Ford's 2009 Mustang took top ratings in the sports car segment
Unfortunately, once you get past the fun, there’s not a whole lot left to enjoy. Like that Austrian girl you met one summer about a decade ago, the Mustang sure is pretty, but it lacks substance. Those are the perfect credentials for a summer fling, but when signing on for a 36, 48 or 60-month haul, you want something more than infatuation - you want love. The Mustang is, ultimately, hard to love.
But it really, really is fun. And this anachronistic dichotomy of spirit, at once a permanent and lasting edifice of the American automotive landscape and a sophomore crush, is what defines the Mustang. It is a dream made real, and like all fantasies, they are better kept in the mind than in the bedroom, or the garage, as the case may be.
So what does all of this have to do with 300 horses pounding their metallic hooves through eight cylinders of gasoline-scented fury? What relevance does it have to a pair of 9-inch-wide streaks of smoking, stinking rubber and asphalt? How does it relate to the shove in the back or the whooping yell in the throat that are the two primary sensations of driving the Mustang?
Really, it doesn’t relate at all. And that’s the point. The Mustang is a car founded on passion, on the emotive qualities of personal transport - from its humble roots as a stylish, go-fast car that the young could afford to its legendary status as a drag-strip king and main-drag cruiser, the Mustang is a car you buy with your heart. Sure, it’s practical enough for the daily grind - it has a back seat and a trunk and everything. But it’s not the choice your left brain would make.
Styling and Exterior
The classic lines of the Mustang are a make-or-break proposition for many people. You either love it or hate it. If you were brought up anywhere near the Midwest or the South, you probably already have a familial relationship with the Ford brand or its main rivals stretching back several generations, though, so the looks are a given.
To the rest of the world, the Mustang’s styling seems dangerously ignorant of the decade, let alone the year. It is a remarkably good mimicry of most of the best examples of the Mustang since its 1964 debut, but it is entirely derivative. Originality is tossed out the window and replaced with a double helping of tradition.
But if you know anything about the Mustang by now, you know that’s perfectly fine - that tradition, and how it makes you feel, is part of why people continue to buy it.
That said, there’s nothing here that will surprise anyone that’s at all cognizant of the last forty years of automotive design. It’s a middle-of-the-road look, sure to appeal to muscle car fans, but not quite sleek, svelte or modern enough to catch the eye of most sports car buyers. Fortunately, there’s a lot of truth in advertising here, so those sports car buyers won’t be lamenting the car’s looks for long.
Under the hood of the Mustang GT there’s a 4.6L V8 good for 300hp and 320lb-ft of torque, and under the skin is a chassis designed to handle that torque in a productive manner. The dual exhaust system helps maximize the car’s power but also yields a satisfying burble at low speeds and a thrilling V8 howl at wide open throttle. It’s also not too hard on the fuel if you keep your foot out of it, averaging about 17.6mpg around town and 24mpg on the highway. Romp on the loud pedal though, and you’ll be bordering on single digits in short order.
Its archaic solid rear axle and three-link suspension with panhard rod setup are literally holdovers from decades past. The McPherson strut front end isn’t the most advanced available, but in comparison to the rear end it’s space-age. These two combine for some surprisingly good handling characteristics, but more on that later.
The big V8 yields an EPA estimate of 15mpg in the city and 23mpg on the highway for cars equipped, like ours, with the five-speed manual transmission. Automatics lose 1mpg on the highway, but are otherwise on par with the manual versions. In the standard V6-powered Mustang the five-speed manual is a T5 unit, but in the GT models it’s upgraded to a Tremec TR3650.
Notchy, chunky and stiff are the best descriptors for this gearbox. It grunts from gear to gear when asked, but requires more force and more focus than it should.
On the Road
Coupled with a nice smooth road and a disabled traction control system, the Mustang GT offers a surprisingly agile ride. There’s body roll, and a good bit of rear-end skitter on rough or choppy pavement, and ultimately quite a lot of understeer at the limit because of the nose-heavy weight distribution. But taken altogether, these characteristics join in an alchemical mix to form a car that’s fairly balanced just below the limit.
All of this is more inspite of than because of its mechanical underpinnings, which should relegate it to the back benches of the performance-car ranks. Nevertheless, the Mustang proceeds as if totally unaware of this fact.
Straight-line acceleration is a blast, literally, and our quick-and-dirty testing on the street with the aid of a MaxQData TraQr device - itself up to some much more painstaking methodology, but also nice for a quick test in town - revealed real-world results of low-to-mid-6 second 0-60 times, and quarter-mile runs in the 14.5 second range around 95mph. Those are impressive results given the car’s roughly 3,500lb curb weight - not including a 230lb driver, street tires and the real-world test conditions. The panoramic glass roof on our example adds a good deal of weight at the highest possible point on the car - anathema to performance and handling - but the Mustang shrugs it off, glad to shoulder the burden.
Take the car into the tight and twisties, though, and you’ll quickly see this is, in fact, a muscle car. Not that it has any shortage of mechanical grip or any woefully frightening or dangerous handling characteristics - its’ at-the-limit understeer is probably the safest tuning choice. Before the limit, however, the car is quite balanced, with the rear and the front alternately losing traction in brief, gentle and totally controllable micro-slides.
Launch out of a grocery store parking lot into quick-moving traffic, however, and the archaic rear suspension arrangement will make itself known as the rear slides and shimmies around a bit searching for traction over the joints, seams and lips of the driveway-to-street transition. It’s nothing uncontrollable, but for the easily startled or those with no desire to get even moderately sideways, it’s probably best to leave traction control on.
Equipment and Features
The Mustang GT with Premium package is something of a study in contrasts. The vintage-looking leather seats are attractive, and the orange-tan shade accents the car’s Alloy clearcoat metallic paintjob and black interior. The retro-themed instrument cluster is handsome on its own, but the steering wheel is a study in ergonomic and styling don’ts and the rest of the cockpit appears to be hodge-podged from the corporate bin.
Exceedingly cheap is the best way to describe some of the materials, such as the hard and shiny plastic door panels, the carpets, and almost all of the switch gear. The ubiquitous Ford/Lincoln/Mercury door lock/unlock switch is present, and oddly looks more at home here than in any other application I’ve seen yet.
The Shaker stereo is adequate, but the bass-heavy balance tends to produce more vibration and distortion than quality sound, and its interface for the Sirius satellite radio system is somewhere between difficult and unusable.
But now for the piece de resistance of the 2009 Mustang GT interior options list: the glass roof. This is a really nice feature, and offers many of the benefits of a convertible without nearly as much inconvenience, hassle or reduced performance and security as the cloth top brings. The photos don’t do it justice: this is the one must-have option for the model year.
Underneath the silvered glass top, there’s a shade that can be drawn to reduce the sun’s strength further. It isn’t opaque, however - it’s a dense netting. On hot, sunny days, the glass-top model will offer plenty of opportunity to test its automotive egg-cooking skills. The leather seats found in our model seemed particularly adept at soaking up this heat and transmitting it to the occupants, but it’s a small price to pay for the really brilliant nearly-open-top setup.
So which half of my Cartesian self has won this round of automotive experimentation? Am I trapped in my head, knowing the car is technologically and mechanically deficient? Or am I feeling the chemical cocktail of lust and vigor induced by the classic lines and squealing tires?
Oddly enough, the most honest answer is: both, but in the end, I couldn’t justify this as my primary car. As a second or third car, once I’d acquired a practical daily driver and a true corner-carving sports car, this car would have a place as an inexpensive V8 thrill. On the other hand, there are many cars out there that engender nearly as much or more nostalgia, emotion and passion - even if their lineages aren’t so long - in a person of my Generation X heritage, yet which do not suffer from the obvious and serious shortcomings of the Mustang. And in the end, I’d probably choose one of those for the $34,260 sticker price. But I’ll still smile whenever I see one, or when I hear its visceral call.