by Gabe Beita Kiser
This was going to be a review of a special edition Beetle Convertible Coast but the day before the drop-top bug was supposed to be delivered to our driveway, Volkswagen informed us that it was taking it out of the press fleet, probably in preparation for the model’s appointment with the Grim Reaper. It seems nowadays that no sedan, coupe, or convertible can stop looking over its shoulder out of fear that its parent company might kill it off. And even though Ford can hardly take the moral high ground after announcing that it will stop building the Taurus, Fusion, and Fiesta to focus that energy on SUVs, it knows there’s one coupe that won’t give up its lease on life without a good fight.
Standing in for the Beetle, it arrived to us on a sunny day that would have remained peaceful if it weren’t for two cylinder banks with “5.0” badges on them violently rocking back and forth underneath a long hood.
The Mustang GT is one of those cars that rarely needs an introduction. If you’re a kid with an auto addiction, pull out your phone and snap accordingly. If you’re at Cars and Coffee and have a healthy respect for your life, run and take cover. No matter how you cut it, the recipe has always been the same. Eight cylinders in V-formation, healthy and corruptible amounts of power going to condemned rear wheels, and a cockpit that manages to feel like a war room despite being loaded with all the tech and engineering know-how available to those of us living almost two decades into the new millennia.
We’ve had a few dates with the refreshed Mustang GT before this, twice with a manual transmission—one of those times featuring a shift knob straight from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt—and one encounter with a soft-top automatic, but each version has provided a standalone adventure. The automatic GT coupe, however, was a machine that we had yet to experience.
And what an experience it delivers when the throttle is open and its quad exhaust blazing like a machine gun. Despite the scorn “real” enthusiasts give anyone driving an automatic, there aren’t many tame spots one can pick out in the ‘Stang’s muscle car creed. Starting with the basics, our Kona Blue 2018 GT Coupe came loaded with the Premium Package and a 5.0-liter naturally-aspirated V8 that boasts an ear-shattering 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque.
While an automatic transmission with ten speeds might sound like overkill, this gearbox is the same one that’s earned its stripes in the F-150 Raptor and also sits in the new 2019 Ford Ranger.
Press the red starter button and that Coyote V8 fills the air with a familiar dominance-asserting roar, the same one that sounds like someone threw a bucket of bolts into a coffee grinder. Thankfully the driving experience is as unhinged as you’d hope for in a car that sounds this evil.
Ford takes advantage of the fact we’ve become accustomed to driving refined modern automobiles and hits the “undo” button on various parts of the Mustang to add personality. For example, one has to push hard on the brakes before shifting into Drive or Reverse because the chassis has a tendency to buck like a rodeo bull when leaving Park. It’s unclear if engineers programmed the gearbox that way to add effect, but that jolt is a hint that the Mustang GT leaves the factory purposely untamed, without its rough edges filed-down.
As we sit at the tail end of a decade that saw Apple sell face-scanning iPhones and the notion that doctors' will soon have precarious job security become more feasible due to artificial intelligence, it’s nice to know that good unclean fun can still be had in a machine that never apologizes for its rude behavior. That’s not to say that the automatic GT is for Luddites, though.
As part of its 2018 refresh, our GT Premium came loaded with a 12-inch display that stands in for the gauge cluster and boasts high levels of customizability. Using that viewport and steering wheel-mounted buttons or the metal drive mode selector switches at the base of the center stack, one can access a plethora of performance options to alter the GT’s behavior and ensure that the naughty among us can remain so without a set of bars standing between ourselves and freedom.
Not only does that gauge cluster add a digital face to this analogue car, but it can rearrange itself according to drive mode, allowing drivers to do everything from creating custom colors for the tachometer to altering the loudness of the adjustable exhaust system upon start up. And though Sport or Track mode unleash a guttural roar that turns heads with even the slightest of throttle inputs, it’s clear the Mustang is a rough machine that’s adapted to a distracted world.
Engineers followed the rest of the industry by putting increasing amounts of responsibility into the hands of the Mustang’s 25+ computers. With the ten-speed taking care of shifting, the adaptive cruise control system sorting out a safe following distance, and the lane-keep assist helping the two-door calm its habit of darting upon slight steering inputs, it’s possible to comb up and down highways with a single hand on the wheel and not be put on suicide watch. That might not sound like fun to a large portion of the GT’s target audience, but there’s something to be gained with the automatic. Yes, even for those of us who prefer three pedals to show we’ve earned our stripes.
You learn that pretty quickly during a romantic weekend getaway to visit the wineries that survived Northern California’s past fire season. Sonoma County may be famous for its fermented grapes, but it also boasts a collection of winding roads with sharp drops and abrupt corners that connect tipsy tourists with the rest of Wine Country.
The realization doesn’t strike on the highway to the Sonoma with steering assist enabling you to play with the fairly fantastic SYNC 3 infotainment system, or even when coming to a red light with the ten-speed downshifting and slamming occupants forward as it fires off third and loads first gear into the chamber.
It happens when you’re threading that long blue nose through vineyard-flanked hairpins, trying to push a BRZ that got excited by the GT badges and forgot that there’s a point where power does matter in a sports car, out of the rear-view mirror while your significant other holds your hand and tries to whisper sweet nothings over a yelling engine.
You learn there that the automatic is the Mustang for lovers, for busy workers who need a free hand to engage Apple CarPlay during the commute and can’t be bothered to shift for themselves, and for those who don’t know how to drive stick in the first place but still want a taste of the action.
Ford loves to boast about how the Mustang overtook the Porsche 911 as the world’s most popular sports car once that independent rear axle helped it go global. It’s an appealing thought because Ford was also the automaker that put America on the road with the Model T. In a way, the Mustang is the Tin Lizzie of our day—weaving itself into the technological fabric of present times with a couple of screens and a handful drive modes but putting the thrills of a brash American muscle car into the hands of the general population.
It can even combine those two sides using the 10-speed, as Drag Mode exemplifies when it calls upon each ratio to keep the 5.0-liter in an optimal RPM range and cause zero interruption in power delivery, allowing the Mustang to achieve a 0-60 mph time of 3.9-seconds.
But there is one big wrench to throw into the idea of our blue ‘Stang as a sports car for the people: the fact that it costs $46,970. We could have done without the $4,000 GT Premium option, but the 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system and heated and cooled leather seats are nice even if they do little to spruce up an interior that’s littered in Ford's signature cheap-feeling plastics.
That marvelous but unruly 10-speed also ups the price, by $1,595 in this case, but the futuristic 12-inch gauge cluster can’t be had without the $2,200 401A equipment package that brings a heated steering wheel, body-colored accent stitching, and the touchscreen navigation system with it. Top it off with a $395 security package, shiny 19-inch wheels for $1,095, two $895 gut punches for the active exhaust system and a Shaker Pro audio system, and the $1,495 Safe and Smart package that’s responsible for all the driver aids and you’ve got one pricey but highly enticing Mustang on your hands.
Yes, that’s still a lot cheaper than the Porsche 911 that the Mustang has supposedly replaced, but the difference between the two cars—aside from the obvious—is in the underlying philosophies that come baked into their respective chassis. These philosophical differences can be described by pointing out one disparity: while the worldwide car community had to beg and plead Porsche into putting the manual back in the 911 GT3, there’s a feeling that we need to justify even driving the automatic Mustang in the first place. While Stuttgart focuses on lap times to uphold the exclusivity of its badge, Ford keeps giving the Mustang refreshes (and a new transmission in this case) to make the sports car of the people both naughtier and more accessible.