For a singular nameplate with a long history, the 2012 Ford Mustang line-up delivers a lot of choices. Any of the current Mustangs is quieter, better built, better equipped and more refined than ever, but still visually engaging and good fun to drive.
Improvements for 2012 include more standard features and a selectable power steering system that changes steering effort and feedback from comfort to normal to sport at the driver's selection.
The big news, however, is the return of the Mustang Boss 302. It's a modern take on one the great cars in American road-racing lore.
The Mustang is available as a coupe, a convertible or a unique glass-roof coupe. The top-selling Mustang V6 and GT models are offered in all three body styles, in standard trim or a more feature-laden Premium level, with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Even the extra-powerful Boss and Shelby GT500 Mustangs deliver reasonable fuel-economy, given the performance potential. The level of fun varies primarily with the potency of the engine selected.
The standard Mustang V6 makes the basic stylistic statement and comes well equipped for about $23,000 with destination charge ($28,000 for the convertible). Its four-cam 3.7-liter V6 delivers 305 horsepower, and it will accelerate faster than the majority of vehicles you'll encounter at a stop light. It also delivers 31 mpg highway with the automatic, according to the EPA, and it makes quiet, comfortable daily transportation. The V6 is offered with just about every feature available on the Mustang, so buyers don't have to move up to the higher-powered models to get the stuff many want.
The V8-powered GT delivers 412 horsepower for about $30,000, and it basically cranks everything up a notch, starting with acceleration. It gets 26 mpg highway, and is just as easy to live with as the V6, with the same 13.2 feet of trunk space and folding rear seat.
The new Boss 302 is geared toward enthusiast drivers who look forward to track days. Its 5.0-liter V8 is massaged to rev higher and deliver a more high-strung 444 horsepower, and everything else in the Boss is tuned to sharpen its reflexes. While hard-core enthusiasts will appreciate its improvements, most drivers will be just as impressed with the standard GT, for about $10,000 less. The optional Laguna Seca package makes the Boss even more fun at the race track, but its not very friendly (or comfortable) for the road.
The ultimate Mustang is the Shelby GT500, combining a supercharged V8 with in-your-face graphics and lots of features. Expensive as Mustangs go, the GT500 nonetheless costs less than any 550-horsepower machine in the new-car marketplace.
Standard safety features include six airbags, all the stability and skid-management electronics and Ford's MyKey system, which allows parents to limit speed and audio volume when they hand the key to teens. The Mustang's appeal include a variety of appearance and wheel packages, allowing buyers to subtly or very obviously tailor the car's appearance to personal taste.
The Mustang as been in continuous production for nearly five decades, making it the longest running model in Ford history. Whether you call it a pony car, muscle car or American Iron, it remains the class benchmark 47 years after it was introduced.
The Mustang Boss 302 model, new for 2012, is a true attention grabber. To set this Mustang apart, Ford builds each with either a black or white roof panel, color-coordinated to the C-shaped graphics on its flanks. A low, aggressive splitter on the Boss's front air dam is also functional, improving engine cooling and adding downforce to the front tires. The Boss 302 is a good looking car, striking for sure, and nearly impossible not to notice. We found that our test car garnered more looks than some high-performance machines that cost three times as much.
Ford offers the Mustang with a range of appearance and wheel packages that subtly (or not so subtly) change its look and allow buyers to tailor the car to taste. All variants start with a welded steel unibody (as opposed to a separate body and chassis), and half the body weight is high-strength, low-alloy steel. Mustang is by far the lightest of the new breed of pony cars, beating the Chevy Camaro by 300 pounds and the Dodge Challenger by as much as 500 pounds. The weight savings provide a definite advantage, in both performance and fuel economy.
Ford took several steps to improve noise, vibration and harshness control when it reworked the Mustang for 2010. Additional sound-deadening material on the instrument panel and a rear wheel arch liners help drivers hear the sounds they want (namely the engine) and avoid the sounds that can be a distraction (such as dash creaks and tire noise).
The 2005-09 Mustang featured a modern retro design with a front end that recalled the 1964-68 Mustang. The current car sports a headlight arrangement and wider grille reminiscent 1969-70 models. Other design elements are also tributes to Mustangs of yore. The coupe's roofline, unchanged from the last generation, recalls the original Mustang fastback. The hockey-stick shape of the lower character line pays homage to the side coves found on Mustangs from 1964 to '68. The current car's chamfered three-element taillights, which house sequential turn signals that blink from the inside lamp to the outside, were first found on the 1964 Thunderbird, then the 1967-68 Shelby Mustangs and late '60s Mercury Cougars. These taillights are interesting, but we'd say they are the weak link in an otherwise excellent design.
Despite its homage to Mustangs past, the current car remains fresh and modern in appearance, with substantially better aerodynamic properties than its predecessors. Features like the low air dam, front splitter and underbody covering substantially reduces aerodynamic lift and drag, and more evenly distribute aerodynamic forces on the front and rear ends. Such techniques improve high-speed stability, reduce interior noise and contribute to better fuel economy.
The Ford Mustang's interior mixes excellent build quality with improved materials and a straightforward dashboard layout. The decorative trim and soft plastic on the dash are fairly appealing, though some hard, hollow plastic panels remain. Overall all, the Mustang delivers a solid middle-class package, and we'd call it excellent in the functional sense.
The Mustang has never been and still isn't particularly space efficient, but if space efficiency were a priority, Mustang buyers would be looking at sedans. A range of noise, vibration and harshness countermeasures have made what was once a rather loud car pleasingly smooth and quiet, though the Mustang's all-American pony car rumble is still audible to drivers and onlookers alike. Better still, the base Mustang's list of standard features continues to expand, with dual illuminated vanity mirrors, a universal garage door opener and sun-visor storage clips added for 2012.
The look and feel inside the Mustang is even better with the Premium model package offered on both V6 models and V8 GTs. It adds leather-upholstered sport bucket seats with cashmere accents running down the middle, as well as a dark aluminum instrument panel and unique door inserts. There's Interior ambient lighting in the door pockets, cupholders and footwells, and the lighting can be changed through a range of 125 colors with a button.
The leather-clad steering wheel is big, with six metallic spokes in three groups of two, incorporating cruise-control switches and controls for the sound system. The wheel on ultra-performance Mustangs is wrapped with suede-like Alcantara, but in all cases the metallic spokes can get hot enough to burn hands when the car is parked in the sun.
Most drivers should find a comfortable seating position, though we would like a telescoping feature for the tilt-only steering column. There is plenty of head and leg room up front for large drivers, and the view out of the Mustang is excellent for an emotion-inspired coupe. The side mirrors add blind-spot panels with a different view angle in their upper, outer corners. We found that this simple, cheap solution works quite well, and the mirrors are wide enough to provide a good rearward view otherwise. The coupe's rear pillars don't intrude much in over-the-shoulder visibility, but it's hard to see out the back in the convertible with the top up. The optional back-up camera and reverse sensing system help.
Coupe or convertible, the Mustang does not have the high beltline of its main competitor, the Chevrolet Camaro, and this is an advantage for the Mustang. The lower beltline makes for better visibility to the sides. The advantage became especially apparent in an autocross. We could easily see the cones from inside the Mustang, but not from inside the Camaro.
The standard front bucket seats are significantly more comfortable and better looking than the slabs used prior to 2010, though they could still use more lateral support. The optional Recaro seats for the Boss 302 and GT500 definitely solve the bolstering problem, and while they offer minimal adjustment, they're surprisingly soft for race-type seats. We like them better for the street than the sport-seat option in a lot of cars.
The dash layout and switch panels are uncomplicated, aesthetically balanced and very effective. Most controls are large pushbuttons, though temperature, fan speed, volume and tuning are extra-big radial knobs. Even the base model has a very readable video display (the message center, as Ford calls it) for audio and other information.
The Mustang's two-passenger rear seat is no place for adults. Headroom is limited by the rake of the coupe roof, and leg room is minimal, even with the front seats moved forward. A person up to 5'9″ or so can cram themselves back there, but he/she won't want to stay long.
The Mustang convertible comes standard with a power fabric top and glass rear window. The top has two latches that the driver must release before pressing the button, but both are within arm's reach of the driver's seat and easy to lock or unlock. The top and frame drop behind the rear seats. The vinyl tonneau cover must be installed manually, and costs an additional $160. The top's storage space also reduces trunk volume nearly four cubic feet, shrinking the convertible's trunk to 9.6 cubic feet of volume.
The Mustang coupe's trunk has 13.4 cubic feet of cargo space, which is comparable to that in a compact-to-mid-size sedan. The opening isn't particularly big and the lift-over is rather high, but the coupe's fold-down rear seats expand cargo volume substantially.
If it sounds a bit gushy, it's objective fact nonetheless: The 2012 Ford Mustang is the best it's ever been. The Mustang remains the model for pony car sport and power, yet it's also enormously livable. It's smoother, quieter and more solidly built then ever, with few obvious drawbacks as daily transportation. It's comfortable for two, surprisingly economical to operate and, in most climates, suitable year-round.
The new-for-2012 Mustang Boss 302 is a modern take on the late-1960s original, which happens to be one the great road-racing cars ever to come from Detroit. All 2012 Mustangs have a new programmable steering feature, which changes the amount of effort required (and feedback) from comfort to normal to sport with a button. And all Mustangs merit those best-ever superlatives, whether we're talking about the base V6 model or any of the three racier V8s.
Once a glorified rental car, the standard Mustang V6 is nearly as much fun to drive as the upgrade Mustang GT. It's powered by a lightweight, dual-overhead cam 3.7-liter V6 that makes 305 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm (almost as much as the previous-generation V8). Yet with all six-speed transmissions and efficiencies throughout, the Mustang V6 delivers up to 31 mpg highway, according to the EPA. Indeed, it was the first 300-hp production car to crack the 30 mpg barrier. A V6 Performance Package option adds the GT's sportier suspension tuning and stickier tires.
We peg the V6 Mustang's 0-60 mph time around 6.0 seconds, which makes it pretty fast. The new engine sounds great, too, emitting a muscular American growl. Both the standard six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic work well with this car. The automatic's gears are spaced a little tighter than those in Mustang's primary competitor, the Chevy Camaro, and the result is more willing response in lower gears at low speeds. Basically, the Mustang V6 delivers power when you want it.
The manual shifts easily, too, but the gear-change doesn't have quite the satisfyingly positive action that enthusiast drivers might like (for that you need to upgrade to the short-throw Boss 302). We also found the V6 clutch a bit hard to modulate in first and second gears, making for some jerky starts. We might actually recommend the automatic.
Over the past two years, the Mustang chassis has been upgraded, tightened and stiffened, delivering a tauter ride, crisper response and less pitch, dive and body roll than any previous base Mustang. And the V6 comes standard with all the driving aids and skid control electronics, including anti-lock brakes, traction control and AdvanceTrac stability control. For track work, both the traction control and the stability control can be turned off (but not the ABS), and there is a Sport mode which allows higher handling limits before traction and yaw control step in to save the day.
The only potential drawback for contemporary daily driving remains the Mustang's solid rear axle, which can create a busy ride on bumpy roads because jolts to the rear axle are transmitted from side to side. An independent rear suspension would deal with bumps better by isolating road imperfections. Ford claims it sticks with the solid rear axle because it's the set-up old-time Mustang aficionados and amateur racers prefer (and there are a lot of them). Either way, the solid axle is not a huge liability, given the Mustangs combination of muscular feel and general easy living.
The upgrade Mustang GT feels even more muscular than the V6, without a measurable decline in the easy living. Its 412-horspower, 5.0-liter V8 transforms the Mustang into a pony car with power to spare. It delivers a big kick in the pants when floored from a stop, easily smoking the tires with the manual or automatic transmission, and makes passing a matter of a twitching your throttle foot. The whole experience is backed by a glorious rumbling soundtrack that is distinctly American.
With this new V8, introduced for 2011, Ford has caught and possibly surpassed the usable power of the Chevrolet Camaro SS. While previous Mustangs just couldn't keep up with GM's 427-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, the 5.0 makes the Mustang just as quick or quicker from 0 to 60 mph and in a quarter mile. And thanks to those efficiencies, the GT still delivers 26 mpg highway.
It's an absolute blast to drive. The car has a fairly light, tossable feel and it responds quickly to driver inputs. It is very willing to attack turns, with the electrically boosted power steering providing a fairly natural feel. The car is extremely quick to transition from left to right and back again with a minimum of body roll, dive or pitch in the suspension. The Brembo Brake Package adds larger brakes. It should be the choice for anyone who wants to take their car to the track or drive regularly on twisty mountain roads.
Yet if track time is the objective, the Boss 302 is probably the ultimate Mustang. While it doesn't accelerate as quickly as the supercharged Shelby GT500, the Boss is still plenty fast, and it handles more lithely during truly aggressive driving. Thanks to some subtle tweaks and an impressive 7500-rpm redline, the 5.0-liter V8 in the Boss ups horsepower to 444. This engine loves to be wound-up and bounced off its rev-limiter, as track cars should, but it delivers impressive torque not matter how fast it's spinning, and that makes it as suitable for the road. It's not too loud inside, either, though you'll definitely hear the roar.
Nor is the Boss 302 excessively stiff in the ride-quality department. That may be the most surprising thing in a car tuned for track days. With its manually adjustable suspension set to the softest level, the Boss is acceptably comfortable on bumpy roads, and the electronic systems manage things nicely if the driver gets a bit too zealous with the gas pedal. Steering might be the weak link in the excellently tuned Boss package. It's weighted properly, toward the heavy side as we like it, but there is a slight numb spot on center, and it's not as precise or communicative as the best. The steering might be the only thing that separates the Boss from a pure sports car.
Bottom line? The Boss 302 is nothing short of a hoot to drive on the street, or a true thrill on the track. Probably 90 percent of potential buyers will be just as happy with Mustang GT, at $10,000 less, but those 10 percent who appreciate the Boss's upgrades are in for a treat. No one should consider the Boss's Laguna Seca option, which makes the car even stiffer and strips more weight, starting with the back seat, unless track driving is the predominant purpose.
A step up from the Boss, the Mustang Shelby GT500 might be called the alpha male in the Mustang lineup. With a 550-hp, 5.4-liter supercharged V8, it's the fastest Mustang of all in straight line, and unlike the Boss 302 it's available as a convertible (though still not with an automatic). Yet the GT500 is as much about show or status as fast driving. Where the 302 is sparsely appointed, the GT500 comes with most of the upgrade features, like premium audio, Ford's Sync communications system and optional navigation.
The Mustang convertible benefits from a list of structural enhancements. These include a tower-to-tower front strut brace, heavier crossmembers, various braces and foam-filling in the windshield pillars. These changes make the soft top more solid than previous Mustang convertibles, and at least on par with some more-expensive competitors. That translates to competent handling and generally shake-free driving. Nonetheless, the stiffer Mustang coupe remains the choice for the ultimate in handling and chassis rigidity.
The 2012 Mustang line delivers more features and more refinement than any so-called pony car line-up before, not to mention a whole lot of performance per dollar. The Mustang V6 makes comfortable transportation with an emotionally appealing look, a muscular feel and excellent fuel economy for under $25,000. For about $30,000, the V8-powered GT is faster, quieter and more comfortable than any of its celebrated predecessors. The new Boss 302 will appeal to enthusiast drivers who love track days. The Shelby GT500 is expensive as Mustang's go, but it's the least expensive 550-hp high-performance machine on the market.
J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with Jim McCraw and Kirk Bell reporting from Los Angeles.