6 May 2016

2016 Ford Mustang 2.3 EcoBoost Review

Ford has just launched the latest version of its iconic Mustang. In recent years the Mustang had lost its way. The 80s and 90s weren't kind to it in terms of looks and dynamics and the 2005 Mustang was still a bit too big and basic for European tastes. And the steering wheel stayed stubbornly on the left.

Enter the sixth generation Mustang. This is the first Mustang designed to be sold the world over. It is the first Mustang with independent rear suspension, the first Mustang available in right hand drive and the first Mustang available with a 4-cylinder engine. 

Unlike most Mustang reviews you'll read I paid for mine (well, rented it) and I drove it 3,800 miles in 11 days.

My son and I decided that over Easter 2016 we'd drive from Miami to San Francisco and that we'd do so in a convertible - hopefully a Mustang. In terms of trips to the US I'd only ever been to New York for a weekend before and had never visited southern America or hired a car in the US before. I had heard stories that the choice available at airport rental centres was often limited to whatever was left at any particular time of day.

I was dreading turning up to find that the only car left was a Pontiac Grand Prix or something similarly dire.

As it turned out American car rental is a huge industry that runs extremely smoothly. The rental place at San Francisco airport is a short (free) train ride from the terminal and is located in a massive multi-storey car park. When we arrived we were greeted by a bunch of men wearing shiny jackets, one of whom looked at our paperwork and said we could pick any car from aisle 32.  

Aisle 32 consisted purely of Chevrolet Camaro convertibles and Ford Mustang convertibles. Result. The bad news was all of them were powered by 4-cylinder engines. Oh well. My son picked out a bright orange Mustang and we headed into downtown Miami.

First impressions were given over to getting used to driving on the wrong right side of the road in a left hand drive car. My left elbow had a door in the way and my right elbow had nowhere to rest.

Day 1 involved driving 300 miles north, in the direction Daytona Beach - whilst stopping over to take some photos in front of a very distant Kennedy Space Centre.

As soon as I got used to the excitement of driving on the left side of the car on the right side of the road I started to focus on the car itself. It was a brand new model with only 3,000 miles on the clock. The 2.3 litre inline-4 is shared with the Focus RS where it has garnered much praise. In the Mustang it produces 310bhp and 300lb ft of torque and does 0-60mph in 5.4 seconds and has a top speed of 154mph.

So it's fast. And it feels it.

Our car was fitted with an automatic gearbox. In the best tradition of the muscle car this is not a high tech flappy paddle 'box but a normal 6-speed automatic transmission. Unlike many old-school auto-boxes the Mustang's unit felt tight and quick and didn't feel like it lost any power in between its cogs. 

Even with the supposedly weedy (and derided in the UK press) 2.3 EcoBoost engine the Mustang is a seriously fast car. Put your foot flat to the floor and it gathers its skirts and takes off down the road in a very dramatic fashion. On more than one occasion the satnav, which sat on the dash on a bean bag type thing, flew off the dash.

The Mustang looks the part too. It helped that ours was orange but its designer (a Scotsman called Moray Callum (brother of famed Jaguar designer Ian Callum)) has a fine eye for this kid of thing and has managed to combine traditional muscle car looks and stance with a finer European finesse. 

UK petrolheads love the Mustang but so too do Americans. We were told at gas stations in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California that our car looked great, or even "purdy".

The interior is pretty good too. I had expectations of horrendous elephant-hide plastic and overly shiny leather but we mustn't forget that this 'stang was designed with Europeans in mind, and the interior lives up to our expectations. The leather is tolerable and the plastic almost of Volvo standards.

The seats are very comfortable. On our longest day we drove 700 miles in 10 hours, from Dallas to Santa Fe, and I had more trouble from sun burn on the back of my neck than the seats.

The twin dials are big and clear with revs in one and speed in the other, although I do prefer a nice big digital speed readout in these days of nasty electronic policing. There is plenty of room for accoutrements in the cabin with a decent sized glove box and a big bin under the arm rest - which is too low and nowhere near your arm or even elbow.

Whilst the front seats are comfortable the rear seats are only any good for small children and legless adults, although they are fine for storage of rucsacs, multipacks of water (in case of breakdown in the desert) and general junk that two people accumulate over two weeks.

The roof is fabric and will only fold up or down whilst stationary. It doesn't take up much room in the boot, which is big enough for two suitcases with plenty of room either side. The interior is quite quiet with the roof up but noisier and windier than many euro cars with the roof down. We often drove for a few hours and then both agreed the roof should go up to give us a rest from the buffeting. 

The new Mustang has to be up to date in terms of electronics and happily it is. There is a USB charger port under the armrest and two 12v points (which are more useful as they charge iPhones much quicker)  - one near the radio and one under the armrest.

The entertainment system features FM and satellite radio in the US and digital radio in the UK. You can also Bluetooth music from your phone or play a CD. We used the Bluetooth streaming option for up to 7 hours a day every day and it worked almost without fault - dropping out about 5 times in 70 hours of driving.

So that's the specs, looks and interior. How is the new Mustang to drive?

Well, it's damn fine. As mentioned previously it is a fast car - but it doesn't really feel like a sports car, more a grand tourer. I once drove 200 miles in a Porsche Cayman 981 and ended the trip feeling tired and sore but in the Mustang we averaged 350 miles a day for nearly two weeks. The Porsche would be the better car round a track but the Mustang is better for day to day distance driving.

It does have a potentially serious problem though. It generates a kind of hum from around 40mph to 60mph. It's not a really vibration and it's not engine related as it doesn't alter with engine speed but it does seems to come and go depending on conditions. It gets worse when the engine is laboured - say on cruise control at 50mph when the gearbox is in top gear and the engine labouring slightly. But, as I say, it doesn't seem to vary with engine speed. Over nearly two weeks it stayed with us, on and off. I never could put my finger on what caused it. It did get annoying at times but sometimes I didn't notice it. It's certainly not something I've encountered in a car before.

Notwithstanding that the Mustang is a seriously smooth driver. The suspension is plush, which means it does allow a certain amount of lean in corners, and the whole droving experience feels laid back.

What the Mustang has, in abundance, is character. Whether shooting down a dead straight highway through the badlands or crawling along the Las Vegas strip it feels like it has star power and charisma. When in Los Angeles we drove it along Mulholland Drive, where many of the old school Hollywood Stars live, and the Mustang felt right at home.

Many reviews conclude that the 2016 Mustang is a fine car but that the 2.3 litre engine should be ditched in favour of the V8. I haven't driven the V8 but I can tell you that even in its own backyard the 4-cylinder performs superbly, even if it doesn't make the right, or indeed any, noise.

If I were to repeat the trip I would definitely choose the Mustang again. It's a fantastic car. As a convertible I'd choose it above many European models such as the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 3-Series.

I couldn't imagine driving any other car through those vast desert vistas, along crowded Dallas freeways, crawling down characterful New Orleans streets or even splashing through huge thunderstorms in Florida. The Mustang looked after us every step of the way and in return we loved it, despite the odd foible.

The Mustang is a relatively cheap proposition. It's also very good looking, fast, practical, comfortable and easy to live with on a day to day basis.

I just hope Ford look into 'the hum' and come up with a solution.

By Matt Hubbard