Conventional wisdom says you must trade power for fuel economy, or vice versa. In that case, the 2013 Ford Mustang GT must be either unwise or unconventional.
The newest generation of Ford's pony car, in GT form, sticks with a V-8 engine, displacing a big 5 liters, good for 420 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. At the same time, the car's EPA numbers reach 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. I would have thought Ford had found a way to game the EPA tests, until CNET's review car wound up with an average of 20 mpg over city, freeway, and back-road flogging.
Lacking direct injection, forced induction, or a colony of hamsters helping to spin the crankshaft, how does Ford defy our notions of power and fuel economy? Mostly by letting the engine run very slow in 90 percent of driving situations. Driving the Mustang GT along freeways at 70 mph or in the city at 20 mph, the tach needle stayed resolutely under 2,000rpm, usually hovering just about 1,000. The sweep from 2,000 to redline only feels the needle on those rarer roads when you can keep the gears low and the power up.
Ford also made the Mustang GT's engine more efficient with variable intake on the valves and variable camshaft timing. An electric power-steering unit lessens the load on the engine, yet manages to feel remarkably natural, or at least more like a hydraulic power-steering system. The six-speed automatic transmission helps with a high top gear and programming that looks for the most economical ratio.
As easy as that automatic transmission made driving around San Francisco, with starts on hills that pointed approximately toward Mars, I would not choose it as an option. Beyond the axiom that all sport cars require manual transmissions, I was never comfortable with the rocker switch on the Mustang GT's shifter that activates manual gear selection.
This little switch, with its plus and minus symbols, worked fine when choosing a gear for a long hill descent on a highway, but was too easily missed when going for a downshift approaching a turn. Paddles, which the Mustang GT lacked, are far more tactile.
And where some automatic transmissions show surprising sporting capability with quick shifts, not so the Mustang GT's. Torque converter slushiness was evident at every gear change, a little hesitation before each downshift. However, with 420 horsepower on tap I could leave it in third gear, suitable for all but the sharpest S-curves and switchbacks, when pounding through twisty back roads.
Ford's big claim to tradition with the Mustang comes in sticking with a solid rear axle, which should give at least part of the car the ride quality of a pickup truck. But Ford managed to do some good work on this ancient rear-suspension configuration. The Mustang GT rode comfortably, although with an oddly rubbery sensation. It felt like the car was wearing a wetsuit, with a thick coating of neoprene between road and driver.
When pushing the Mustang GT along a mountain road full of quick turns, the car's heft was noticeable. Setting the wheel back and forth for successive turns made the whole car shift its stance with something less than grace. Even when I didn't push the car particularly hard in a turn, the tires complained in tortured symphony. As for the electric power steering, I had a difficult time telling the difference from hydraulic. The steering wheel showed good resistance when cranked over, although with a bit of loose play at center.
One noteworthy addition to the Mustang GT is a performance computer integrated with the instrument cluster. A nice color LCD between speedo and tach shows lateral g-forces, along with acceleration and braking times. Notably, it does not include a lap timer, suggesting that the car is better suited for drag races than road courses.