First Drive: ’18 Mustang Is A Revelation Not A Refresh

We drove the 2018 Mustang GT and EcoBoost through the canyons above Malibu, California, and came away impressed with the wholesale improvements that Team Mustang baked into this mid-cycle refresh.

As our hand grips the beefy steering wheel’s glove leather, we lean forward, press the horse-heartbeat-pulsing aluminum start button and the 2018 Mustang GT rumbles to life. From the driver seat, the latest Mustang feels familiar. Like the exterior, the interior shares the same layout as its predecessors, but the beauty of this mid-cycle refresh is the artful fusion of hardware and software, including the sound of that exhaust.

The next big thing to achieve was really making it fun to drive. — Carl Widmann, Mustang Chief Engineer

“We redid both the passive exhaust system and the active-valve performance exhaust system. The passive is the standard on the V8 and you can option it to the Active,” Mustang chief engineer Carl Widmann said. “Both of them are completely retuned, based on a lot of feedback that we had, trying to bring a lot more life to the car and a lot more sound.”

While the much-ballyhooed Quiet Start mode keeps nagging neighbors at bay, the latest Mustang exhaust was also able to notch up the aggression, though engaging Track mode elicits a morning that you might be outside the realm of local laws.

“Some of the laws changed in the US and the rest of the world changed, which allowed the exhaust sound to be more pronounced,” Tom Barnes, Mustang Vehicle Engineering Manager, said. “With the Active exhaust you can make it very loud and it actually reduces flow restriction, which is worth maybe two horsepower.”

What this car sounds like is just scratching the surface, and going below the surface is where the good stuff is hiding. With the cars hitting dealer lots and owner driveways as you read this, many people have yet to experience the latest Mustang, especially in all of its iterations, so we set out to try as many as we could.

More Than Meets The Eye

It might be easy to assume Ford just tweaked the body and added a couple of knick-knacks before setting its sights on the S650. However, with the latest update, Team Mustang has continued the momentum it began in 2015 and has proven there is plenty of high-octane left in the S550’s tank.

“This is one of the most aggressive refreshes you’ll ever see for a vehicle — we can’t wait for people to drive this car,” Mustang Chief Engineer Carl Widman enthused. “We identified everything that is important to Mustang fans and delivered across the board, and we couldn’t be happier with the end result.”

The 460-horsepower Gen 3 Coyote definitely delivers a noticeable boost in performance. The midrange is fatter and the extended, 7,500-rpm redline delivers a more usable powerband.

Most mid-cycle refreshes — like in 1987, 1999, and 2010 — revolve around a refreshed look and that is certainly the case with the 2018. However, as the old saying goes, you shouldn’t simply judge a book by its fascia.

“Styling really was the number one thing to deliver. It is the number-one purchase reason for the car,” Carl told us. “The next big thing to achieve was really making it fun to drive and that took in many aspects — powertrain, chassis setups, and the tuning of the integration of those systems…”

While it was developed concurrently with the Ford GT dash that preceded it, the 2018 Mustang’s optional digital dash is unique to this car. It features its own software and feature set, which embraces the car’s drive modes. We found the display intuitive and easy to read though we didn’t have time to explore its full customization possibilities.

When it comes to the styling, liking it or not is a subjective choice, but we suspect the more you see these cars in the wild, the more you will like them. The car simply doesn’t photograph as well as reality says it should. And, better yet, that styling is more than just a sales pitch. It is functional too.

“The restyle is lower and it is better for drag. We were also able to make it much more stable for lift balance, so it is more continuous through speed ranges. We were able to set it up without any flexible components,” Carl added. “We used to have a chin spoiler on the outgoing model and we have taken that off and done it all with the belly pan. We learned from that on the 2015 Performance Pack and took that across all models to basically suck the car down when it is at speed.”

Third Time’s A Charm

And speed is definitely the forte of the latest Mustang thanks to some significant upgrades resulting in a third-generation of the Coyote 5.0-liter engine. They lifted the naturally aspirated 5.0-liter’s performance to 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, a solid 25 horsepower and 20 lb-ft over the second-generation, port-fuel-only Coyote.

“At the core of it, the V8 is a much quicker car. The manual is a little quicker, but the auto is much quicker,” Tom enthused.

The latest Mustang definitely acquitted itself well on California’s twisty canyon roads. It showed improved grip and roll control, but the fact that it easily transitions to more docile duty without beating you up is a testament to the blending of hardware and software packed into this car. You can easily adjust the sound and feel of the car to meet your mood on the fly. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

Enchanting EcoBoost

During our brief sampling the 2018 Mustangs, we nabbed seat time in the Mustang GT with both transmissions and the EcoBoost Mustang with the automatic. We would have happily wheeled the manual Eco, but it wasn’t available. While the GT is clearly the performance king, the latest EcoBoost is a potent player as well. Using Overboost the latest 2.3-liter four-banger delivers 310 horsepower and a muscular 350 lb-ft of torque — grunt that you can feel!

“We went from 320 lb-ft of torque to 350,” Tom Barnes enthused. “It’s really rather significant. …If you put that thing in Sport mode, it’s really a quick little car.”

When paired with the magic of the 10-speed automatic, you end up feeling that midrange swell for an extended period of time as the close-ratio box keeps the car in the powerband sweet spot as it bangs through the gears in Sport mode. The car is also lighter, so it feels quite agile and the extra torque helps push it out of the corners.

If you drive home in the base Mustang, you are still rolling in a fun car, especially if there is a 10-speed in the tunnel.

In practice, we immediately noticed the boost in performance while bombing through the canyons in a new Performance Pack GT. The latest Mustang is unmistakably faster than the outgoing car. It’s stronger in the midrange and pulls another 500 rpm higher, which is meaningful as the rev limiter doesn’t throw a wet blanket on the party before it’s over. In short, the Ford’s engineers definitely turned up the fun-to-drive knob, which completely justifies the revamped engine that features the same fusion of port and direct injection utilized by the Ford GT.

“If we hadn’t done the fuel system, we couldn’t have increased the compression ratio. We had to make an advancement in the technology with the ability to do direct injection but we also knew that we still needed the port fuel injection. So, it was a great way to push the horsepower per liter,” Carl told us. “I hadn’t heard of it referred to as that, but it’s a great way to refer to it. It’s a ‘Gen 3.’ They are back into the head again for the third time, but this time they are playing in an optimized world that has a new fuel system and a new control strategy.”

As we recently shared with you, the upgrades to the engine are numerous from larger bores and increased compression to revised heads and a new intake. However, suffice it to say engineers left no lug nut untorqued when improve the car’s performance, including new damper materials and other changes to support higher rpm.

“To deliver under-4-second 0-60, we needed to take the alternator from the manual car and stick it in the automatic car,” Carl said. “We have a one-way clutch on it, because otherwise it would have spun the alternator.”

10 Is The Magic Number

As significant as the GT engine upgrades are, it’s the transmissions that really impact the driving experience. For the manual, engineers completely worked over the MT-82 six-speed with a dual mass flywheel, a twin-disc clutch, a double overdrive, and new syncros. They revamped the gear ratios and spacing and even brought down the clutch effort by a small but appreciated 5 Newton meters.

In our driving, we couldn’t really notice the clutch effort, but it was immediately apparent the gear spacing was wider for better fuel economy and better orientation on the road course. We found it made the GT manual a bit lazy on the street, but we probably just didn’t have enough time to adjust our shifting habits.

If you are shopping for a new Mustang one of your most important decisions is selecting a transmission option. For the first time ever, we’d have to say all but the most hardcore gearbangers should take a hard look at the 10R80 10-speed automatic. Its close ratios and drive-mode-integrated calibration make the most of whatever engine is in front of it.

Seeing The Light

“Thematically, this is the eye of a Raptor. If you look at it, it’s the iris with all the markings,” Carl Widman said of the 2018’s headlight. As the chief engineer of the Mustang, he said it’s the most fun he has had at Ford and we can see why. Even the challenges provided opportunities.

“You have a much shorter span of time to do a refresh, mid-cycle or major product action, like this,” he said. “What you have to do is know what you want and then use a lot of analytical tools to then go right to production.”

In order to add more styling cues, the Mustang team moved all the exterior lighting to LEDs, which allowed designers to take more liberties.

“We used a system called OPTIS, which is an analytical system for lighting and optics. What you can do, believe it or not, is take three-dimensional CAD data and then back it off on all the reflective surfaces,” Carl explained. “We ran these taillamps for 200 iterations to get the light reflection to come up in these corners. We get every little detail to make sure there are no dead spots. It is amazing to me. We were able to production-tool those straight off the bat. It saved us a lot of time.”

So, just when you start thinking this is a modest styling refresh, you quickly learn that the Mustang Team took every detail into consideration.

“It does change the driveability around town. You end up using one gear down from what you would normally be using. The car doesn’t feel as snappy in Third, but if you use second it works,” Vehicle Dynamics Development Engineer Mike Del Zio said. “We did lose one ratio above one-to-one, because it was a direct Fifth and now it is a direct Fourth. Now it’s a double overdrive, which is how we were able to give you the 20 lb-ft, the 25 horse, and keep the same fuel economy.”

We look forward to trying the manual transmission on a road course, but what may have amplified our slight disappointment with the manual-trans GT was that our first driving experience was in a car equipped with the new SelectShift 10R80 10-speed automatic transmission. If there were one single modification that will make you long for a 2018 Mustang it is this transmission.

“When you put it back in S, the way the guys tuned it, the transmission team would go out with the vehicle dynamics team to a track to go through all the different iterations of how you drive this car into a corner,” Tom explained.

“The solenoids and clutches are all set up to offer low-lag and low fluid accumulation usage, so they can react quicker,” Carl added. “That architecture then gives me the ability to do anything I want from a calibration perspective.”

And that is the real revelation. In Sport mode, which we preferred, the automatic and its calibration hold the gear when you are hard on the throttle and blips through matched-revved downshifts as you whoa into a corner. For the first time in a Mustang the automatic doesn’t require manual shifts to carve up the corners. It’s as close to having your own personal race car driver onboard as you can get.

You would probably see a small improvement in your lap time in the auto. — Jamie Cullen, Ford Dynamics

“If I put you back to back in the car (manual vs. automatic), you would probably see a small improvement in your lap time in the auto. The beauty of it is that you have six ratios that are less than one to one and the seventh is one to one. We have a close-ratio, seven-speed gearbox going down the back straight,” Jamie Cullen, Ford supervisor for vehicle dynamics development, said. “The first time I took it down the track it was always on the boil. And, you don’t have to rev the heck out of it, you just keep it in the fat of that torque curve from 4,500 to 6,500 and the thing just gathers pace all the time.”

The familiar, aerospace-inspired interior lives on in the 2018 model with a few noticeable upgrades. The Premium trim levels offer more soft touch points in the interior as well as Showstopper Red or Grabber Blue contrast stitching. The seats are restyled and the upholstery is available in tan, Showstopper Red, Midnight Blue with Grabber Blue stitching, and Ebony with Alcantara suede accents.

Second Shift

Noticeably absent in California were any 2018 Mustangs equipped with the heralded Performance Pack Level 2 package or those with the Pony Package for that matter. The common denominator is both of these are available with the commencement of Job 2 in December, so they aren’t imminently available. We did, however, learn quite a bit more about the PPL2, so stay tuned for a few tidbits on this package, which we will hopefully get to experience next year.

While its performance on the street and in corners is what will surprise you, it should be no surprise the automatic is where it’s at on the drag strip. When paired with the new Drag Strip mode, which we couldn’t really try during our street drive, it delivers those sub-4-second 0-60 times. And the engineers worked to ensure that it was making the most of all that new Coyote power and you can really feel it.

“I remember when the senior transmission calibrator said, ‘You know, I think we could probably not cut torque during the shifts. Do you think we should try that?’” Tom said. “Yes, we should.”

Of course the other part of the equation is putting that power down to the pavement and that meant playing off the already robust S550 platform. Many of these were known improvements that just couldn’t be addressed before the 2015 Mustang launch.

Building On The Foundation

“You’ve got a great canvas — the body structure, the general track, and the layout. You have a multi-link IRS, a double-ball-joint front suspension, so you have the architecture and chassis setup in the vehicle to, basically, give you anything you could want to tune for a sports car,” Carl said. “With that, what we set out to do was have an at-a-glance differentiation that looked more sleek and more aggressive.”

To that great platform the engineers added not only style, but even more handling substance. The monotube shocks and rear cross-axis ball joints that were once the realm of Performance Pack cars were democratized across the entire 2018 line. When paired with the optional Magneride, new Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S summer tires, and revised calibrations the result is a car that makes the most of its improved grip in the corners, but doesn’t beat you up on the way to the store.

Once you had to chose between quiet and loud, but with Active Exhaust — born on the Shelby GT350 — the 2018 Mustang allows tuning the exhaust tone and even muting it when starting up. This is just part of this car’s technology tour de force; it’s even compatible with Ford SYNC Connect. That allows a car-to-smartphone connection that can start; lock or unlock; locate, and diagnose the 2018 Mustang.

“You have better cold-wet performance and the Magneride lets you have Normal mode where it is more comfortable than the outgoing car and you can thrash it in Track and have all the control you want,” Mike explained. “The great thing about Magneride is there are two pieces to it. You have your base level control and then you have all the transient control that you put on top of it. …Track actually has a similar base level control to Sport, but the transient stuff we are doing on top is different.”

And whatever they are doing on top is definitely working. The cars we drove were mostly high-optioned Performance Pack cars, so the knobs were definitely dialed up a notch, but in the canyons above Malibu, California, the 2018 Mustang put a gleeful grin on our faces as it moved between docile driving and bombing through the twisties. In short, the 2018 Mustang is a great car.

Ford’s dynamics engineers told us that they tune these cars to flatter the novice and reward the expert.

Consider us flattered.

The 2018 Mustang is a bonafide performance machine that is more revelation than refresh. This is no minor freshening; The upgrades are substantive and the results are palpable. If you own a previous generation car, you might just have some pangs of envy — as you should — especially since you can choose from 12 wheels, 11 paint colors, seven models, and six packages.

Mustang has always been about personalization and the latest model really takes that aesthetic to heart with 12 wheels, 11 paint colors, seven models, and six packages to choose from. These cars are highly customizable straight from Ford. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

“A marketing guy once told me the best car you can have is one that makes the guy who bought the previous model say, ‘I wish I waited,’” Tom shared.

In this case, that’s just what Team Mustang delivered. For its moment, each Mustang generation should feel like the best one yet, but the 2018 truly is the pinnacle of the breed — for now.

About the author

Steve Turner

Steve Turner brings decades of passion and knowledge in the world of Ford performance, having covered it for over 20 years. From the swan song of the Fox Mustang to the birth of the Coyote, Steve had a front-row seat.
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