• Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  • Image Credit: Ford
  •   Engine
    2.3L Turbo I4; 5.0L V8
  •   Power
    310 HP / 350 LB-FT; 460 HP / 420 LB-FT
  •   Transmission
    6-Speed Manual / 10-Speed Auto
  •   Drivetrain
    RWD
  •   Engine Placement
    Front
  •   Curb Weight
    3,535 - 3,760 LBS
  •   Seating
    2+2
  •   MPG
    21 City/31 Hwy; 15 City/25 Hwy
  •   Base Price
    $26,485
  •   As Tested Price
    $44,580
MALIBU — California isn't where the Mustang was born, but it might as well be. The Dearborn-bred pony car instantly formed a bond with the sun-kissed state, and Mustangs have been cruising in town or winding through the hills since 1964.5. The affinity is palpable: the roads are good, the weather's fine, and the Mustang's a car that makes you feel good even sitting in prodigious traffic. A perfect match.

Since Mustangs can handle now – no surprise there, since the '15+ Mustangs are the best Mustang ever from a dynamic perspective and the '18 builds off that tradition – figuring out what makes the 2018 Ford Mustang tick requires the right venue. That's why I'm tearing up and down Latigo Canyon road in the hills above Malibu. It's early, I have the road all to myself and a choice of Mustang GTs and EcoBoosts, all featuring the optional Performance Pack. Time to figure out if the new Mustang captures the vibe.

A big part of the historical attraction is styling, or at least, presence. LA is a place to be seen, and to watch others trying to be seen. On this front, the '18 has some challenges. Reception to the revised styling was initially mixed, to be polite about it. It's no longer a "Fusion coupe," right? But it's also lost something intangible in the aggressive droop of the nose. I've been mulling it over since Ford pulled the wraps off, and my assertion is that this is a less "versatile" design. It works great in bright, bold colors like Orange Fury or Triple Yellow, but the throwback Royal Crimson looks awfully flat here. From the right angle, and particularly in profile, it's very much still a Mustang. And expect trickle-down Shelby appearance bits and an eventual refresh should sharpen it up some, too.

2018 Ford Mustang

What'll get more attention on the boulevard is how it sounds, at least in GT form. It's positively ferocious. Carl Widmann, the Mustang's chief engineer, told me that the number one request they got about the last car was to make the V8 a little louder. With the Active Valve Performance Exhaust equipped, and Sport mode engaged, it burbles and snarls without sounding necessarily vintage. And there aren't any contrived pops or backfires on the overrun. No one with a soulful bone in their body will fail to watch the GT rip by.

Inside, a few of the test cars, both GTs and EcoBoosts, had the new 12-inch, fully digital gauge cluster. It looks phenomenal, offering up different layouts with each mode. You can also override the layout presets and choose your own. Ford did a great job keeping things simple and legible in normal mode with a classic dual-gauge layout, and increasing the simplicity and legibility as the modes ratchet up in intensity. Track mode gives you just just the essentials: a big, bar-style tach, an offset speedometer, and tiny bars for fuel level and coolant temp. It's lovely, and it works great. Ford nailed it, and if you're shopping a Premium trim already, stepping up to the Premium Plus might be worth it to you for $2,200.

The biggest change for '18, arguably, is underneath the center console. The new 10-speed automatic, called the 10R and co-developed with GM, is available on both engines. Despite a whopping four more gears than the outgoing 6R80, it's generally well behaved. Widmann told me the goal was to get the calibration down so that the transmission could drop three or four gears without freaking out. And indeed, a three-gear downshift (the largest I saw in normal testing) didn't feel much different than a two-gear downshift in a six-speed auto. There's a pause, and then it's done. It's quick enough to satisfy, especially in Sport and Track modes. Popping the gear selector lever in S and shifting yourself doesn't seem to affect shift speed, and it's also satisfying. Generally.

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I say generally, because I drove three cars with the 10R. Turbocharged engines historically pair well with automatics, so I grabbed a Kona blue EcoBoost with the new 10-speed. Unfortunately, it felt slow and confused. It didn't hunt, thankfully, but would give a quick, soft judder on tip-in that drove me nuts. Down- and up-shifts, with the selector in Sport mode and using the paddles, were a beat too slow to be pleasing. It was a real disappointment. I'll chalk it up to abuse inflicted on the poor EcoBoost by others before me, rather than some 10R calibration flaw, but since this is a brand-new gearbox for this application it could take a little while for Ford to dial out such occasional odd behavior.

Later, in a different EcoBoost, things were much tidier, and the judder was gone. Likewise with a GT automatic. With tons of torque and lots of gears, I was worried the 10R would trip over itself on Latigo Canyon's more sinewy sections. No gripes on that front. It cruised in Normal mode and ripped along in Sport, a lot like how the 10-speed performs in the Raptor. Basically, it drives like you'd expect a decent, modern automatic to drive.

The real treat is the GT's revised six-speed manual transmission. The previous car's manual was, let's say, never quite loved by those who drove it. Ford heavily revised the MT82, and it's all good news. There's a dual-mass flywheel and twin-disc clutch, which reduces effort and allows the transmission to channel the GT's increased torque. The synchronizers from first through fourth are all upsized, which the transmission desperately needed – shifts are smoother and less balky, and effort is way down. It's not quite wrist-flick easy like a Miata, but "better than before" is a monumental understatement. Rather than the slight balkiness of the old box breaking the spell every shift, you can fully immerse yourself in the GT, focusing only on the road. Complete zen is attainable here.

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The MagneRide suspension available on EcoBoost and GT as a $1,695 standalone option helps put you in the zone. Other than Multimatic's more advanced (and lighter) DSSV shocks, there's no better suspension on the market for a road car. Both the GT and the EcoBoost with MagneRide drive like they're secured to the road at moderate but fun speeds appropriate for a tight canyon road, and didn't buck or jitter over uncouth pavement. Essentially, it felt like a classic German sport sedan. That's good, because Latigo Canyon road isn't very forgiving. There's rock on one side, and an impressive drop on the other. Fully committing to a blind corner means that a serious road imperfection could lead to a scary moment, or worse. MagneRide acted as a measure of safety, affording a larger cushion before things (literally) go sideways. All the testers were so equipped, so I'll be interested to see how the regular non-MagneRide suspension options stack up at a later date.

A quick note about the Performance Pack, which should be on your radar. On EcoBoost cars, the $2,495 pack includes a 3.55 rear axle with a Torsen limited-slip, 19-inch black multi-spoke wheels wearing summer tires, heavy duty front springs, bigger brakes, a bigger radiator, a bigger rear sway bar, and some unique tuning and calibration of the stability and traction control systems. At $3,995, the GT Performance Package costs more and includes staggered 19" rims with summer tires, upsized Brembo brakes, and either a 3.73 (manual) or 3.55 (auto) rear axle, along with the other stuff you get in the normal EcoBoost Performance Package. The wheels look sinister, and everyone who drives hard can appreciate more brake and more cooling, as well as the additional traction of a Torsen. You can't readily replicate this package in the aftermarket for this little dough, so it's a good buy.

And then, of course, there's the choice of engine. The EcoBoost gets more torque, likely something that was baked in from the start but just now "unlocked" in time for the new look. That means the manual versions get an uprated clutch spring and a dual-mass flywheel. It's good for 310 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, and while it feels healthy enough hauling the Mustang up the canyon in both directions, pushed hard and mercilessly, it's not necessarily a fun engine. And in my opinion, its whoosh-scoot character is more sport compact than American ponycar. I miss the V6, frankly, which fulfilled the same role but with more pizzazz, and a throatier sound – and more importantly, there wasn't a turbo in there to make the relationship between your right foot and the engine's output less linear. But I can't criticize the EcoBoost for being too weak – it's not. Or too laggy – it's there, but barely.

2018 Ford Mustang

No such nostalgia for the GT's 5.0-liter Coyote V8, which is both a powerhouse and a sweetheart. Despite being way down on displacement compared to the 6.2-liter LT1 making 455 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of torque in the Camaro SS, the Coyote makes more power but a bit less torque: 460 hp and 420 lb-ft are on tap, and it can rev 1,000 rpm higher. It's tractable, pulling hard from down low, but like any great naturally-aspirated V8 things get hair-raising as revs build. This motor loves to rev, and its muscly snarl turns into a modern twin-cam scream as it nears its 7,500 rpm redline – and it's a streetable DOHC V8 that doesn't fall on its face below 3,000. It's the stuff of muscle car dreams. And paired with the silkier transmission, it's a joy to use.

While the Camaro is a bit harder-edged dynamically, the '18 Mustang is more charismatic – just like the '15+ cars. I'd argue that the Camaro's advantages are Pyrrhic – and that it's not hard to turn to Ford Performance or aftermarket parts to remove them altogether. The Performance Package and MagneRide go a long way toward erasing the Camaro's advantages, too. And the EcoBoost is certainly more fun than the Camaro 2.0T.

All this capability and charisma comes at a price. There's a lot of expensive optional equipment you'll probably want to tack on to either engine option, so base pricing isn't reflective of the car's dynamic excellence. The EcoBoost fastback starts at $26,485; add about $5,000 to step up to the premium trim, or $5,500 for a convertible. The GT is $35,995, $39,995, and $45,495 respectively. Plop all the best performance bits on a base EcoBoost or GT, and you'll pay $32,675 and $44,580, respectively. As closely spec'ing a Camaro 2.0T and SS 1LE as possible, MSRP comes in at $32,395 and $44,995. I've driven the SS 1LE recently, and it's my opinion that the GT Performance Package car with MagneRide and the howling Coyote engine is simply more engaging to use everyday, even if it might lag behind the SS 1LE using a stopwatch. As always, choose the pony car that speaks to you.

The bottom line is that Ford took the best parts of the previous Mustang and enhanced them. That's a conservative play, but a savvy one. And it pays off in the Malibu hills. Roaring through the canyons in a Race Red GT, when most people are waking up to Folgers, formed this perfect melding of car and setting. California's a long way from Detroit, but the Mustang feels right at home.

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