Test Drive: 2011 Mustang V6

What once was the low man on the totem pole is no more. The Mustang that was often called rental grade is gone. For 2011, Ford has moved the entry level Mustang V6 up about seven notches on the coolness scale. This new 2011 Mustang V6 is so good, we almost feel pity for dealers still trying to sell the 2010 4.0 liter models when the new ones begin to arrive later this spring. They had better be blowing them all out right now.

Glowing statements? Yes. But the new 305hp 3.7 liter DOHC V6 that powers the 2011 Mustang is only part of the story. Yes its power is alluring and its sonorous sounds emotionally engaging. It’s the total package that really brings America’s favorite pony to a full gallop from a leisurely canter.

This week we had the chance to take the 2011 Mustang V6 for a spirited ride into the curves and hills of  Southern California’s coastal motorways as well as push it hard through the orange cones of an auto-cross course. Driving examples equipped with both Ford’s new six-speed automatic and standard six-speed manual gave a well rounded experience that did not disappoint.

To get the big news first, Mustang’s new 3.7 liter V6 with twin independent variable cam timing (TiVCT) has a very sporting growl under hood and an exhaust note that will impress anyone with a Nissan 370Z or BMW 3-Series. Now with standard dual exhaust and two seriously large chrome tips, the look matches the sound. The rear end speaks a serious performance message that no Mustang V6 has ever spoken.

Rowing through the gears with the six-speed manual is very rewarding. The engine revs smoothly and eagerly to its 7000 rpm red-line without the rough punishment you got from the old 4.0 liter V6. It was downright fun, again something you haven’t often heard about a Mustang V6. The six-speed shifter is smooth and precise, missing some of the hang-ups previous versions had.  It feels expensive and works well.

The six-speed automatic was also a joy to drive with quick smooth up-shifts under hard acceleration. By comparison it seemed not to have much of a performance penalty like automatics traditionally do, allowing acceleration virtually identical to the manual equipped Mustang. Furthermore, this new six-speed automatic actually provides better efficiency than the manual having just been certified at 31mpg highway, where the manual was rated at 29 mpg highway.

And since we are talking efficiency, Ford sent the press out on a driving loop to test the 2011 Mustang V6’s efficiency. A prize was given out to the journalist who achieved the highest mpg. We pushed the car hard and fast wanting to see how the automatic performed, admittedly scuttling our chance at winning the contest. After some hard full throttle sprints at stop lights and a high-speed freeway romp during the 15 mile loop we still achieved a 27mpg combined city/highway cycle. Other journalists who made a true effort at hyper-miling achieved 32-33 mpg combined city and highway. That is actually quite astounding.

What takes us beyond just the addition of the all new muscular engine are the many other changes and refinements that raise the bar for the 2011 Mustang V6. For one, a traction-lock rear axle is now standard on the V6. And for the first time, Ford is offering V6 buyers a performance package that allows them to gain the same suspension and braking improvements that make the Mustang GT more fun to drive.

The package includes a 3.31 rear axle ratio for quicker off-the-line acceleration, Mustang GT suspension, and a strut tower brace for increased chassis rigidity. Best of all you get a set of unique 19” wheels and performance rubber that really boost the look and stance of the car. This is a major coup for those considering a Mustang V6 because now you can have a car with the same looks and capabilities previously limited to the top-end Mustang GT. You no will  longer  scream to the world you bought a Mustang of a lesser breed. And it will lay down a mean set of rubber stripes too.

On a closed auto-cross course we had the opportunity to put a Mustang V6 equipped with the performance package to the test. What surprised us was the level of precision offered by the new electronic power assisted steering. It never felt over-boosted, but kept up with frenzied left and rights through the cones. New spring and damper rate refinements make the car feel very nimble and competent in ways that credibly make Mustang more up market in feel.

That statement is underscored by the fact that Ford provided similarly equipped Chevrolet Camaro V6’s for us to compare on the same course back to back. The Camaro’s had the larger 20” wheel and performance suspensions in fairness. By comparison to the new Mustang V6, the Camaro felt sloppy and clumsy in maneuvers. Most surprising was how the Camaro’s independent rear suspension (IRS) bobbed and bumbled over rough sections of the course. The Mustang V6’s live axle by comparison seemed far more composed. So for this round we won’t berate Ford for not having the IRS. We have to admit that they have done well to knock down much of the argument for IRS in this particular comparison.

Improvements for 2011 go beyond the gymkhana however. The final show prep for the 2011 Mustang is the constant infusion of refinements, inclusion of higher quality materials, and the addition of new high tech features. When we arrived at our press drive event Ford had an Audi A5 and a Honda Accord coupe parked along-side the fleet of 2011 Mustangs. They made the point that Camaro was not the only benchmark to which Mustang is compared. The Audi A5 was looked at as an aspirational target for refinement and features. The Honda Accord coupe as a competitor in the marketplace.

This means that Ford has a wide band view of what the Mustang is and should be. Their sights are set beyond the obvious competitors such as the Camaro or Challenger. This shows in the way the new interior looks and feels. It shows in the quality and weight of the leather seating, soft touch dash pad, and the level of technical aesthetics. The 2011 Mustang is quieter on the road with new sound deadening improvements. Structural rigidity is up by over 10% such that even driving a convertible we hardly noticed the difference in stiffness from the coupe.

All of these little improvements make the new 2011 Mustang V6 a rental car no more. They make this Mustang one that one can credibly compare to most of its foreign competition in every category, especially in performance. To be clear, the 2011 Mustang V6 is now a car you can buy not just because it is called Mustang, but because it really runs with the big dogs.

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