For the automaker teams that engineer, develop, and tweak the Chevrolet Camaro and the Ford Mustang, the pony-car war is a seemingly endless, seesawing conflagration conducted with an intensity bordering on religious fervor. The objectives are simple: outgun the opposition on the road and annihilate them on the sales front. When your side loses ground, which will inevitably happen, escalate the war with more power, better handling, additional features, and improved styling.
Ever since the current-generation Mustang debuted for 2015 it has been winning the sales battle but, more often than not, losing the war on the road—and in our reviews—to the sweet-driving Camaro. So 2018 is a year of multiple improvements, a sort of mechanical troop surge, intended to make the current Mustang go faster, drive better, look sexier, and protect its occupants more comprehensively.
We detailed the new Mustang’s upgrades in a previous report, so we’ll focus here on our initial impressions about how well those revisions work. We got a chance to briefly pilot base and GT Mustang coupes on the roads draped across the foothills north of Malibu—some of California’s more challenging stretches of tarmac.
Our first stint was in a blazing Orange Fury Metallic GT equipped with the six-speed manual and the optional Performance package, which for V-8 models adds tauter suspension, Brembo six-piston front brake calipers, more robust engine cooling, a Torsen limited-slip differential, and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S performance tires—255/40R-19 front, 275/40R-19 rear—on black-painted aluminum wheels. Our car also had the optional Active Valve Performance Exhaust and new-for-2018 MagneRide adaptive magnetorheological dampers—technologies that have been available on the sixth-gen Camaro since it hit the market for the 2016 model year. If you can’t beat ’em, match their mufflers and dampers.
Ford claims that the Mustang GT is now capable of sub-four-second lunges to 60 mph when equipped with the new-for-2018 10-speed automatic. The six-speed manual GT test car felt like it couldn’t be more than a tick behind. The revised manual gearbox employs new gear ratios, and when you go wide open from rest, the 1-2 shift comes up fast enough to surprise you if you don’t keep a sharp eye on the tachometer.
Inside, the Mustang differs only slightly from the 2017 model, the biggest change being a new, optional 12.0-inch digital instrument cluster with a reconfigurable screen keyed to the selected driving mode (Normal, Sport+, Drag Strip, Track, or Snow/Wet). Depending upon equipment, the mode switch also controls the damper setting, exhaust timbre, steering effort, throttle mapping, stability-control setting, and the automatic transmission’s shift programing. There are numerous ways to mix the modes—a Pony shortcut button on the steering wheel helps the driver access them, and the MyMode setting allows drivers to store certain preferences. This year brings more available safety equipment to the options list as well, including automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Subtle exterior revisions include a flattening of the hood for better forward visibility and standard LED lighting all around. Performance package coupes get a big wing carefully designed to—wait for it—do absolutely nothing. Ford’s wind-tunnel group already had the Mustang’s high-speed, front-to-rear aero balance where they wanted it, so the new wing thing is there only to impress the cars-and-coffee crowd. Luckily, it can be optioned off. Look to the GT’s new Level 2 Performance package if you seek true aero enhancements and greater grip levels.
Are this year’s changes enough to let the Mustang take back the high ground from the Camaro? The Ford certainly seems to be a stronger combatant than before, but the balance of power between these two pony-car warriors is so even that until we drive them back to back on the same roads on the same day—and run them through our full testing regimen—we can’t be certain. All we know is that, however things turn out, they likely won’t stay that way for long.