Many carmakers hide their engines under sheathes of plastic. Others might leave the heads exposed under a tangle of hoses and wires. But some engines get treated like a work of art. Such is the case with the new 5-liter V-8 in the 2011 Ford Mustang GT.
A centerpiece of the car, the bas-relief of the intake manifold's crisscrossing pipes sits between gray, coated valve covers embossed with the legend Powered By Ford. A wide pipe leads out the front to a cold air induction filter, stock on the Mustang GT.
And as a multimedia piece of art, this engine makes an excellent sound as the revs climb, a classic symphony of well-controlled explosions driving the cylinders.
This engine is more sophisticated than past Ford V-8s, using variable timing technology on the double overhead cams to control the intake valves. The result is a massive 412 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, enough to pin you back in your seat as the Mustang GT jumps off the line. Even half throttle will make the car leap.
A smooth aluminum ball shifter is a conversation piece in the car, and an excuse to wear driving gloves. It has an extremely short throw, so when shifting through the pattern at a stop, it is hard to tell when the car is in neutral.
The big power from the engine makes wide power bands with the gears. Third is good for anywhere from 20 to 80 mph. But this transmission has a mind of its own. Probably in an effort to increase its EPA fuel economy, the shifter diverts upshifts from second over to fifth, when you're expecting to go to third. Likewise, shifting down from sixth, it likes to divert to third instead of fifth, which can make for an unpleasant surprise. However, the car can handle it just fine, the engine sounding as happy at 6,000rpm as at 2,000rpm.
Ford managed to score 17 mpg city and 26 mpg in EPA fuel economy testing, but don't think those are real-world numbers. To achieve anything close, you would need to get it in sixth gear by 35 mph, consistently. Midteen fuel economy will be more commonly achieved. CNET's car, driven through city streets, on freeways, and over mountain roads, only averaged 15.4 mpg.
Cornering by torque
The Mustang GT exhibits classic muscle car handling. Its initial turn-in is good, but then the heavy front end starts to understeer. Not a problem, as prodding the gas makes the back end float around. It may not be precision handling, but it is fun to steer the car with torque, and the Mustang GT has plenty to spare.
A limited slip differential is standard on the Mustang GT, and Ford even lets you specify the rear axle drive ratio. Default is a ratio of 3.31, but buyers can opt for 3.55 or 3.73. The limited slip differential makes a huge difference in putting the Mustang GT through a tight corner.
The suspension also does an excellent job of keeping the car flat. The Mustang GT has a heavy feel, and the load shifts substantially when entering a corner, but body sway is minimal. And Ford did an excellent job of tuning this suspension for everyday driving. It certainly shows plenty of sports car stiffness, but it softens the jolts when going over bumps, giving occupants a reasonably comfortable ride.
With Ford's commitment to the Mustang legacy, the rear wheels still sit on a live axle, but the front wheels use an independent suspension. Less in line with that legacy is the electric-power-steering system, but this feature should help the fuel economy, an aspect of the car that needs all the help it can get.
Tuning for this steering unit is too much on the power side. The wheel turns a little too lightly, even at speed or when taking turns forcefully. It doesn't make the driving experience as engaging as the big engine would suggest.