By Brady Holt
Once upon a time, car enthusiasts widely embraced the idea that “there’s no replacement for displacement” — meaning that if you want to go fast, big engines reign supreme.
But more than ever, automakers are following other paths. Today, turbochargers help squeeze absurd horsepower out of little four-cylinder engines. Some high-end sports cars from carmakers such as BMW, Acura and Porsche are even using electric motors to boost their performance.
Even the iconic Ford Mustang has followed that trend. Ford recently discontinued the Mustang’s standard V6 engine in favor of a turbocharged “EcoBoost” four-cylinder. Even with 310 horsepower — more than the fastest 1964 Mustang — purists still grumble that this engine doesn’t have the character of a Mustang. It hums rather than bellows, going about its business with quiet efficiency rather than boisterous exuberance.
If you’re still that kind of car enthusiast — or if you don’t care what technology makes you go fast — Ford also sells another Mustang engine: a 5.0-liter V8 with a whopping 460 horsepower. That’s the engine in the tested Mustang GT.
You just have to press the engine-start button to know in an instant which Mustang you’re driving. So will anyone nearby. The GT starts up with a rumbling roar that only increases if you touch the accelerator. You sound like a lawbreaker, even if you’re the slowest car off the line when the light turns green.
Modern Mustangs have also made great strides for their handling, with more poise and precision than the model had been known for. The tested convertible model gives up a bit of ground compared to the Mustang coupe, though, because a removable fabric roof reduces structural rigidity compared to a fixed metal one.
However, you practically need a race track to exploit the Mustang GT’s capabilities. This is a machine that sits dormant in routine driving. The sonorous engine always makes itself known, but you won’t try to accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds on Rockville Pike. (At the very least, you certainly shouldn’t.)
Nor is the Mustang GT one of the sports cars that offer zippy fun at normal speeds. This car was engineered to excel at high limits, but it won’t necessarily make you smile on a normal winding road. And, in congested traffic or tight conditions, driving a wide, low car can become more of a chore than a joy. The steering is adjustable, but even “comfort” mode is on the heavy side, as you hunt a crowded parking lot for an open spot.
Additionally, the tested 10-speed automatic transmission can also stumble if you’re driving gently, as if confused by such a light application of the throttle. A six-speed manual is also available.
Now, for some drivers, the Mustang GT is more about old-school cruising than actual hardcore performance, especially if you choose the convertible. It’s a car that makes itself seen and heard, and the 5.0-liter V8 truly can deliver frighteningly speedy acceleration. This car’s bite does equal its bark, and folks who know Mustangs will never question that — even if you are driving it gently. And if you want everyone to see who’s in this rumbling retro machine, the power-retractable top drops down in just seven to 10 seconds.
Classic character continues to infuse the Mustang, too. A modern wide, low shape is festooned with enough retro-styling cues that you’d almost swear this car came straight out of the 1960s. The vertical, winged dashboard also hearkens to the Mustang’s origins, though Ford’s thoroughly modern Sync 3 infotainment touchscreen now sits front and center.
If you like the Mustang’s character but don’t need maximum acceleration or resonance from your engine, the four-cylinder version starts at $27,115 for the coupe or $32,615 for the convertible. The V8-powered GT is priced from $36,350 and $45,850, respectively. That’s a lot of money for character, but for some folks it will be worth it.
For similar performance but sharper handling and more contemporary interior decor, consider the Chevrolet Camaro, at least if you don’t mind its constricted outward visibility. For a roomier interior but less sprightly handling and lack of a convertible option, the Dodge Challenger is a compelling alternative. Overall, all three offer their own retro take on the classic American muscle car.
If that’s not to your taste, the Mustang (and Camaro) might still have the right balance of power, handling and value to score a test drive from any driving enthusiast. Even the most-modern Mustang still has some old-school flavor. It comes with the territory.
And more than 50 years of strong sales suggest that if you like that flavor, you’re not alone.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-mustang to see more photos of the tested 2018 Ford Mustang GT convertible.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.