2018 Ford Mustang first drive review: getting serious

Ever since Chevrolet relaunched the Camaro, it’s effectively been poking Ford, almost trying to provoke its oldest rival with cars like the SS 1LE, Z/28, and ZL1. And Ford has spent the past several years politely asking Chevy to stop with a short string of competitors in the Boss 302, GT500, and most recently the GT350.

The 2018 Ford Mustang is what happens when the polite requests turn into a right hook.

Adopting some of the most successful elements from the high-performance Shelby GT350, the facelifted Mustang stares down its rival from downtown Detroit on the most even playing field in years.

More gears, more power

Traditional facelifts usually consist of new headlights, new taillights, a freshened set of technology, and not much else. The 2018 Mustang has all of that, but a whole lot more. Ford's engineers started—as is so often the case with muscle cars—under the hood.

2018 Ford Mustang

2018 Ford Mustang

A new 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-4 in the Mustang EcoBoost benefits from lessons learned with the Focus RS, retaining last year's 310-horsepower rating while increasing torque from 320 to 350 pound-feet. The inline-4 feels more urgent and willing to work, which is usually the effect of dosing a car with 30 more torques. The 2018's power delivery is so much more aggressive and the engine so willing to rev that it’s easy to forget that this is the base Mustang's mill.

Blame part of that character on the new 10-speed automatic transmission, jointly developed between Ford and General Motors. The EcoBoost is the best match for this transmission. On a twisting, dynamic road and set to Sport+ with the Sport transmission setting, the 10-speed is a peach, holding gears to nearly the redline while rifling off quick upshifts and smooth downshifts. It's so good and so quick (and there are so many gears) that the paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel feel like vestigial growths. Around town, the 10-speed is just at home with the EcoBoost, engaging quickly enough off the line and invisibly changing gears to keep the rpms low.

But the transmission falls to pieces when faced with more power. My first outing in the 2018 Mustang was behind the wheel of a GT with the 10-speed automatic and aside from a pre-dawn sprint to Point Dume Beach on day two of the program, I never touched it again. The 10-speed auto is recalcitrant in the V-8-powered Mustang GT, constantly unsure of which gear is right for the occasion. With 10 to choose from, at one point I saw the gear indicator go from seven to five to three after going from steady-state cruising to half throttle—what followed was an unnecessary and annoying surge from under the hood as the transmission suddenly called most of the Mustang's 460 hp to action. Manual mode didn't solve the problem, either. Unless I was caning the 5.0-liter V-8, the 10-speed just wasn’t willing to cooperate.

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