Driving Impressions

By November 28, 2011

If it sounds a bit gushy, it's objective fact nonetheless: The 2012 Ford Mustang is the best it's ever been. The Mustang remains the model for pony car sport and power, yet it's also enormously livable. It's smoother, quieter and more solidly built then ever, with few obvious drawbacks as daily transportation. It's comfortable for two, surprisingly economical to operate and, in most climates, suitable year-round.

The new-for-2012 Mustang Boss 302 is a modern take on the late-1960s original, which happens to be one the great road-racing cars ever to come from Detroit. All 2012 Mustangs have a new programmable steering feature, which changes the amount of effort required (and feedback) from comfort to normal to sport with a button. And all Mustangs merit those best-ever superlatives, whether we're talking about the base V6 model or any of the three racier V8s.

Once a glorified rental car, the standard Mustang V6 is nearly as much fun to drive as the upgrade Mustang GT. It's powered by a lightweight, dual-overhead cam 3.7-liter V6 that makes 305 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm (almost as much as the previous-generation V8). Yet with all six-speed transmissions and efficiencies throughout, the Mustang V6 delivers up to 31 mpg highway, according to the EPA. Indeed, it was the first 300-hp production car to crack the 30 mpg barrier. A V6 Performance Package option adds the GT's sportier suspension tuning and stickier tires.

We peg the V6 Mustang's 0-60 mph time around 6.0 seconds, which makes it pretty fast. The new engine sounds great, too, emitting a muscular American growl. Both the standard six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic work well with this car. The automatic's gears are spaced a little tighter than those in Mustang's primary competitor, the Chevy Camaro, and the result is more willing response in lower gears at low speeds. Basically, the Mustang V6 delivers power when you want it.

The manual shifts easily, too, but the gear-change doesn't have quite the satisfyingly positive action that enthusiast drivers might like (for that you need to upgrade to the short-throw Boss 302). We also found the V6 clutch a bit hard to modulate in first and second gears, making for some jerky starts. We might actually recommend the automatic.

Over the past two years, the Mustang chassis has been upgraded, tightened and stiffened, delivering a tauter ride, crisper response and less pitch, dive and body roll than any previous base Mustang. And the V6 comes standard with all the driving aids and skid control electronics, including anti-lock brakes, traction control and AdvanceTrac stability control. For track work, both the traction control and the stability control can be turned off (but not the ABS), and there is a Sport mode which allows higher handling limits before traction and yaw control step in to save the day.

The only potential drawback for contemporary daily driving remains the Mustang's solid rear axle, which can create a busy ride on bumpy roads because jolts to the rear axle are transmitted from side to side. An independent rear suspension would deal with bumps better by isolating road imperfections. Ford claims it sticks with the solid rear axle because it's the set-up old-time Mustang aficionados and amateur racers prefer (and there are a lot of them). Either way, the solid axle is not a huge liability, given the Mustangs combination of muscular feel and general easy living.

The upgrade Mustang GT feels even more muscular than the V6, without a measurable decline in the easy living. Its 412-horspower, 5.0-liter V8 transforms the Mustang into a pony car with power to spare. It delivers a big kick in the pants when floored from a stop, easily smoking the tires with the manual or automatic transmission, and makes passing a matter of a twitching your throttle foot. The whole experience is backed by a glorious rumbling soundtrack that is distinctly American.

With this new V8, introduced for 2011, Ford has caught and possibly surpassed the usable power of the Chevrolet Camaro SS. While previous Mustangs just couldn't keep up with GM's 427-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, the 5.0 makes the Mustang just as quick or quicker from 0 to 60 mph and in a quarter mile. And thanks to those efficiencies, the GT still delivers 26 mpg highway.

It's an absolute blast to drive. The car has a fairly light, tossable feel and it responds quickly to driver inputs. It is very willing to attack turns, with the electrically boosted power steering providing a fairly natural feel. The car is extremely quick to transition from left to right and back again with a minimum of body roll, dive or pitch in the suspension. The Brembo Brake Package adds larger brakes. It should be the choice for anyone who wants to take their car to the track or drive regularly on twisty mountain roads.

Yet if track time is the objective, the Boss 302 is probably the ultimate Mustang. While it doesn't accelerate as quickly as the supercharged Shelby GT500, the Boss is still plenty fast, and it handles more lithely during truly aggressive driving. Thanks to some subtle tweaks and an impressive 7500-rpm redline, the 5.0-liter V8 in the Boss ups horsepower to 444. This engine loves to be wound-up and bounced off its rev-limiter, as track cars should, but it delivers impressive torque not matter how fast it's spinning, and that makes it as suitable for the road. It's not too loud inside, either, though you'll definitely hear the roar.

Nor is the Boss 302 excessively stiff in the ride-quality department. That may be the most surprising thing in a car tuned for track days. With its manually adjustable suspension set to the softest level, the Boss is acceptably comfortable on bumpy roads, and the electronic systems manage things nicely if the driver gets a bit too zealous with the gas pedal. Steering might be the weak link in the excellently tuned Boss package. It's weighted properly, toward the heavy side as we like it, but there is a slight numb spot on center, and it's not as precise or communicative as the best. The steering might be the only thing that separates the Boss from a pure sports car.

Bottom line? The Boss 302 is nothing short of a hoot to drive on the street, or a true thrill on the track. Probably 90 percent of potential buyers will be just as happy with Mustang GT, at $10,000 less, but those 10 percent who appreciate the Boss's upgrades are in for a treat. No one should consider the Boss's Laguna Seca option, which makes the car even stiffer and strips more weight, starting with the back seat, unless track driving is the predominant purpose.

A step up from the Boss, the Mustang Shelby GT500 might be called the alpha male in the Mustang lineup. With a 550-hp, 5.4-liter supercharged V8, it's the fastest Mustang of all in straight line, and unlike the Boss 302 it's available as a convertible (though still not with an automatic). Yet the GT500 is as much about show or status as fast driving. Where the 302 is sparsely appointed, the GT500 comes with most of the upgrade features, like premium audio, Ford's Sync communications system and optional navigation.

The Mustang convertible benefits from a list of structural enhancements. These include a tower-to-tower front strut brace, heavier crossmembers, various braces and foam-filling in the windshield pillars. These changes make the soft top more solid than previous Mustang convertibles, and at least on par with some more-expensive competitors. That translates to competent handling and generally shake-free driving. Nonetheless, the stiffer Mustang coupe remains the choice for the ultimate in handling and chassis rigidity.