First Drive: 2011 Ford Mustang V-6

March 28, 2010
Starting at less than $23,000, the new 2011 Ford Mustang V-6 is, surprisingly, one of the best bang-for-the-buck performance coupes.

We're surprised here, because the Mustang V-6 has never been a very pulse-raising drive, rather the option for those who want the look but don't care much about the performance. Baby Boomers far and wide are going to first think “secretary’s car” with respect to a base-model Mustang. To others, it's known as one of the cruiser-convertible standbys at rental-car outlets.

But especially with the standard six-speed manual gearbox the 2011 Ford Mustang V-6 is truly satisfying to drive—and exciting. When you nail the accelerator, there's enough thrust to really pin you back in your seat in any of the lower gears, and the rear wheels really want to break loose in first or second gear.

The Mustang V-6's 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque are cause to rejoice. That's an astonishing 95 hp more than last year's V-6 (and 40 lb-ft more). Yet the new engine gets considerably better fuel economy to boot—19 mpg city, 31 highway with the six-speed automatic transmission, 19/29 with the six-speed manual.

In a weeklong drive of the 2010 Ford Mustang V-6 last summer, this editor found the well-past-its-prime SOHC Cologne V-6 (the same engine that's in the Explorer and Ranger) to be the weak link in the base Mustang package. The old engine was adequately torquey provided you were very leisurely cruising around, but as soon as you put your right foot into it the V-6 didn’t feel particularly strong, smooth, or refined.

Horsepower up 95...and up to 31 mpg highway

While its 305 hp is an astonishing 95 hp higher than last year's engine, the Mustang's peak torque is only 40 lb-ft higher than before—achieved at 4250 rpm rather than 3500 rpm—but it feels stronger than that. The new engine feels like it has a fatter torque curve, and stick it out in any gear and it builds to a frenzy as it nears its 7,000-rpm redline—in a way that would have been unheard of in the past for a six-cylinder pony car. And in real-world driving, the engine seems quite efficient; in some very spirited driving on two-lane canyon roads with a manual transmission, we averaged a very respectable 23 mpg according to the trip computer.

Just last year Ford introduced a set of major improvements on the Mustang and extensively redesigned its exterior, giving it a more aggressive look while at the same time making the exterior proportions a little tidier and leaner. Even though it kept the old solid-axle rear setup, the Mustang's suspension was also extensively redone and we noted that it took a plant more easily into corners, and dealt much better with choppy pavement and mixed surfaces.

The new look and the improvements are carried over mostly untouched for 2011, but a number of new features alter—for the better, as we experienced—the way in which the Mustang responds and feels to the driver. The first of those is the incorporation of Ford’s EPAS electric power steering system

Electric power steering, stronger brakes

In the Mustang, EPAS doesn’t have that uneasy, twitchy feeling on center that so many units do. You can track straight ahead in a relaxed way without making small adjustments all the time, and the system even corrects for the crown of the road or crosswinds. Ford adds that damper tuning and spring rates were again revised for the new setup, while new rear lower control arms and stiffer stabilizer bar bushings help cornering stability. And notably, brakes have been upgraded on V-6 Mustangs.

There are a few packaging and equipment issues though. There's no telescopic steering-wheel adjustment, Sync, surprisingly, still isn’t available at all on base-model Mustangs. The voice-activated navigation feature isn’t optional on the base model either. And we find pedal placement on automatic-transmission models odd, with the brake pedal several inches higher than the gas.

Though the Mustang Convertible remains nice, casual fun in V-6 form for those who want to take in the summer breeze, enthusiasts who are looking at the V-6 should definitely opt for the Coupe. Although we didn't note any pronounced cowl shake in the Convertible (the feeling that seat and windshield are shaking at different rates), we noted a difference in the way the Coupe and Convertible handled, especially over jiggly surfaces, and a nearly identical center-console creak over some of the roughest surfaces, present in both convertibles we drove.

Stick with the stick, unless you're cruising

Those who enjoy driving fast on curvy roads will also want to steer away from the automatic transmission. In the automatic model in top gear, the tach is well below 2,000 rpm, additionally, the transmission is programmed to lug up to the highest possible gear a few moments after you ease off the gas at any speed. That can create a little bit of hesitation as you reaccelerate from a sharp right turn, but again the plentiful torque saves the day. That's okay, but what really bugged us is that there's no way of downshifting to a particular gear; in what sounded like a cost concession after talking to a few Ford officials, the Mustang has no paddle shifters and no manumatic shift gate.

Instead, the selector for this six-speed reads "PRND321"—which left us wondering what happens when you're in one of the upper gears and want a downshift. A Ford powertrain official explained that going from D to 3 will command a downshift to one gear lower than what you're currently in, but throttle input can have a role as well. Otherwise, the transmission includes a "grade assist" hill mode that helps hold lower gears longer and downshifts more readily for accelerator and brake inputs, but we would have rather had a way of manual selecting the gears.

The point this leads to is something that couldn't have been said before: that the V-6 now makes sense as an exciting enthusiast package on a budget.

A new performance bargain benchmark?

Ford was so confident in this that at a launch event attended by it made available a Camaro LT V-6 and let us compare it with the Mustang on an autocross course. The Camaro’s turn-in felt squishier overall, with more excess body motion than the Mustang, with the most significant difference felt in quick transitions.

In all fairness, the Mustangs Ford brought to that had the new V-6 Performance Package, which adds the 3.31 performance axle ratio, Pirelli summer performance tires on unique 19-inch wheels, plus Mustang GT suspension and braking upgrades. The whole package will be available beginning late summer.

The new Mustang V-6 is very satisfying to drive in every way but one: sound. Though it's clear Ford has labored to give it a good exhaust note when revved (from the outside especially), it still sounds like a typical V-6 when you're inside the car, with more airy intake sounds than you might expect.

Sound aside, this reviewer would be hard-pressed to tell you outright which would be faster: the new V-6 or a V-8-powered GT of about a decade ago. The throttle response, the plentiful low-end torque, it’s all there. And thanks to Ford's TI-VCT variable valve timing, the V-6 builds steam all the way through its range in a way the old V-8 didn't.

Speaking of V-8s, you'll also want to read our First Drive of the 2011 Ford Mustang GT to hear about what an extra 107 horsepower can do.

Especially when you size up the fuel economy figures, and consider that both of the Coupes we drove bottom-lined in the $30k vicinity or less, the Mustang V-6 quite simply exceeds expectations.

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