There are some sounds that induce in me a certain unsolicited feeling of bliss. The slurpy glug of a fine wine being poured. The ethereal echo and whoosh of a wave breaking overhead. The crackle of a new fire springing to life. But none is quite as raw, as bone-tickling as the thunder that erupts when I push the big pulsing red start button on the 2018 Ford Mustang.
Of course, the US marque has kicked off almost every journey since the Mustang’s 1964 birth with that infamous rumble, but this year it’s really upped the undertones through a new quad exhaust. When I first put finger to button in an innocuous car park on the outskirts of Nice, I initially think a train must be trundling past underneath while a dragon breathes fire overhead. Maybe I shouldn’t have chosen the convertible to kick things off, but the blue skies above me and smile spreading across my face say otherwise.
I’ve taken the short, impossibly scenic flight to the Cote d’Azur to put the new Mustang through its paces on remote roads that snake their way through ancient villages, over precipitous mountain passes and down long, fast straights. It’s an acid test for a car rooted in straight-line, muscle car speed with a reputation as something you just ‘hold onto’ in the corners.
But Ford says things are different nowadays and it’s ready to triumph on European roads. First impressions and you couldn’t accuse them of taking too many risks with the styling – it’s a Mustang all right. Look close and there are some tidy cosmetic tweaks, from the lower profile bonnet and grille, integrated air vents and the odd swollen panel, but it looks as mean and aggressive as ever. More so, even. It’s a powerful, assertive, great-looking machine.
The look is borne out by the new power unit. The fastback 5.0-litre V8 ten-speed auto spews forth 460hp that propels it from a standing start to 60mph in a sneeze over four seconds and onwards all the way up to 155mph. Fast enough then, although the convertible does add half a second to that time but it’s a pretty small price to pay when you’re cruising under the wide, sunny skies of the French Riviera.
The slightly more restrained four-cylinder 2.3-litre EcoBoost runs around one and a half seconds slower, but with a huge weight hewn from the engine block its lesser power is more than made up for in nimbleness and the ready access to real pace at lower revs. It also near doubles the fuel efficiency of the V8.
The steering wheel looks like a fighter jet cockpit with more buttons than I could ever hope to master
Both models come in manual six speed or auto ten speed options and, loathe as I am to say it, it’s the ten-speed auto (complete with flappy-paddle gearbox) that had me grinning widest. With its instant power delivery, unbelievably smooth up-changes and ability to squeeze the most from the V8 even when the rev counter drops below 4,000rpm, it meant that I could keep my hands firmly gripped on the wheel – much to my co-pilot’s visible relief.
There are plenty of upgrades hidden away in that new chassis, too. Refined shock absorbers improve stability, and a stiffer rear suspension and thicker anti-roll bars reduce roll and sharpen handling significantly. It’s a big improvement on the previous model and translates into fast, tight-cornering, responsive handling and a deftness of touch that caught me by surprise.
As such it takes a while to convince myself we won’t fly out of every corner a flaming ball of fire careering over the cliff edge, but once I grow in confidence a little I can try to unbalance it. And I really try. From the traffic-laden motorways heading inland up into the empty, narrow and snow-flecked rural routes, the ’stang sucks up and spits out the miles with maximum fluidity and minimum fuss. It’s particularly impressive on rough, loose-surface roads, keeping its composure for longer than I was willing to keep my foot down. Don’t get me wrong – it’s no M3 and you’d be a fool to expect as deft a touch, but it’s way more than I was hoping for.
Only once did its straight-line roots betray it, when a particularly tight town roundabout had me three point turning under the withering gaze of bored onlookers unimpressed by the bonkers muscle car convoy rumbling past. And all the while that background rumble from the quad exhausts let everyone know the power is there if I need it. Or rather, want it – this is a mountain rally after all.
Ford hasn’t forgotten what the galloping equine badge represents... It’s loud, uncouth, brash and proud of it
Things are similarly stirring inside the cabin (although inside in a convertible is a contradiction in terms, I suppose). Doors, heated (and cooled!) seats, and the dash are encased in a smooth white stitched leather. The ubiquitous Mustang plastics are in attendance here and there, but do little to detract form the overall comfort. Dials and knobs have a hefty metallic sturdiness to them – like they were designed for easy flicking by a hardy American lumberjack on his way home from a spot of deforesting the Midwest (and his Raptor had broken down).
Then there’s the tech. The steering wheel looks like a fighter jet cockpit with more buttons than I could ever hope to master while scorching my name in the tarmac in drag race mode. Which, coincidentally, is my favourite setting on the awesomely over-indulgent and versatile digital dash display and accompanying 12-inch LCD. Endless layout settings, colour options and drive modes are all customisable, fun to play with and sing to the praises of Ford – it knows its Mustang heritage and audience and with stuff like this plays to its strengths perfectly. I could spend almost as much time tweaking its displays as I could breaking French motoring laws. Almost.
More important than all these upgrades that have undoubtedly improved the Mustang, from the tech to the engine to the handling, is the fact that crucially Ford hasn’t forgotten what the galloping equine badge represents. It’s not a Porsche Boxster or a BMW M3 – and Ford doesn’t want it to be because neither do the Mustang’s fans. It’s loud, uncouth, brash and proud of it.
And as the light was fading and the murderous bark of that V8 bounced endlessly off cliff faces around us, I was enjoying that brashness when once again my co-pilot’s language turned bluer than the azure seas in the distance. I turned once again to apologise for my aggressive driving with a ‘blame it on the Mustang’ shrug. “It’s not that,” he replied. “I’ve just seen where we’re staying tonight – and it’s called Tourrettes, which seems about right after the day I’ve had.”
Well played, Ford. Well played.
For more information, see ford.co.uk