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2020 Ford Mustang Test Drive Review
America’s original pony car will soon be the only car Ford Motor Company sells in the United States, yet the iconic Mustang is more relevant than ever in a world gone crazy for SUVs, and it serves as a building block for the automaker’s future.
Ford is in the midst of a revolutionary transformation away from cars, toward trucks and SUVs, and away from internal combustion engines and toward electrification. The 2020 Ford Mustang burns gasoline and rubber at the precipice, on the eve of its own conversion from an individual model to a performance sub-brand as the automaker prepares to roll out the electric Mustang Mach-E SUV. While Ford looks to the future of the Mustang, we take a nostalgic look back at the design and performance that helps the nameplate to endure, perfectly encapsulated in the Mustang Bullitt special edition.
Look and Feel
Steve McQueen was a car guy. A Hollywood actor known for his sense of style and cool, he was cast as the lead in “Bullitt,” a 1968 movie about detective Frank Bullitt, who drove a Ford Mustang GT fastback painted Dark Highland Green. The final cut of the film contained a chase scene nearly 10 minutes long, starring that ’68 Mustang in which McQueen performed some of his own driving stunts. Set on the hilly streets of San Francisco, the chase not only set new cinematic standards but also cemented the Mustang as a car to be lusted for.
Shortly after the whole Y2K freak-out fizzled to nothing, Ford captured the nostalgia for that ’68 Mustang GT in the first Bullitt special edition, rolled out for the 2001 model year. Another one arrived for 2008. And then last year, for 2019, a third Mustang Bullitt special edition debuted.
Like the original movie car and the previous special editions, the current Mustang Bullitt is painted Dark Highland Green, but you can also get one in Shadow Black if you prefer. Mostly devoid of ornamentation, the 2020 Ford Mustang Bullitt looks clean and classic, from its subtle chrome accents to its retro Torque Thrust-style 19-inch aluminum wheels with a machined-finish lip. A simulated gas tank cap on the back says “Bullitt.”
Inside, a serialized plaque is parked on the dual-cowl dashboard in front of the passenger. Green stitching in the leather upholstery is unique to the Bullitt, as is the white cue-ball shifter knob. You might also want to set the car’s MyColor ambient lighting to green, just to underscore the overall theme.
The resulting look and stance are exactly right, and if any paint hue could make this color popular, it’s this iteration of Dark Highland Green. The Mustang Bullitt isn’t cheap, though. The base MSRP is $47,705. As tested with the Electronics Package, Recaro seats, and MagneRide adaptive damping suspension, the total came to $54,290 (including a destination charge of $1,195 and a gas-guzzler tax of $1,000). That cost certainly does make some of the Mustang’s cheap plastic interior pieces hard to accept.
But considering that one of the only two original movie cars just sold for a cool $3.74 million at auction earlier in 2020, a brand-new Mustang Bullitt seems like a bona fide bargain.
When it comes to performance, the 2020 Ford Mustang lineup runs the gamut from a rental-car special EcoBoost Fastback or Convertible with a 310-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine to the Shelby GT500 with a supercharged 5.2-liter V8 good for 760 horsepower.
In between, you’ll find the popular Mustang GT, which offers a 460-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, and the track-star Shelby GT350 and GT350R, supplying 526 horsepower from a 5.2-liter V8. In terms of the gearbox, manual transmissions, automatic transmissions, and dual-clutch transmissions (DCT) are available, depending on the model.
The Mustang Bullitt is based on a Mustang GT with Premium and Performance option packages, and you’ll also get 20 extra horsepower and a four-mode active exhaust system tuned to sound just like McQueen’s ’68 Mustang. And yes, if you’re a driving enthusiast who has watched that chase scene time and time again, you’ll instantly recognize and revel in the sound.
The added horsepower comes courtesy of an intake manifold and 87-mm throttle bodies from a Shelby GT350, an Open Air Induction system, and a revised powertrain control module. The result is 480 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm, when you’re running the car on 93-octane fuel.
Most shoppers don't buy a Mustang for fuel economy. The four-cylinder EcoBoost Mustang delivers 21 mpg city, 31 highway, 25 combined. On the other end, the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 returns 12/18/14, and the Mustang Bullitt sits in the middle at 14/23/17.
While most Mustangs are available with a 10-speed automatic, a six-speed manual transmission is the only way to get the power to the pavement in the Bullitt, so you’d better know how to row your own gears. Downshift rev-matching makes for a smoother drive, but you can turn it off if you prefer to demonstrate your own heel-and-toe mastery.
Highlights from the GT Performance Package include structural bracing, improved engine cooling, a Torsen limited-slip rear differential, modified steering and suspension tuning, Brembo brakes from the Shelby GT350, and more leeway before the antilock brakes and stability control kick in to save your butt. Staggered-width 19-inch wheels wear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S performance tires for maximum grip.
The end result is an American muscle car that hints at the refinement found in luxury performance coupes but retains a distinctly raw edge. Between the raucous thrust of the 5.0-liter V8 engine, the notchy shift action and long clutch travel, and depending on the driving mode and equipment, the light steering and compliant suspension, it’s easy for you to channel Detective Frank Bullitt as he drove at the limit on the streets of San Francisco.
At the same time, though, depending on how you’ve got the various drive modes calibrated, this Mustang exhibits the calm, cool, and collected persona exemplified by Steve McQueen. The car’s understated custom appearance and the active exhaust system’s Quiet mode can mask the track-ready componentry that forms the car’s basis, and the MagneRide adaptive dampers provide the compliance you need for daily driving as well as the stiffness you need for track work.
In describing his approach to foreign policy, Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” That’s the 2020 Ford Mustang Bullitt in a nutshell.
Form and Function
Like its competitor, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Mustang is about style and performance, not form and function. For example, the rear seat is uninhabitable by anyone taller than five feet, there is precious little storage space inside, and shiny trim on some of the switchgear makes it almost impossible to decipher some of the controls. If you want a muscle car with a little more everyday space, consider the Dodge Challenger, which has a larger back seat.
However, the silver lining is that a Mustang Fastback is perfectly comfortable for two adults and offers a trunk with 13.5 cubic-feet of cargo space that accommodates enough luggage for a week-long road trip. From this perspective, you actually do get both form and function.
Black leather seats are standard in the Mustang Bullitt, featuring six-way power adjustment for both the driver and passenger as well as heating and ventilation. A heated steering wheel is also standard in this car.
Recaro performance sport seats with racing harness pass-throughs are an option. Choose them, and you get much better bolstering when you’re exploring the car’s maximum handling limits. But you also lose power adjustment, heating, and ventilation.
Before you upgrade to the Recaros, consider how you plan to drive this car. With that said, the Recaros proved perfectly agreeable during a 3-hour drive. But most people will want to stick with the standard seats.
On a related comfort note, you might wish to get into the habit of starting the car off in second gear when driving in the city or in traffic. I found it to be easier and smoother than using first gear, but your results may vary.
Where the Ford Mustang shines brightest on the technology front pertains to, you guessed it, performance.
You can calibrate the steering effort level. You can choose between four different active exhaust modes. You can select from multiple driving modes ranging from Snow/Slippery to Track. You can activate both Line Lock for maximum rubber burning and Launch Control for maximum acceleration. You can monitor acceleration, braking, and lap-time performance using Track Apps. All that’s missing here is a video recording system, but that’s what a GoPro is for.
Many of these functions are accessed through the sophisticated 12-inch digital instrumentation cluster. The only other piece of technology worth noting is the car’s Sync 3 infotainment system.
Not long ago, Sync 3 was among the better infotainment technologies, but its age is starting to show. From the recessed 8-inch touchscreen display to lagging response to input, it’s falling back from the pack. Nevertheless, it offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the voice recognition system works well, the user interface is fundamentally sound, and the available 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen premium sound system rocks.
Plus, Ford supplies separate stereo and dual-zone automatic climate controls, which limits interaction with the display.
Purists who bemoan the encroachment of driving assistance and collision avoidance systems will love the Ford Mustang Bullitt. Not only are the antilock braking, traction control, and stability control systems recalibrated as a part of the standard GT Performance Package, but there is also a distinct lack of semi-autonomous safety features in this car.
You do get a reversing camera, which is nice even though the Mustang is remarkably easy to see out of. A standard MyKey technology allows you to program certain requirements and limitations to a specific key fob in order to encourage safer driving. There is an opt-in 911 Assist function that springs to action following a collision as long as your smartphone is paired to the Bluetooth and has a signal. And as part of the optional Electronics Package, you can install a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning, both useful features.
Otherwise, you are on your own when it comes to keeping this car’s shiny side up.
If an accident does happen, the Mustang gets good crash-test ratings, for the most part. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives it the top rating of Good in most crashworthiness tests, with an Acceptable rating for driver protection in a small overlap frontal-impact collision.
In testing performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Mustang gets five stars in every test, including for rollover resistance.
Originally, we had scheduled a 2020 Mustang EcoBoost Premium for this review, equipped with the new-for-2020 2.3-liter High Performance Package (HPP). However, Ford needed that vehicle for a track drive, so we couldn’t use it.
If you got that upgrade and nothing else, the EcoBoost HPP would cost $32,860 including destination charges, and it would be prepped for a maximum track attack right off the Flat Rock, Michigan assembly line. That is an undeniable bargain.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the also-new-for-2020, 760-horsepower Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 that we reviewed earlier this year. That car costs considerably more at $74,095, but it also offers considerably more performance. And while paying that kind of money for a Mustang might seem silly, consider that the entry point for a 425-horsepower BMW M4 with a Competition Package is $74,895.
The 480-horsepower Bullitt settles halfway between the two Mustangs in terms of price and performance. When Ford offered the Bullitt as a substitute for the EcoBoost HPP, we readily accepted the offer to drive this special Mustang, a car that would no doubt earn the approval of Steve McQueen himself.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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