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2016 Ford Mustang Test Drive Review
Some new packages and the Sync 3 infotainment system debut just in time for the Mustang’s 51st birthday.
After a golden anniversary, it can be hard to figure out how to celebrate the following year. But after 2015 saw the Mustang commemorating 50 years in production, Ford decided 2016 wouldn’t just be a carryover. Instead, it has brought back some old favorites and new surprises to help keep everyone’s favorite pony car fresh. That means hood-mounted turn signals that first appeared in ‘67, new Black Accent and California Special packages, and the GT Performance package finally available for the convertible.
Look and Feel
Usually there’s not much new to be said about the Mustang. In the last 50 years it stuck close to the original formula, but now the Mustang has finally let go of the live rear axle and upgraded its engine. Still, Ford wouldn’t dare venture very far from the Mustang recipe for success it landed lo those many years ago—variety, performance, and affordability. These days, that’s more true than it ever has been.
With a long hood, short trunk, and 2+2 seating, the Mustang is both larger and smaller than you’d expect. A tight interior—especially in convertible form—belies an exterior that seems slightly ponderous on the road. But then you push it through a corner and realize that it’s completely capable of handling its 3,800-pound curb weight with grace.
Available in 5 trim levels, the Mustang’s “base” engine is actually the venerable V6 that made such a splash a few years back after boasting 300+ hp and 30+ mpg. Those numbers have dropped slightly, but it’s still an impressive package putting up numbers that would have shamed V8 Mustangs until very recently. Plus, it comes packed with features normally relegated to higher trim levels. Seventeen-inch alloys, automatic xenon headlights and LED taillights, keyless entry and ignition, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and the MyKey parental control system are all standard.
If you want to try out turbo Mustang power, the EcoBoost trim will get you power front seats, unique 18-inch alloys, a rear spoiler, and LED fog lights. A Performance Package here is a great option, with shorter gearing, sport suspension and upgraded brakes, upgraded radiator, sport steering, additional gauges and trim, a smooth trunklid, and unique 19-inch wheels wrapped in summer tires. That’s tempting. You can also add cloth Recaros here, if you want to really push the limits.
The EcoBoost Premium is where Sync 3 makes its debut in the Mustang, but there are other high-profile features as well. There are aesthetic additions like ambient lighting, unique trim, leather upholstery, and what Ford calls “horse lasers” (yes, I’m serious) that project little Mustang emblems on the ground next to the car at night. But the EcoBoost Premium isn’t lacking in functional upgrades as well, with heated rear-view mirrors, a rear diffuser, multiple drive-mode options, heated and ventilated seats, and dual-zone automatic climate controls, as well as an upgraded, 9-speaker Sync 3 infotainment system with 8-inch touchscreen.
But let’s be honest. If you want a Mustang, you probably want a V8. Yes, the V6 is an impressive engine, but the EcoBoost with the turbo four is lighter, and that means it handles even better. But a Mustang is all about V8 power, and the Coyote V8 is an engine you simply must experience. However, if you go to the V8, you’re going to lose the premium options that were added to the EcoBoost Premium, trading them for the bigger engine, bigger brakes, and electric line-lock and launch control if you choose the 3-pedal version. There’s a Performance Package here as well, adding Brembo brakes and a Torsen limited-slip diff, but you’ll have to move up to the GT Premium to get all that Premium goodness back.
For my week with the Mustang, I was lucky enough to be given a convertible fitted with the new California Special package—an option that first appeared in 1968. This takes a GT Premium (MSRP $36,395), fastback or convertible, and adds cosmetic upgrades like unique 19-inch wheels, a larger front splitter and rear spoiler, special black accents along the sills as well as CS badging on the glovebox, fake filler cap, and strut brace. There’s more inside with special trim and door inserts as well as unique leather and microsuede upholstery with contrast stitching. With the upgraded Shaker stereo ($1,795), the CS Package ($1,995), and the voice-activated navigation system ($795), this brought the total MSRP with a $900 destination and delivery fee to $47,380.
Long gone are the skip-happy days of the Mustang’s live rear axle, and 2016’s Mustang is just as capable around a corner as it is in a straight line. Now you’re met with a nimble, agile pony that dances from apex to apex with confidence-inspiring capability. An electrically boosted power steering system is direct and precise but ends up being a bit numb—one of the few drawbacks in the handling department. Yes, the Mustang feels a bit heavy. It’s just under 3,500 pounds in EcoBoost trim and just over 3,800 in convertible guise, but it handles its weight with poise, even if you’re still aware it’s there.
Regardless of the Mustang you choose, you’re getting over 300 hp, and that means you’re going to hit 60 mph in anywhere between 6.5 seconds for the V6 to a little over 4.5 seconds for a V8. With the EcoBoost, expect to do it in under 6 seconds, although that engine isn’t as smooth or acoustically rewarding as either the V6 or the V8.
With the new quad-cam V8, peak horsepower and torque are separated by 2,200rpm, a 500-rpm improvement over the old engine, and that means you’ve got a lot of extra power to work with, proving that good engine design isn’t just about putting up the biggest numbers.
That said, the numbers are still impressive. The V6 offers 300 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque while still returning 17 mpg city/28 highway/21 combined with the 6-speed manual. Go with the 6-speed automatic, and you’ll gain 2 city mpg for a combined rating of 22 mpg. The EcoBoost’s 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine will get you a nice power upgrade at 310 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque with an even better showing at the pump—22/31/26 with the manual or 21/32/25 with the automatic.
With the V8, you’re truly trading power for efficiency, although not as much as you’d think. Its 435 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque still offer a comparatively impressive 15/25/19, although I had trouble achieving those numbers thanks to a happy right foot. My average for the week was just over 16 mpg, with some individual trips returning average numbers in the single digits.
Form and Function
If you’re looking for a pony car, it’s hard to do better than the original. It’s got the look, the feel, and the function to deliver the total package. Things have gotten a bit pricey and portly of late, but the Mustang flavor is still there. Want a roomy back seat and a lot of trunk space? Look somewhere else. This car is all about having fun.
More than that, it’s about accessible fun. The steering is precise and direct, the clutch is light and provides easy engagement, and the manual transmission is a pleasure to operate. Believe it or not, this seems like a really good car to teach someone to drive stick. Anyone can jump in a Mustang and feel like they know what they’re doing. Even when you start getting onto broken pavement and those familiar rear-end jitters make themselves known, recovery is still easy.
The interior has improved with this sixth generation, but there’s still a lot of plastic and poor fitment to deal with. That seems to be a Mustang curse, but things do look better in recent years. Seats are very comfortable, and even the dual buckets in the rear are a pretty nice place to spend some miles if you can manage to get back there. Particularly enjoyable is the power roof in the convertible, which raises and drops in about 8 seconds. There were several improvements to this top last year—extra insulation, an extra support bow, and a new electro-mechanical motor to replace the hydraulic assembly—and that means the convertible is smoother, quieter, and quicker. And with the extra support bow, it actually allows the top to stow much more compactly, sitting nearly 7 inches lower than the previous version, which is a big visibility upgrade.
Trunk storage space is less than generous in the coupe at 13.5 cubic feet, although that's still better than a lot of sports cars. The convertible does worse at 11.4, but that’s still an impressive showing given what it has to work with. Turning radius isn’t the best, but at 18.5 feet it’s still good enough for government work.
The little nods to history are really what make the Mustang work. From the sequential rear turn signals to the retro-inspired dash, it’s peppered with what Ford calls “heritage cues.” This year, turn signals are integrated into the hood scoops, although the driver can’t see the right example and anyone shorter than 6 feet won’t be able to see the left one, either. But it's the California Special that's king of the heritage cues this year, offering aesthetic enhancements that recall that historic package and really set the Mustang apart with subtle changes.
Technology has never been the Mustang’s strong suit. It was carbureted until 1986 and still rode the same suspension design used by a horse and buggy until last year. But the Mustang’s been making strides of late, easing its way into the 21st century like a Nissan Versa merges onto the highway—slowly.
This year it’s the inclusion of Ford’s new infotainment system, Sync 3. While the previous MyFord Touch system was designed by Microsoft, it was always buggy, slow, and prone to crashing. These are adjectives we don’t like in the car business. Sync 3 has been produced by Blackberry, and functionally it’s a big upgrade. It’s much quicker and doesn’t crash, but overall it looks almost unfinished. There seems to be very little design that went into the system, with a boring palette of colors and architectural elements that seem reminiscent of Windows 3.1, for those of you who can remember the '90s. Looking deeper, there are little gripes that support this idea—spacing issues on the fonts that lead me to believe this was a bit of a rush job. It certainly works better, but the looks hold it, and the Mustang, back.
The optional Shaker stereo does a great job of providing clear sound, even with the top down, and the extra insulation means that the convertible is nearly as quiet as the coupe when you’re riding with the top in place. Multiple driving modes mean you don’t have to worry if you’re caught in the rain, and the launch control and electric line-lock provide some technological help in getting the best 0-to-60 times. The upgraded infotainment system's larger screen is a nice improvement, and the Track Apps program is a fun inclusion, allowing you to track 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times, launch times, G forces, and braking distances.
If you think you need to sacrifice safety for speed, you couldn’t be more wrong. Standard antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and a full suite of airbags contribute to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 5-star safety rating for the Mustang, as well as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s top rating of Good. If you go with a Premium Mustang, you can also add adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot monitoring system with cross-traffic alert, and a forward-collision warning system. All Mustangs can add optional front and rear parking sensors to prevent you clipping that splitter.
Despite its girth, the Mustang can stop from 60 mph in just 108 feet, which is impressive even for the segment, while the EcoBoost Mustang with the sport tires and lighter curb weight should do even better.
Let’s be honest, no one needs a Mustang. But if you’re going to buy a sports car, the Mustang remains one of the best deals on the market. Yes, you can spend nearly $50,000 on a Mustang, but if all you want is a V8 with an independent rear suspension, you can drive away with just that for around $35,000, and an EcoBoost for less than $28,000. If a V6 will satisfy your itch, you’re looking at about the same. These prices are all quite similar to rivals, whether you’re going with the Camaro, the Challenger, or even the 2 Series.
Mustangs haven’t exactly been holding their value of late, so you can expect your pony’s price to degrade significantly after you drive off the lot—especially if you modify it in any way. There are some small cash incentives currently offered through Ford, but it’s the financing that’s the real news right now, with very attractive APRs through the summer, some as low as 0% depending on the length of the term. For once, the summer seems a good time to buy a convertible sports car.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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