustang V6 speedometer2012 Ford Mustang V6 rear seats

Still, our complaints about the Mustang's interior are few, and they really don't take away from the driving experience. The 3.7-liter V6 boasts the aforementioned 305 horsepower at 6,500 revolutions per minute and 280 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 revs. This is the V6 performance that budget-minded Mustang lovers have been craving, and the result is a powerful mill that doesn't disappoint. It doesn't have the low-end torque of the brawny 5.0-liter V8 or even the asthmatic 4.6-liter V8, but it's still got plenty of punch and a redline that hits a grin-inducing 7,000 RPM.

The six-speed manual transmission is a treat as well, as the short-throw shifter clicks into a satisfying notch every time gears are swapped. Hammer the throttle from a dead stop and expect acceleration that would annihilate any stock V8-powered Fox-body Mustangs. Our AOL Autos compatriots quote a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds, but the acceleration feels more in the mid-five-second range from behind the wheel.

The new 3.7-liter V6 does wonders for the street cred of the Mustang, but the pony car competition isn't messing around, either. The V6-powered 2012 Chevrolet Camaro boasts 323 horsepower and the 2012 Dodge Challenger counters with 305 horsepower. With each model over 300 ponies, which is the quickest to 60 mph? Again, the Mustang comes out on top, beating the Camaro by .1 second (6.0) and the Challenger by .9 seconds (6.8). That's partly because the Mustang weighs just 3,401 pounds, while the Camaro tips the scales at 3,780 lbs and the Challenger needs Jenny Craig at 3,834 lbs.



The 3.7-liter engine under the hood of the Mustang most definitely has a lot more kick than the old 4.0 Cologne V6, but don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a 9/10ths GT. The V6 is down big on horsepower and torque compared to the 5.0-liter V8, but that's not even the biggest reason scale doesn't apply to this comparison. While the V6 carries a nice soundtrack, it's absolutely nowhere near the exhilarating exhaust note of the GT. There is a certain James T Kirk/Barry White swagger that comes with eight pistons under the hood of a Mustang, and our tester just doesn't have it.

But who needs panache when you handle like a champ? The Mustang V6 takes turns surprisingly well, and the Performance Package only enhances the driving experience. The package includes a larger front sway bar and SVT rear sway bar, unique calipers with performance friction pads, a strut-tower brace, 3.31 gear ratios and unique front springs. All that hardware exists to increase stability in turns and improve braking, and the result is a very composed pony car, even when charging hard through the corners. The Mustang's solid rear axle used to be looked upon as a hindrance to handling in deference to drag strip performance and low cost, but that really isn't the case anymore. Ford based the updated axle off the last generation Mustang Bullitt, which was the most entertaining pre-2010 Mustang. There are still times when the rear feels as though it wants to hop free, but the electronic nannies help keep everything in order when your skillset can't.

Ford engineers have added electronic power steering to the Mustang in 2011 to improve fuel economy. An electrified tiller tends to conjure up images of a numb and uninspiring feel, but that generally isn't the case with this Mustang. The steering is quick and precise and offers some level of feedback, though there are moments when it does feel artificially weighted.



When Ford introduced the new V6-powered Mustang, The Blue Oval promised 31 miles per gallon on the highway. The thought of a 300-horsepower vehicle offering 31 mpg sounds too good to be true, but our experience with the Mustang suggests it's a legitimate claim. The 31 mpg number is only possible with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, but our manual-equipped tester is still rated by the EPA to achieve 29 mpg on the highway and 19 mpg in city driving. We managed 24.2 mpg during our time with the Mustang V6, but could have squeezed out a few more miles per gallon if it weren't so much fun to drive hard.

There was a time when buying a Mustang V6 might have signified you were more interested in looks than performance. After spending a week behind the wheel of this latest iteration, we can say that stereotype is no longer valid. The 2012 Mustang now features an impressive V6, a terrifically sorted chassis and fuel economy that's as good as some mid-size sedans. Add in a base price under $23,000 and you're looking at a genuine performance bargain.

While it's not fair to cars like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Subaru WRX and the Chevrolet Camaro to declare the Mustang the best performance value on the planet, its name certainly deserves to be included in any discussion on the topic.