Today's Mustang completely recalibrates our expectations for muscle cars and pony cars, in terms of straight-line and cornering performance.
Last year, the Mustang adopted a new range of engines that brought the famed "5.0" designation back to the lineup--and for the first time, brought a 31-mpg Mustang into the fold. For 2012, those versions are carryovers--a good thing--and there's a new Boss 302 model that's almost strictly for racing, but worth a mention for Mustang collections.
The base Mustang sports a 3.7-liter V-6 that's related to the powertrains in many current Lincoln vehicles. Rated at 305 horsepower, it's no longer a glaring weak link in the powertrain lineup. Good throttle response is programmed in, and there's plentiful low-end torque. Variable valve timing also flattens out the powerband, giving the V-6 a steady power flow throughout its range. The downside can come with the six-speed automatic: though it will provide gas-mileage ratings of up to 31 mpg highway, the transmission isn't happy about shifting more quickly, and doesn't let drivers have direct control over gear choices. We'd stop short of calling this model a fuel-economy special, because it performs to the levels of the V-8 Mustangs of just a decade ago--but we'd opt for a manual gearbox if we were given the choice.
Step into a Mustang GT, and the 5.0-liter V-8 barks a triumphant return. It's rated at 412 horsepower, and its real-world thrust can feel as powerful as Ford's own Shelby GT500, in some instances. The engine's happy as it twists out maximum torque as low as 1500 rpm, but blasts out a signature engine note and runs up to a lofty 7000-rpm redline. Power builds constantly--there's no plateauing, no peakiness. So much torque is available down low, it takes some care to roll on the throttle out of a deep corner. It's a Mustang that begs to be driven hard, and feels easily capable of 0-60 mph times well below 5.0 seconds--and some magazines have clocked it in the low 4-second range. It's a straight-line exotic.
The Mustang does much better in corners now, too. The rear suspension was massaged in 2011, and the steady progress made since the Mustang's big 2005 redo is still paying dividends. The current car takes a set in corners much more easily, and deals much more swiftly with choppy pavement and uneven surfaces, even though it's still a live-axle design. There's not as much difference from V-6 to V-8 models as in the past, and performance packages don't shave away nearly as much of the decent ride compliance as they would have on the inferior, pre-2005 'Stangs. Given our choice, we'd opt for the coupe, since the convertibles we've sampled haven't had the structural stiffness to match the suspension's upconverted talents.
One major change for this year, which we haven't sampled yet, is a new three-mode electric steering setup. We've been impressed with the Mustang's single-set electric steering since we drove the 2011 range; the new system offers comfort, normal and sport modes for varied quickness and heft.
Two very special Mustang editions are priced outside the usual realm, so we're steering you to our performance-car site for more on them. Turn to MotorAuthority for our coverage of the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 and the latest Ford Shelby GT500.