We went to drive the new Ford Mustang—but a tornado messed things up
In April, Ford dropped a bombshell on us, announcing that it's going to cull almost its entire car lineup from the US market to concentrate on SUVs and crossovers. Not the Mustang, though. The Blue Oval's sedans might not be selling well, but that's not the case for its sports car, which has topped the sales charts for the coupe market for the third year in a row. On Wednesday, Ford invited us up to Monticello Motor Club in New York to try out the latest flavor of pony car, the Mustang Performance Pack 2. Think of it as the ultimate all-'round Mustang—a better daily driver than the hardcore Shelby GT350 but with almost all of that car's ability on track.
Long-time readers will know that I rarely pass up an opportunity to visit a racetrack. That goes double if there's some seat time involved—triple if someone else is paying for fuel and tires. Which is why I didn't mind too much about the need to catch a 3:10am train from DC up to Manhattan, necessary to be there in time for the shuttle leaving for the track. (Being frugal with my travel budget, I wanted to avoid a night in a hotel.)
Had everything gone to plan, the article you'd be about to read would be full of impressions from a day stress-testing this new Mustang. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. Just like last time.
Whats this Performance Pack 2 stuff?
Let's say you're looking for a Mustang that can handle the odd track day better than the regular $35,190 5.0L V8 GT, but you don't want to go all-out with the GT350 version. You could go to town with aftermarket suppliers, buying new suspension components, uprated tires, and so on. Now, there's an easier way—simply spec your Mustang GT from the factory with the $6,500 Performance Pack 2.
That cash gets you the following: bigger 15-inch Brembo front brakes with 6-piston calipers and track-tuned ABS; 305-ratio Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires all round, fitted to unique 19-inch wheels; MagnaRide magnetorheological dampers with track-tuned software calibration, plus stiffer springs and thicker front and rear anti-roll bars; a revised Track mode for the steering and stability control; a new front splitter and rear spoiler; and a 3.73-ratio limited-slip differential. Oh, and a six-speed manual transmission—you can't spec a PP2 Mustang GT with the 10-speed auto.
Visually, the changes are subtle, for there are no extra badges like the Shelby. The easiest ways to know if a 'stang has these add-ons are 1) that new front splitter, which Ford says adds 60lbs (27.2kg) of front downforce; 2) the rear spoiler; and 3) the dark metallic wheels. Or, if you look a little closer, those Cup 2 tires, which feature barely any tread pattern to aid on-track ability. (They're borrowed from the Shelby, which uses the exact same size for its front tires, although that car has slightly wider rears.) But the 2018 Mustang fastback was already a fine-looking car.
I bet it handles pretty good, eh?
Last time Ford invited us to drive a Mustang on track, epic rain at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut turned up and spoiled things; as a result, we got a mere three laps on track before it was decided things were too wet to safely continue.
They say history never repeats itself, and that's true—this time we managed four laps. The evening before, the East Coast was battered by a derecho, and the area around Monticello, New York, was unfortunate enough to be visited by a tornado. Trees were downed, as were power lines. Many roads were impassable. While conditions were improved on Wednesday, gray skies were here to stay.
The plan was as follows: get four laps in early (with an instructor sitting alongside to remind me of the track layout) in Sport+ mode, then spend the rest of the day getting to know the Performance Pack 2-equipped GTs in all-out Track mode. But the rain showed up just as the last of the assembled journalists completed their initial runs, waterlogging the track again. Had the problem just been the rain, plan B would have been to spend the rest of the day testing the cars on the roads around Monticello instead. Sure, we'd have to leave them out of Track mode and wouldn't really learn much about how the cars behave at the limit. But that's better than nothing.
Sadly, even plan B wasn't going to work. Of the three drive routes Ford had mapped out for us, two were off-limits. The county was under a state of emergency, and trees were blocking roads all over the place. On the one route that was still passable, the roads were covered in debris—not the sort of surface that's conducive to anything other than being very slow and cautious.
I got a glimpse and liked what I saw
Looking back at my GT350 experience, I wrote that the two things that stood out were the brakes and the dampers. Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to delve into either of those aspects of the PP2 GT. On track in Sport+ mode, it found more grip than I was expecting on a drying track—even on the painted curbs, which the instructor exhorted me to use. Each drive mode recalibrates how the MagnaRide dampers adapt to the car in motion, sampling data from wheel speed sensors, pitch, roll, yaw, and a list of other sensors all via the CANbus at 1,000Hz. In response, the system will firm up how each one compresses under load, responding in between 2-10 milliseconds to keep the car planted.
Rather, the standout to me this time was how good the steering was: direct, with plenty of feel of the road surface beneath you, and far more grip on the street or track than I'd have imagined possible given the conditions. No, I never got close to hearing a tire squeal during cornering, but out on the roads I also don't remember feeling the traction control intervene. For a 460hp (343kW) rear-wheel-drive car fitted with Cup 2 tires, that seems a little remarkable. I'm also a fan of the Mustang's new 12-inch digital instrument display. It's not quite as flashy as Audi's Virtual Cockpit—no full-screen moving Google Earth display here—but the giant tachometer in Track mode looks awesome.
Annoyances? Other than the weather, I wasn't enthusiastic about the two analog gauges mounted to the dashboard between the air vents on the center stack—they looked a little cheap, and if I get to have permanent physical gauges of those sort, I'd prefer at least one of them to show me oil temperature. (Instead, you can see that on the digital display.) And the clutch caught me out once or twice—perhaps the bite point was set too low?
That's the sort of thing that you get used to after a few hours in a car, but on this occasion we didn't have the chance. By midday, it was clear the conditions weren't going to improve; the track refused to dry, and with so many repair crews out on the roads trying to restore power and some normality to the local residents, the prudent thing was to head back to Manhattan and catch an earlier train home.
Oh well, worse things happen at sea.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin