Ford Mustang LA 13

Half a decade ago, the very idea of it going global would have sounded ludicrous, but here it is then – the 2015 Ford Mustang, finally trotting off to see the world in its fiftieth year of existence. How times have changed indeed, that the Blue Oval’s beloved pony is set to make that giant commercial leap beyond the shores of North America, and not just merely as a left-hand drive offering.

Despite the inherent lack of legacy beyond Stateside shores, presenting an icon beyond its natural stomping ground seems to be paying off even before the first vehicles have arrived in markets around the world (the first exports to Asia have just begun, to China and Korea) – initial response has been tremendous for a car few have experienced, in any incarnation.

Even in places where muscle cars and large capacity mills are somewhat of a norm, reaction has been immense – as of the end of 2014, the car has received more than 15,000 expressions of interest in Australia, which is set to be the leading market for the new pony car in the Asia-Pacific region (away from China), replacing the home-made Falcon when it arrives later this year. Makes you wonder why adding on RHD wasn’t done any earlier.

But, better late than never, and judging from the reaction, there are plenty who will buy into this steed, the legend (aided by the likes of celluloid folklore such as Bullitt and an example called Eleanor) and the appeal of owning a piece of Americana no doubt aiding things along. Europe, the UK and Asia will be destinations, and Malaysia is one of the countries where the car will be sold through official channels for the very first time, going on sale in early 2016. What can Malaysian buyers expect? We spent some time horsing around with the sixth-generation in California to find out.

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It’s a very handsome car in the metal, the S550 in its Fastback coupe form – the profile is unmistakably Mustang, but the shape is far more fluid and flowy than the fifth-gen. Not much variation in size from its predecessor, which ran for a decade, but the new four-seater – measuring in at 4,784 mm long, 1,916 mm wide and 1,381 mm tall – is a bit wider (+40 mm) and lower (-38 mm) than the S197, even though both cars share the same 2,720 mm wheelbase length.

Despite the identical wheelbase numbers, the platforms are different – originally envisaged to utilise the older car’s platform, the switch to a new chassis came about as development progressed. The other biggest change is the move to a fully-independent rear suspension, ditching the live axle configuration seen on past ponies.

New bits include a new perimeter subframe at the front to stiffen the front structure and reduce mass while providing a strong foundation for more predictable wheel control as well as aluminium knuckles at the rear, which helps reduce unsprung mass for improved ride and handling.

There’s also a new double ball-joint front MacPherson strut system, which enables the use of larger, more powerful brakes – the company says that the new car will haul up far better than the old one. Standard brake elements for the EcoBoost are 320 mm x 30 mm vented front discs with twin-piston 43 mm floating aluminium calipers and 320 mm x 12 mm solid rear discs with single-piston 45 mm floating calipers.

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The 5.0 litre, meanwhile, gets 352 x 32 mm vented front discs with four-piston 46 mm fixed aluminium calipers (an option for the EcoBoost, as part of the Performance Package) and 330 x 25 mm vented rear discs with single-piston 45 mm floating iron calipers. A Performance Package for the GT brings along Brembo six-piston 36 mm fixed aluminium calipers and 380 x 34 mm vented front discs.

The improvements come with a tradeoff, in the form of weight – these days, each new iteration of a model type from European manufacturers offer a lighter replacement, but the new pony is actually heavier than the car it replaces, with increases ranging from around 25 kg for EcoBoost models (base kerb weight, 1602 kg) up to around 90 kg for a base 5.0 litre GT (1,680 kg). Offsetting the gain is an improved level of handling, steering and ride over that of the S197.

Three engine options are available for the car, a 2.3 litre EcoBoost turbo four and two normally-aspirated mills, the familiar 3.7 litre Cyclone V6 and the 5.0 litre Coyote V8 – the evaluation mules were dressed with the two powertrains set to be sold in our market, the 5.0 litre V8 and 2.3 litre EcoBoost.

The 2.3 litre EcoBoost is the first Ford mill to utilise a low-inertia twin-scroll turbocharger to provide quicker boost response – the base form of the unit provides the basis for the powertrain equipping the new Focus RS, though that’s significantly reworked for the particular application. On the Mustang, output numbers are touted as 310 hp at 5,500 rpm and 434 Nm at 3,000 rpm, good enough to get the variant to the 100 km/h mark from standstill in 5.4 seconds and to a 240 km/h top speed.

The Coyote, meanwhile, has been given a number of revisions for its use in the Mustang – among the changes are a new cylinder head, new intake and exhaust cams with increased valve lift as well as stiffer valve springs, and the multipoint injection unit with twin-independent variable camshaft timing is now good for 435 hp at 6,500 rpm and 542 Nm at 4,250 rpm.

Transmission choices are a six-speed Ford/Getrag MT-82 manual or a six-speed SelectShift auto ‘box with paddle shifters, the ZF-based 6R80. If the gearboxes sound familiar, they are – both are also found on the Ranger T6 pickup.

As for limited-slip differentials, the EcoBoost automatic gets a 3.15 ratio unit, the manual a 3.31 (optional for the auto), with a 3.55 ratio available for both transmissions in the Performance Package. Ratios for the 5.0 litre are 3.15 (auto), 3.31 (manual), 3.55 (optional, both) and a 3.73 Torsen diff replaces the standard LSD in the variant’s available Performance Package.

The Mustang’s interior supposedly has nods to the past (and apparently derives design inspiration from aviation), but it will all be new to those here accustomed to the styling of European and Asian interiors – there’s a distinct retro feel about it all, from the symmetrical dashboard top and meaty centre console to the layout of the door cards and toggle switch bank on the centre console. I rather like it.

On the whole, the initial impression may feel blocky, but operational aspects of the switchgear are positive – great action on the toggles, for one, and the actuation placement of the gearshift is spot on. Elsewhere, there are differences in the central AC vent layout on the NA and EcoBoost models, as can be seen in the pix – the former has three vents, while the latter has two, with boost and oil pressure gauges taking up the space in between them (the gauges are part of the Performance Pack).

Base equipment includes HID headlamps with signature lighting, three-strip LED tail lamps (with sequential turn signals for the US model), cruise control, rear view camera, keyless entry and push-start ignition, manual adjustment front cloth seats and selectable-effort electric power-assisted steering (Standard, Sport, Comfort).

There’s also single-zone air-conditioning and a six-speaker audio system with SYNC – in its base form the communications and entertainment system comes with a 4.2-inch colour LCD display, which is likely to be that found on the Malaysian-spec cars.

Our Triple Yellow Tri-coat exterior/Ebony Leather interior EcoBoost mule was a Premium variant loaded with a Performance Package, meaning it came with the bells and whistles – powered leather-trimmed seats, 12-speaker Shaker Pro Audio System, adaptive cruise control and BLIS, dual-zone AC, eight-inch LCD touchscreen and 19-inch Ebony Black five double-spoke alloys and 255/40 rubbers (the baseline EcoBoost wheel is a 17-inch unit wrapped with 235/55 tyres).

Likewise the 5.0 litre evaluator – the Competition Orange/Ebony Leather unit was a GT Premium spec’d version, which upped the wheels from 18-inchers to 19-inch dark stainless premium painted aluminium wheels. No Performance Package on this one, which would have added the Torsen helical gear diff, Brembos, new front springs and different wheels.

Additionally, the 5.0 litre features an electronic line-lock (activated using the Mustang Track Apps feature) and, for the manual, launch control. If smoking tyres are your thing, the former – which locks the front brakes and releases the rear ones for a controlled burnout – is just the trick.

A mention about the four-gang toggle-switch pack – it’s only available on Premium models, and controls four selectable drive modes (Normal, Sport+, Track and Snow/Wet). There’s no damper control in the equation, but the modes offer a predefined powertrain and chassis-related calibration setting – Sport+ provides more responsive steering and throttle response (and on the auto, different shift points), while Track offers less intrusion from the ESC before intervention kicks in.

Standard safety kit includes ESC and seven airbags (front, side curtain, driver/passenger side-impact and driver knee) and Isofix points (known as LATCH in the US). Current literature mentions an active knee-airbag glovebox (which is supposed to debut on the Mustang) as part of the standard equipment list, so that sort of bumps up the airbag count.

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On to the driving, which we ended up with manuals for both engine variations. The route, which covered a mix of city driving in LA and a variety of freeway and canyon roads, offered the Mustang a spread of terrain to stretch its legs – strict enforcement of speed limits meant there was little in the way of trialling the horse with absolute abandon for the most, save on parts of the run up to Newcomb’s Ranch on the CA-2 and the return drive to Chatsworth via the Big Tujunga Canyon Road, where thankfully no patrol cars were lying in wait.

The first and more substantial leg was done in the 2.3 EcoBoost, and from the get-go out from Sunset Boulevard there was already much to like – it didn’t take long to get accustomed to the size of the car, and all-round visibility was quite good, with only a few minor blind spots to contend with. Ambling along in the city, the mill showed good low-end tractability, with a light steering and cushy ride adding to the pluses – Hill Start Assist was a boon too.

Likewise out on the open road; the torque spread in general use holds up well, so there’s very little need to change cogs on the manual if you’re running at a consistent speed. Attempting fast on twistier terrain requires more work, both from engine and gearbox – the mill isn’t lazy, and the car is certainly quick enough off the line as its sub-six second 0-100 km/h time suggests, but the car feels somewhat ascetic in-gear, like there should be more in the way of grunt.

The soundtrack, or lack of it, is probably a contributor to things being the way they are – the sound symposer attempt at an aural show inside the car while you’re belting along doesn’t really have any real conviction to it, sounding like a half effort at best.

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Granted, the need to appeal to a wider audience beyond the enthusiast crowd means things have to be kept sonically manageable, but it’s a tad too quiet, this, especially given the muscle-car context. Stand outside the car, stab the throttle, and you’re rewarded with a zingy, characterless sound, the hollow four-pot signature unmistakable. You can just hear aftermarket exhausts being plonked on to address that sonic sobriety.

Some thoughts about the rear seats – my co-driver hopped in to the back for a stretch on the Big Tujunga, and offered the view that while space was adequate and seating comfort acceptably good, it isn’t a place you want to be in for long periods. The electric steering is fast, but dull in feel; Sport was the best of the selectable steering modes, but still felt decoupled.

Elsewhere, things are decidedly better. Handling was a pleasant surprise – the front end has plenty of grip and the rear never feels skittish, even under heavy braking and into transitions. Some softness is evident, but the rear never wallows or unsettles in a corner, and there’s no Yank boat behaviour to be found here.

Other pluses include the precision and feel of the MT-82’s shifter, the clean, positive engagement of shifts a tactile delight. As for the brakes, the four-pot and larger disc combi of the Performance Package on the EcoBoost scores another plus, the system exhibiting good modulation and stopping power.

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The GT’s overall balance is different, as one would expect – its nose-heavier nature means the EcoBoost actually betters it in turn-in and tracking aspects and is much nimbler handling-wise, but the big mill aces it in terms of midband energy and in-gear feel. There’s plenty of visceral appeal, be it the palpable thrum of the eight resonating off the seat or its growl as you stand on it. And it is fast.

Again, the exhaust could be that bit more vocal, but this then is a proper Mustang, or one that sounds and feels like it. It’s alluring for sure, and easily my pick of the two (needs a Performance Package though), but here its displacement – and price tag – means that it’ll be a non-starter for all but a select few, and so it is very much going to be an EcoBoost game with this one.

Irrespective of variant, when the Flat Rock, MI-built Mustang arrives it’ll be the most expensive model in the Ford Malaysia lineup. Word on the vine sometime back was that SDAC is aiming to get the EcoBoost in at under RM300k (whether or not that’ll still happen remains to be seen, given the significant increase in the US dollar’s exchange rate recently).

It sounds like a fair bit to pay for a Blue Oval job, but this is no mere one-trick pony – it’s an icon, this horse, even if has become all grown up and refined. The idea that one can finally get a ‘stang in a correct drive orientation must surely appeal, and the absence of legacy should only serve to help.