I am often puzzled as to how and why American cars stand out as something to avoid in most car buying conversations had, heard, or overheard on the west coast. I am also puzzled by the irony factor associated with being seen driving an American car on the west coast. Among the hairy, doughy, dumpy and sticky-looking hipster set, an aging and somewhat dilapidated mid-seventies American car is the ultimate statement of slackness and possible indifference to consumerism, the latter speculation being grudgingly approved of by this writer. Digressions aside, pulling back the lens of scrutiny to macro examine the American car genre with regards to market trends or maybe market desires might be deemed appropriate to better understand this phenomenon.
Lets take my wife for example: Sam is a Manhattan transplant from 20 years back. She maintains enough of her New York sensibilities to retain and appreciate a love for American muscle cars; that’s how we hit it off on our first date, with a discussion about fast cars. Anyways, she owns and drives a BMW. Not an M, not a V8, not even a coupe. She owns a regular old, plain-jane and pedestrian (by LA standards) 528i. By BMW and car guy standards, this is an everyday car. But what BMW doesn’t let on, and maybe that is the point, is that even the base model is a competent road going car, with adequate power, brakes, and most important, exemplary dynamics (it corners safely). The car inspires confidence, even if it can’t go 150 mph. The 528i is not marketed as a performance sedan, yet that is exactly what it is. This car is marketed and sold to people who mostly could care less about any of the aforementioned things.
Back to Sam: her BMW was involved in a prang (with another BMW actually, that’s how prevalent these cars are in LA) and required repairs that would take longer than a day. The insurance policy allowed for a rental car to use while repairs are being performed, so Sam, seeing an opportunity to perhaps try out something she wouldn’t ordinarily consider for purchase sat down, did her research, and picked a Ford Mustang as the car she wanted to rent. Her decision carried a precedent: she really liked the look and feel of the 2013 Boss 302 she saw at the Los Angeles Auto Show last February. That car had stripes, leather, Recaro seats, a manual gearbox, big engine, big tires, big brakes, an allegedly track tested suspension, and other things I forget. So let’s consider the Boss 302 as Ford’s equivalent to the BMW M3.
Before delving further into the story, let’s compare and consider the two cars in their own right:
As I mentioned before, the BMW 528 is a pedestrian car marketed to pedestrian folk. It’s a 4-door sedan designed to move people safely down the highway. Yet it can hold its own in tricky and/or technical road situations with aplomb. It has no concessions to high performance other than its basic design, a design it shares in its fundamental form with the Ford Mustang.
The Mustang on the other hand was, is, and always will be a pony car: a smaller chassis with a bigger, more powerful engine that is presumably fun to drive; at least that’s what the adverts have been telling us for as long as I can remember. This car’s ace in hand is its fun quotient. Moreover, these cars are the darlings of the high performance set. There have been more performance versions of the Mustang offered than any other high performance car ever made, period. Ford invented the genre in 1964 when it rolled out the ’65 Mustang to an unsuspecting public: they literally wrote the book. So, when I think of a Mustang, I think performance. Not just straight-line, dragstrip acceleration, but everything else that should go with it: good brakes, decent handling, style, roadability. From drag racing to road racing, this car has almost 50 years of development behind it: It should be not just good, but great. I would assume that even the base model, now up rated to over 300 horsepower, would be good in its own right even if it isn’t a tire shredding GT or Boss monster. Not quite.
Stepping from the BMW to the Mustang requires an interpretational shift in cognizance from one of finesse to one of industrial practicability. Beyond this, the two cars are presumably going after the same experience, be it tacit for the BMW versus implicit for the Mustang. So where do I start? First lets see what Sam has to say. The first report: “The car is very squirrely on the freeway, it’s all over the place.” Second report: “The car is sluggish and the transmission sucks.” This is hard to accept given the Mustang’s approximately 300 horsepower vs. the BMW’s 230 horses. I suggested putting the car into sport mode. “Yes, that’s better but the car is scary at speeds over 80 mph.” Hmm, 80 mph is an average cruising speed in California with its vast expanses to travel over. “OK, I said, let me try?” Now, let me give you my background experience with Mustangs, post-1979.
I actually owned a Mustang for about a week. It was a 1990 LX 5.0 with a 5 speed. Hard to go wrong with this combination of pedestrian looks combined with the hidden and unadvertised performance of the GT. After purchasing, I did the first thing I always do with any new car; I took it to the hills to try it out. It was a big mistake, and a big letdown. This car represents a great engine looking for a decent chassis. It was absolutely the worst car of its genre I have ever had the misfortune of driving, much less owning. I have driven Ford F-100 trucks that cornered better, seriously. If you look up the definition of bump steer in Webster’s dictionary it refers to any post-1979 Mustang. That anyone would ever use this car as a basis for a Cobra replica is testament to the stupidity and lack of engineering expertise on the part of folks who ostensibly design replicas of high performance cars. After the worst 450-mile drive of my life, I drove the car back to the seller and handed him the keys. I would rather walk away at a loss than bear another mile. I am not kidding about this, it is a true story. It inspired me to rebuild an old 2nd generation Camaro Z28 parts car I had languishing in storage, which turned out to be an awesome car dynamically, thoroughly trouncing the Mustang in every sense of the word with only a decent crate engine and a set of Koni shocks.
My next experience was when a buddy showed up at my door with a borrowed 1996 Mustang Cobra with its DOHC 32 valve V8 engine and, for the first time in a Mustang, independent rear suspension. People may remember this car as the one Ford got sued over for having less than its advertised 305 horsepower. “Drive it and tell me what you think,” he said. As I hit redline in third blasting along Morena Boulevard back when it had two lanes in either direction, I realized why the car is called “Mustang” as it literally galloped down the road, rear tires breaking traction each time the car reached the upper limit of travel on its suspension. “I will stick with my Camaro, thanks.”
Then there was the earlier 4th generation I tried, a customer’s “plain Jane” 1993 GT convertible. Again, no better than the 1990 I had briefly owned. The keys came with a warning that the car had a mind of its own in the rain. The car felt strangely older than it looked, and a bit doddering and not sure footed. Shame really, since I love that 5.0 pushrod V8 as one of my favorite engines of all time. I never got over 35 mph before heading back. If you haven’t already noticed, I really want to love these cars despite their underwhelming first impressions. Consider that from 1965 through 1970 the Mustang could be considered superior to the Camaro in every way save for some of the power-plants, (FE big-blocks come to mind) and general robustness (rust issues,) yet thousands survive today as daily drivers. Dynamically they were superior to the contemporary Camaro, and I would claim even current Mustangs, needing only suspension geometry tweaks to be quite successful in racing, as Carroll Shelby (rest his soul) and countless others have proven. Let’s just forget about the seventies and the Mustang II, ok? But, after the Fox-bodied car appeared in 1979, and the Camaro became a wedge in 1982, the Mustang had it in spades over the Camaro in packaging, simplicity, user-friendly mechanics, and ergonomics. Most importantly, every Mustang ever built including the Mustang II can accommodate my 6 foot 3 inch frame. Not so in every Camaro built from 1982 to present day. Thank you, Ford.
When the 5th generation reared its head, I had high hopes. For one, Ford had finally decided to shitcan the Fox underpinnings. Further, the rear suspension had been completely redesigned to incorporate a modified 3-link design, banishing once and for all time the constantly-in-bind-condition 4-link design used previously. I’m not against a solid axle, so long as it is properly located and has a good arc of travel that won’t put you in a ditch. Visions of Alfa Romeo’s own 3 link used in the Spider danced in my mind as I headed to the auto show, eager to see whether Ford had finally come up with a better idea. My dreams were shattered, however, once I saw the car on the show stand laying on its side, like Édouard Manet’s Olympia, proudly bearing its underpinnings for all to see. There is really only one way to cock up a 3-link design, and Ford had figured out how, and was proud enough of their blunder to brag about it. More bind, little movement, and flawed geometry virtually guaranteed disappointment. For the record, I am waiting for a car company to return to designing a good and safe suspension featuring good geometry though its entire arc of travel with a car designed around it, rather than as Ford has done with the 5th generation Mustang. Ultimately, I voted with my wallet: I bought a new and ultimately misunderstood car instead, a Pontiac GTO, A.K.A. Holden Monaro.
As they say, that was then, and this is now. Currently, my wife has rented a Mustang and she doesn’t understand it. Maybe I will, and then I can explain the ethos in the hopes that she will enjoy it while she has to live with it. “You drive,” she says. As I get comfortable, she asks: “Is there any way to get this car without all the plastic?” as she runs her fingers along the vast swaths of hard plastic combined with vinyl made to look like leather, or as I call it, “pleather.” “You know,” I said, “this is the same car you liked so much at the auto show…” She paused for a second. “Really?” She didn’t believe me. “How could the two cars be so different?” she asked. “Well, maybe they aren’t so different under the skin.” I said as I drove off in sport mode. My first impression was that Ford has managed to engineer out any semblance of high performance sound from the DOHC V6 engine. “Wow, it sounds just like a Ford V6 Tempo I rented once.” I said as I mashed the accelerator to merge with Sunset Blvd traffic. No sonorous howl from the V6, just an abrasive industrial grinding and thrashing noise as I hammered the loud pedal. As I thought to myself how far engineers had come with variable valve timing I wondered how the Mustang could be so sluggish off the line. My thought was interrupted by the realization that I would soon need to stop the car. Previous experiences with these cars told me to expect a wooden-feeling pedal that would softly communicate a desire to the brakes themselves which would, after a pause to consider, eventually slow the car, albeit at their own pace. Never inspiring to say the least, and, usually after more than one consecutive application of the pedal, they would break for lunch, tea, or a cigarette and leave you to your own stopping devices. This was not a surprise since historically, despite having twice the power and 1/3 more weight, the Mustang GT brakes were 2/3 the size of an Alfa Spider, with drums in the rear on some early models as well. This car though, had brakes approximately equal in size to the Alfa, and stopped the car in an authoritive manner. Then, surprisingly, they did it again, and then again. Brakes are much better in the new car. Kudos to Ford, finally. Next was the freeway test on Interstate 10, west of downtown LA. I don’t know how it happened, but the planets aligned and a gap in traffic opened up so I nailed it. Sure enough, as Sam had said, at speeds above 80 mph the front of the car started to bob up and down at speed, through the full range of its travel. Not inspiring, to say the least. Is this the type of behavior to be expected from a 300 horsepower pony car with exactly 1000 miles on it in the year 2012? Really? Sigh.
Next came the inner-city-vehicle-dynamics test. Off the line, the car reared its head again, literally. Nose up, ass down stance each time I accelerate hard, like a well fed older woman in a flowing gown attempting to traverse a room, lifting her skirts and sallying forth. It is a lot of drama with little effect. Next was the aggressive-pace-to-catch-the-yellow-left-turn-light test. The procedure is as follows: Hike up the skirts, sally forth at a trot, anticipating the left turn by compressing the right side suspension with a flick of the wheel while braking in order to tighten the line. Well, the car was having none of that. This is a hoon’s car, with about as much grace as Rosanne Barr at a Presidential inauguration. Ass out, baby. As in slide the ass end of the car around and steer with the throttle. Loads of fun, but not appropriate for downtown Santa Monica by any stretch of the imagination. But it is now becoming clear what this cars ethos is.
But how relevant is the aforementioned ethos when it is to the detriment of everything else? I love fun cars, but surely fun cars can be civilized and well mannered when not being driven in a hoon-like fashion. The next test was the Bullitt test, or, the I’m-late-for-school/work-and-I-know-the-route-well-and-it’s-a-night-class/shift-so-there-is-very-little-traffic test. This test involves simply getting somewhere in a hurry, without bravado, fanfare, or tire smoke. By this time the initial infatuation with the car had worn off, replaced by a wary sense of fear of the unknown, the kind of unknown that lands you in a ditch upside down. With no small amount of trepidation, I set off. Anticipating some high-speed sweepers, I wiggled the steering wheel at speed to determine the cars initial turn-in behavior and what stance it might take once set up for a turn (slip angle). Boy was I glad I did! The first fast sweeper (5 south to 110 east) is a nice left hand curve with a heave in the apex. Impression? It was like driving my Camaro with the rear tires set to about 10 psi. This car has a yaw problem! The tires weren’t sliding, yet the car body shifted noticeably sideways during the turn. As the car took a set, the rear of the car started to sway to the right, then I hit the heave which sent the nose bobbing; the car lost its stance and stumbled like a horse losing its footing. Was this all body motion or was it a tire pressure problem? I stopped at a service station and checked the cars information computer, then the tires themselves with an actual gauge. Tire pressure was fine. So I had a look under the car. Again, engineering issues aside, nothing seemed amiss. I was now completely put off by the dynamics. Feeling defeated, I turned around, and set off towards home. Sam was easily as scared as I was, and then some. This car isn’t fun; it is diabolical. Tempting fate once again, we attempted a high speed run up Highway 2 towards downtown: this is a nice long grade with yumps and few opportunities for law enforcement to hide in wait. We came off the onramp from 5 north and nailed it. I quickly shifted the car into the number 1 lane, knowing the yump over the street below would be smallest there. Hitting it sent the car sailing into a frenzy, rebounding twice, front end bobbing, the rear end weaving. I was done with trying to drive fast. What driver’s hell hath Ford wrought?
The next test was the drive of resignation, or, can-this-car-at-least-be-used-for-a-commute? Sam and I drove from Silver Lake to Costa Mesa, a long freeway slog through L.A.’s southland and deep into Orange County. The ride was notable for how unsettled the car is at highway speeds. The car likes to bob and weave its way down the freeway whenever there is even a hint of irregularity in the driving surface. The suspension never seems to settle down. At this point I am struggling to find something nice to say about the Mustang. I should also mention that I am developing a pain in my lower back from these seats. It seems the lowest part of the cushion in the seat back forms a horizontal log of sorts and aggravates my lower back because it prevents my spine from assuming a comfortable position. The upper portion of the seatback forces my shoulders into an unnatural humpback position, which further aggravates it. If you are taller than 5 feet 8 inches go for the $1595 Recaro seat option if at all possible. I should also add that I began to notice that the automatic transmission was starting to slip excessively shifting into 3rd, 4th, and 5th gear once it got to operating temperature. While we are on the subject of the transmission, I must point out how ill-suited it is for this particular engine. The V6 is a peaky, high revving engine with little torque below 2500 rpm, which makes it ideal for a manual transmission, which I wish this car had. As such, the transmission seems intent on shifting into the highest gear as soon as possible. Putting the transmission in sport mode only prevents the torque converter from locking up and allows shifting between gears “manually” with a toggle switch on the shifter, but don’t bother, since it takes a dogs age for the transmission to change gears in this fashion. Judging from my experience, avoid the automatic if you like to drive in a spirited fashion unless you consider automatic transmissions as a replaceable wear item, like brake pads or engine oil. There is only one company that makes and supplies a decent sport oriented and intuitive fully automatic transmission to the world, and Ford isn’t it.
The last test was almost a foregone conclusion, based on previous experiences, and to be honest, it wasn’t really intentional, but L.A. is L.A., and roads are not perfect here. This was the dip test. This test is where you pass through an intersection where the intersecting street has a high crown, forming a short hill with a depression on either side. A true test of a car’s mettle is how it handles this situation. Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, BMW, and sadly, most older American cars handle this reasonably well, some aren’t even bothered by it, Mercedes and Alfa coming to mind. Oh, and Zoidberg, my crappy orange-red 1977 Toyota pickup truck. Well, if you can imagine a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard, where the General Lee gets some serious air and comes crashing down in a heap, then, well actually it wasn’t that dramatic, but I did manage to get about three feet of air where Zoidberg gets about one foot, and nothing from the Sam’s BMW, or my Z28. Zoidberg notwithstanding, a performance car should have suspension designed to handle imperfections at speed. It isn’t about abusing the car, but rather coming upon an unexpected situation, and being able to drive through or around it without undue drama.
Reflecting on the experience: As sad as it is to witness history repeating itself, Ford has managed to create another great engine that only needs a decent chassis in order to shine. Despite its industrial auditory qualities, the V6 is a cracking good engine for a sports car enthusiast in the low-torque-high-revving tradition. Unfortunately it is saddled with a lumbering, doddering compromise of a chassis designed for a market, if any, that doesn’t exist. The types of vehicle dynamic sins I experienced are almost acceptable in a car with 89 horsepower and an 80 mph top speed, like Zoidberg. But putting a 300 horsepower engine in a chassis this bad is morally criminal in the same way as not putting a shield in front of a gas tank to keep the axle from rupturing it in a rear end collision in order to save production costs is. The V6 Mustang is the entry-level model designed to drive youth sales. Putting a car like this in the hands of the least experienced driving segment is a recipe for trouble. I’m certainly happy that Ford finally decided to put decent brakes into the Mustang that most people buy, yet there is a certain level of responsibility that comes with designing and building for public sale a high performance car even if it is disguised as the economy model. This car makes more power than the GT did 10 years ago. At this point I would say that ALL new Mustangs are high performance cars. There is no room for poor design in a car that can surpass 100 mph with ease. Then there is the automatic transmission: It is understandable that Ford would offer an automatic transmission in all their cars since the vast majority of people prefer their transmission to shift itself. But this engine is ill suited to an automatic in its present state of tune. Even driving at a reasonable pace finds the transmission constantly changing gears to keep the engine in its power range.
Logging onto Ford’s website, I did a quick build-and-price to see what could possibly be done to make the car into something drivable. The car as tested was pretty loaded, a premium model with an automatic transmission and the stripe and spoiler package. As tested the sticker price was $28,485. Apparently there is a V6 performance package that adds braces, sway bars, springs, brakes, wheels and tires, different stability control calibration, and a lower axle ratio for better acceleration, as well as $1995 to the price! Adding in the illuminated doorsills the test vehicle had brings the total to $30,687, not including tax and license fees. Note to Ford: Make the performance package standard and save on liability suits from surviving family members of high school and college students. If I were dead set on buying a V6 Mustang (mandated by court order perhaps) I would spec it thusly: Base model, V6 performance package, manual transmission, and Recaro seats. You still get plenty of features that matter, like AC and power windows, and none of them that don’t, like the pointless My Ford Touch and ambient lighting. The Recaros are expensive, but well worth it if you are tall. So figure $26,585 before tax and license with the Recaros, and $24,990 without. All my fun cars have Recaros fitted; they really are that good….
I also looked at the BMW website to see what is comparable. A base model 128i coupe comes standard with good suspension and can be had with an automatic as a no cost option. The seats are good and the interior is nice. It stickers at $32,095 and comes with free maintenance for 4 years or 50,000 miles. Not too much of a stretch to buy if the Mustang V6 Premium is already in your realm of affordability, and miles different in the driving experience. No comparison I assure you. I will gladly sacrifice 75 horsepower for a balanced and safe automobile, especially if it is a loved one that will be driving it. In the modern times we live in it is almost mandatory to get service done at the dealer due to the complexity of modern cars, and to that end I also prefer the BMW dealership experience to Ford.
So, Ford, why the strict observance against and overt ignorance of progress? What perpetuates this myopic view of how a car should be when everywhere else, companies who did not invent the pony car genre do it so much better these days? Dare I say that even foreign companies do a better interpretation of something Ford invented than Ford itself does? I realize that Ford’s flawed thinking is pretty much comparable to how flawed most 1970’s American cars are. But, this is 2012. Then it occurred to me that there might be an easy answer to this dilemma. Not only will it answer this question but also the question as to why American car companies have taken it in the shorts and continue to in markets where it matters, mainly the coasts and abroad: American car companies are catering to the wrong market.
In every aspect of American car design, research and development for the American market caters to an environment where only 20% of cars are sold. Cadillac is excluded because they use the Nürburgring for chassis development. American cars are made to do well in places like Michigan and Ohio, places like that. Why is this when 80% of all cars sold in the US are sold on the East and West Coasts? We have hills and stuff here in Los Angeles, California. Roads here have curves as well as bumps and dips, and people tend to drive faster than the speed limit for long distances. Why do American car companies throw away 80% of their market? I’m not talking about trucks. I am talking about cars that are designed and built by some of the most knowledgeable folks in the world. It makes no sense.
For proof of this I direct your attention to a phenomenon we experienced while driving the Mustang back to Silver Lake from the west side along Beverly Blvd. We never got much over 35 mph. As we drove with the AC blasting, we noticed a condensation cloud forming at the base of the windscreen. Being the owner of mid seventies GM and Toyota products as well as mid seventies British Leyland products, this is something I am quite familiar with, yet not accustomed to in a new car. As we drove along, we noticed that the condensation was forming outside the windshield, rather than inside. As we drove further, the condensation started to freeze, despite it being an 80-degree day outside. Gradually, the windscreen became more and more clouded, to the point that we had to turn off the AC so that the cloud would melt, allowing the wipers to do their job. I am going to guess that hot air from under the hood is directed towards the base of the screen, exactly where the defrost vent is, creating a situation all beer drinkers are familiar with, where the warm air condenses on the outside of a chilled glass. The scary part is how it freezes up! My point is that when Ford tested the car for these problems, they probably did so somewhere other than here, where I remind that 80% of all new cars are sold. I think I have hinted around my point enough, so I will say it plainly: Stop designing cars for markets that do not matter. Start designing competent cars that work in environments that may be foreign to middle America, that being everywhere else in the world. Your shareholders will thank you, and maybe hipsters will stop seeing American cars with a sense of irony.
I would be remiss if I did not include a techno-history-geek portion, so here it is. The Mustang has always been a compromise of sorts, based on the least expensive platform. In the beginning, this worked because the parent Falcon platform was decent. Gradually though, as Ford’s fortunes fell, and the market changed, design parameters were compromised. Gradually, as platform designs moved towards front wheel drive and away from traditional rear wheel drive, Ford was forced to find a new source platform for the Mustang if it was to avoid a bespoke redesign, which would push development costs through the roof. Strangely, despite having a decent chassis in the pipeline already used in the Lincoln LS, Ford Thunderbird and Jaguar S-type, Ford chose to design its own compromise for the Mustang, using a solid axle. This is not a bad choice, so long as the means of locating said axle is designed properly. Unfortunately this was not the case because Ford wanted to use pre-existing floor pans already in production instead of developing new stampings. The result was a “tacked on” approach, with little regard for proper arc of travel for the rear axle, and then what seems like an awful lot of after-the-fact hocus-pocus to get the suspension to work. Another case of history repeating itself: Recall the Firestone/Ford Explorer fiasco? Perhaps diverting some of the development money spent on My Ford Touch towards chassis design would have been a good move.
Irrespective of finger pointing and blame games, as a practical alternative to a Corvette or Camaro the Mustang is in a clear position to be that car. But like the Camaro and Corvette, the Mustang is caught in a vortex of trying to be everything for a shrinking market that one could even argue its existence, and also trying to be relevant in the market where most cars are sold, but only as an afterthought. Bad suspension geometry, improper spring rates and shock calibration for the coast markets, sluggish and poorly calibrated automatic transmissions, and mediocre fuel consumption (I got an overall average of 14.5 mpg), combined with cheap cabin appointments, crummy seats, pointless options and vague sightlines point to an indifference to relevant markets. Good luck Ford.