Since its launch in 1965, each new Mustang has carried a world of expectation; not just from motoring enthusiasts, but from anyone who's seen one burble past, or been for a ride, or watched Steve McQueen hustle his car around the hilly San Fransisco streets in Bullitt. Even though it's never been a global car, the Mustang is a global icon. Finally though, the rest of the world has a slice of that all-American apple pie, and if our week in a bright red GT Fastback is anything to go by, Ford has managed to instill the latest pony with the same magic that's seen it remain a blue-collar hero for over 50 years.
At the heart of the quintessential Mustang experience is a big, burbling V8 motor, and the 5.0-liter Coyote under the GT's hood doesn't disappoint. With 325 kW (435 hp), and a chunky 542 Nm (400 lb.ft) of torque on tap, the V8 still dominates any Mustang drive. Thumb the start button and it explodes into life with a quick spike of revs before settling into a lazy, offbeat idle – but that doesn't mean there's not a few tricks up its sleeve.
Thanks to a new cylinder head featuring revised, straighter intake ports, Ford says the engine is more willing to chase the redline than the V8s from Mustang's past. It seems to have worked, too, because putting your foot down in any of the bottom three gears sends the rev needle sweeping smoothly and quickly all the way to its 7,000 rpm cutout.
Our only complaint has nothing to do with the engine's cylinder head, or the clever intake manifold designed to smooth the traditionally lumpy V8 idle, or even with the GT's terrifying thirst for premium unleaded. It's the noise. From the outside it sounds properly mean, all growly and grumbly like you've woken it from hibernation, and poking the throttle in neutral is enough to make you weak at the knees. But with the windows up in the cabin the whole experience is a bit too muted for our liking, almost as if the motor is a bit self conscious. Mind you, if we drank 19 l/100km (12 mpg) of BP's finest sitting in traffic, I suppose we'd be a bit sheepish too.
Ford, please let the motor really clear its throat: we love the American stereotype because it's loud, brash and willing to tell you what it really thinks. The opposite end of the scale is polite, neat and British, and god knows we don't want that. There's already a crop of aftermarket options available, but it would be nice if the factory really let that brilliant motor sing.
Still, if the noise isn't enough to stop you in your tracks, Ford's drop-dead gorgeous styling certainly will. Having flown under the radar in the garish Renault Megane R.S, and barely earned a sideways glance in a Tesla Model S capable of scaring McLaren's legendary F1, we were concerned fast cars simply don't excite the public anymore. Boy, did "Pony 26" prove us wrong.
From the second it arrived at the office, it turned heads like nothing else short of ultra-expensive Italian exotica because no matter where you to look, no matter the light or time of day, there's not a surface on the Mustang that isn't doing a job. The slim front grille is a direct throwback to the original Mustang, as are the triple-slit taillights and Coke-bottle hips, but somehow the design also manages to look thoroughly modern, with a glasshouse that flows into the car's bootlid spoiler so cohesively it could make an Aston Martin blush.
Every set of traffic lights is an exercise is crowd pleasing: some people want a thumbs up, although others are harder to please. To the group of teenagers crammed into a Hyundai Getz who were denied a big, loud rev by the police car sitting behind them, we're sorry. Sometimes you can't make everyone happy.
The crowd of onlookers would be impressed if they could see inside, too, because the interior strikes a neat balance between retro and modern. With a twin-cowl design that evokes the original Mustang's interior and makes it easy for Ford to convert the car from left to right-hand-drive, there's enough retro going on to keep traditionalists happy, but enough technology from the SYNC 2 touchscreen and electronic trip computer to appease millennials.
Beyond the city limits Mustang owners are going to want to open the stable door and let their pony run free, and if that means long-haul cruising they're not going to be disappointed. In our neck of the woods there's not much room to stretch your 'Stang beyond the top of second gear, because pushing the top of third is a surefire way to earn a date with some handcuffs and a bailiff. But load it up with luggage and good company, set the cruise control to 80 mph along a deserted US Interstate with Bruce Springsteen blasting through the Shaker stereo – that's an idea we can get behind.
Carving Californian canyons is a different prospect. Measuring up at 1916 mm (75.43 in) wide, the 'Stang is comfortably wider than a Land Rover Defender and a Hummer H3, and boy do you feel it on tight, twisty roads. When the tarmac gets properly narrow, keeping it between the white lines is all about crossing your fingers, thinking skinny thoughts and hoping there's not a truck barrelling around the next corner.
At launch, Ford made a big deal of the Mustang's fully independent rear suspension, which replaced the live rear axle made famous on particularly unsophisticated horse-and-carts. Compared to its predecessor, the new GT's fully independent suspension has been tuned to provide twice as much anti-squat, anti-lift and anti-dive on each axle for better body control under heavy throttle or brake inputs.
What's more, the system has been built using aluminum rear knuckles to remove unsprung weight. There's even a clever non-isolated front subframe to increase stiffness and do away with traditional crossmembers.
So, has it changed the character of the quintessential muscle car forever? Not quite, although it has undoubtedly improved. We were impressed by the new 'Stang's composed handling at launch, but having pushed the car on some different roads, we found its body control a bit lacking. Driving at 60 or 70 percent won't cause you any problems, but pushing beyond that to indulge your inner Schumacher can leave the car feeling floaty and loose on bumpy surfaces.
Instead of trying to drive the doors off it, we found the best way to bring the Mustang to heel was always have its hefty 1,739 kg (3,834 lb) curb weight in the back of your mind. Rather than treating it like a hot hatch or small sports coupe, you've got to get the big Ford turned in and let it settle on its outside tires. Once it's in and balanced, you can make the most of the car's locking rear differential and get on the throttle to tweak your line.
This was easy to do in the stick shift we drove earlier in the year, but slightly more difficult in the automatic we drove this time around. Whereas the stick let you get in the right gear early and balance the car of the throttle, the auto was prone to shifting mid corner, throwing the balance out and making for some uncomfortable situations. The solution? Get busy with the paddles behind the wheel, or stick to open sweeping roads, where the big pony feels right at home.
It is worth keeping in mind, however, this isn't meant to be an out-and-out sportscar, because Ford already has its Focus RS and Fiesta ST to keep the purists happy. This is a big, lumpy dinosaur designed to put a smile on your face, and it delivers on that promise perfectly.
Its appeal is universal, its magnetism almost unmatched in the world of performance cars, and for US$32,395 (or AUD$62,200), you're hard pressed to find anything to match its performance, let alone the badge credibility that little horse on the bonnet brings. Perhaps that's why Ford has just committed to sending another 2000 Mustangs to Australia, having found itself with order wait lists stretching out beyond 12 months.
If I had the money and space to park it, I wouldn't hesitate to drop those dollars on the new Mustang. It's the sort of motoring experience your kids will talk about when we're all whizzing around in homogenised Google pods.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more