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For 2015, the Mustang finally drives like the sports car you always thought it was

Non-enthusiast drivers have long referred to the Ford Mustang, along with its pony car brethren from Chrysler and General Motors, as a “sports car.”

Purists quickly point to the attributes of sports cars, cars that resemble a Mazda Miata or Jaguar F-Type, that they see lacking in the Mustang.

Regardless of the hair-splitting, the Mustang, save for the rare specialty model like the Cobra R and Boss 302, never drove like a sports car. Over the years and the model changes, handling – the calling card of all true sports cars – sharpened from wallowing embarrassment to brutal effectiveness without ever approaching lithe precision.

Thanks to the car’s first independent rear suspension (other than the handful of Cobra Rs that carried the feature), the Mustang now finally enjoys authentic sports-car-grade agility. Purists will have to move on to other disqualifying factors, because now the Mustang handles curves like a two-seat roadster, even while providing the ability to carry another couple in the back seat, at least for a quick trip to dinner.

Know-how

The 2015 Mustang’s impressive handling qualities can be attributed to one big step: the ditching of the Stone Age solid rear axle. Granted, in Boss 302 form, the Mustang achieved incredible feats while boasting a rear suspension better suited to a pickup truck.

Thanks to the car’s first independent rear suspension, the Mustang now finally enjoys authentic sports-car-grade agility.

Within a few hard-driving corners of California’s Angels Crest Highway, however, the 2015 Mustang’s superiority is plain. The car turns in crisply, the rear takes a set at a slight angle, and the ‘Stang locks onto its line like a Selectrix slot car.

The car shrugs off the effects of bumps and pavement imperfections, holding tenaciously to the driver’s intended line.

With the rear suspension no longer spoiling the party, it turned out that the rest of the chassis needed to up its game, reported chief engineer Dave Pericak. That meant stiffening the unibody by 28 percent compared to the outgoing car. A sub-frame now reinforces the front suspension’s attachment and the MacPherson struts now feature a pair of ball joints for freer motion.

Muscle

The 5.0-liter V8 and 3.5-liter V6 engines are largely carried over from the last-gen. Though, the 5.0 enjoys some tweaks that bring power to 435 horsepower. Both manual and automatic transmissions employ six ratios and work splendidly.

The manual’s shifter offers light, short throws with silky clutch action. The shifter itself it offset, closer to the driver, with cup holders pushed to the passenger side to clear room for the driver’s elbow.

Ford’s automatic transmission calibration prowess has improved dramatically since it introduced six-speeds, and now the car performs rev-matched downshifts when braking into corners.

2015 Ford Mustang lineup 2

The big under-hood news is the arrival of the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. This powerplant will remind Mustang enthusiasts with good memories of the 2.3-liter turbos that powered Fox-body cars from 1979’s Cobra to the SVO Mustang of 1986.

While that old engine peaked at 200 hp in 1986, today’s turbo motor is rated at 310 hp, and it delivers that power with only the faintest hint of turbo lag. Low-rpm torque is prodigious and the engine pulls smoothly at ridiculously low speeds, willingly chugging up hills at 1500 rpm.

More importantly, that torque comes in smoothly when the throttle is applied mid-corner, contributing to a hydraulically smooth feeling of acceleration out of turns. It is the opposite of high-rpm histrionics we’ve come to expect of sporting four-cylinders (yes, we’re looking at you Honda Civic Si).

Tech

The new Mustang isn’t just old internal combustion tech though; there’s plenty of Silicon Valley inside, too.

The car shrugs off the effects of bumps and pavement imperfections, holding tenaciously to the driver’s intended line.

Consider the Mode selector that lets drivers choose among Normal, Sport, Sport Plus, Track, and Snow settings. The computer juggles settings for throttle response, stability control, power steering assist and – for automatic transmissions – shift programming. Track mode also switches off the Mustang’s traction control, making it easier to slide the car and spin the tires.

The steering is individually selectable with settings for light, medium, and heavy assistance, and there is a switch to turn off the traction control separately.

The genius of Ford’s programming in these different settings is that while differences between the settings are clearly discernable, none of them goes so far that it makes the car unpleasant to drive in normal conditions.

So while the ride is firmer in Track mode, it isn’t punishing. The ride is more compliant in Normal mode, but the Mustang will still carve corners handily. It just feels like its edge is a touch duller than when in the sportier modes.

Stopping

For trips to the dragstrip, Ford offers a line lock device for the GT that lets drivers lock the front brakes, so they can spin the rear tires to warm them before a dragstrip run.

In recognition that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Ford has fitted the Mustang with brake hardware that is up to the task of reigning in the Mustang’s abundant ponies.

Brake packages top out with the Brembo six-piston front calipers squeezing 380-mm rotors. This system sheds speed charging into corners that makes the Mustang feel 500 pounds lighter, another contributor to the car’s feat of successfully impersonating a sports car.

Out with the old

The sole remaining issue is that of styling. Ford aimed to bring its retro muscle machine out of the past with a contemporary reinterpretation of its heritage, an effort that was lauded as successful by Mustang enthusiasts we encountered.

The sleeker standard-equipment HID headlights and LED taillights lend a contemporary air to familiar lines, in a way that echoes Mustang’s one-year experimentation with smaller-diameter quad headlights in 1969.

Close-up, the 2015 Mustang’s body recalls the stripped-clean appearance of custom hot-rods; so devoid is it of any aerodynamic protrusions. It almost looks like a Mustang that’s was dipped in plastic before it was pushed into the wind tunnel to let the air sculpt its final lines.

That is the kind of form-follows-function that is going to cause even more casual drivers to mistake the Mustang for a sports car. And if they drive it, they’ll be sure it is one.

Highs

  • Racy looks
  • Precise styling
  • Abundant power
  • Unexpected efficiency

Lows

  • Cramped backseat
  • Thirsty V8