2020 Ford Mustang First Drive Review: High-Performance Package Is A Treat

First Drive / 15 Comments

The Ecoboost Mustang gains a serious edge.

Ford has slowly but surely redefined the Mustang as a world-class sports car. It's not just a pony car anymore, and certainly not to be filed away as just a muscle car for driving fast in a straight line. While engine performance has increased, so has the chassis and suspension to the point it can compete with just about anything Europe can throw at it. All you have to do is select the model and packages necessary to do the job.

Now Ford has added a new package for those that want their entry-level Mustang to grip and handle at a level suitable for tricky back roads or for taking part in grassroots motorsport. The 2.3L High-Performance Package is here, and it's squarely aimed at the performance enthusiast and autocross competitor that want more power from their 4-cylinder along with a level of and grip and handling beyond average and straight out of the box. To take things to the next level, Ford also has a new Ecoboost Handling Package that can be added on top to create a full-on weapon of a car.

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The new performance package started life as a skunkworks project in the Ford Performance garage when someone decided that swapping the Ecoboost engine from the Focus RS would be an interesting experiment. Things snowballed from there, and within ten months the small team got approval from the suits and design went to development. Now, the high-revving Ford Performance-tuned 2.3-liter engine built in Valencia has a Mustang variant. That wasn't where the team stopped though, and the 2.3L High-Performance Package has a plethora of extra goodies and its own specific chassis tune.

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Chassis, Engine & Performance: Balanced And Sharp

The Focus RS's 4-cylinder engine is destined to be a classic, but the team behind the 2.3L High-Performance Package had certain specifications in mind. For the Mustang, the engine has a 5 percent larger twin-scroll turbo and a larger radiator to keep the die-cast alloy block and performance cylinder head cool. With 332 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque available, it becomes the most powerful 4-cylinder Mustang available. Power isn't everything though, and the engine is tuned to have a wider torque band than the Focus RS version and delivers 90 percent of peak torque between 2,500 and 5,500 rpm.

The 2.3L High-Performance package also adds bigger 4-piston calipers and 13.9-inch rotors from the Mustang GT. For the chassis, there's an alloy strut brace under the hood to reduce flex and a 32-mm sway bar up front and a 21.7-mm bar at the rear to help balance. In the drivetrain, a 3.55:1 limited-slip rear axle has been added, as well as package-specific 19x9-inch machined-face aluminum wheels matched to summer tires. The choice to go for a square setup rather than staggered wheels was deliberate as the development team knows auto-crossers and enthusiasts alike would eat tires and being able to rotate them is a big bonus for the wallet.

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The package also adds a new calibration tune to the power steering, anti-lock braking, and stability control systems. There's also an active quad-tip exhaust system with the sound specially tuned for the package. The engine is also tuned to work with Ford's 10-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission

This isn't just some performance options bolted on and tossed into the wild, it's a full and mature package. It's also not the only new package available, and adding the Ecoboost Handling Package takes things to the next level.

The Ecoboost Handling Package adds semi-metallic brakes, specially tuned MagneRide dampers and a Torsen 3:55:1 limited slip rear axle. The new suspension calibration means a new 24-mm solid rear swaybar is also added to perfect the balance. The Ecoboost Handling Package also gets slightly larger wheels, measuring 19.5 inches and they are shod with Pirelli P Zero Corsa 4 summer tires. It's also only available for the Fastback coupe Mustang with the 2.3L High-Performance Package already optioned.

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First Impressions: Exterior Design

The new package gets an aggressive new look that's topped off with the quad tip exhaust system. Overall, the addition of the new large black splitter, raised blade rear spoiler, blacked-out grille, and new wheels give the Mustang a fresh and remarkably planted look. The brake cooling ramps also catch the eye and, in practical, terms, the aerodynamic upgrades also includes a belly pan and are designed to reduce front end lift. On top of that, the unique metallic gray stripe down the sides of the hood bulge is a subtle and good looking identifier.

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Interior Design & Features

The interior is largely unchanged from regular Mustangs and the seats are comfortable in stock form and even more comfortable with the optional leather Recaro seats. What does change is what you look at while you drive - the instrument panel. The new unit is an engine-spun aluminum panel complete with oil pressure and engine boost gauges. On the passenger side, a serialized dash plaque showing the chassis number from the factory is a nice touch.

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Driving Impressions

Ford flew us out to San Fransisco to drive the 2.3L High Performance Package Mustangs and found a spectacular route to show it off on. It wasn't just pretty scenery though, Ford wasn't making it easy on the cars and through the day we found ourselves on challenging pieces of road for any car. Everything came our way on the long route, including rough surfaced tight and twisty roads, and Ford was clearly confident in the suspension to let us loose on it.

Rightly so, it turned out. For the first stint, we spent a couple of hours in the convertible Mustang with the High Performance Package added and power being managed through the manual transmission. The first thing to hit us was the loud and rich exhaust note, followed by just how composed the chassis was. The tuning on the MagneRide suspension in Sport mode was far from unpleasant over rougher roads while keeping the chassis flat through the twists. The amount of grip on offer was more than enough for spirited morning driving and, at the same time, the power delivery was smooth and torquey enough to fool you into thinking it's a pokey V6.

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There's little doubt the combination of the two new packages would make for a potent autocross weapon, or more than satisfy someone that wanted to bomb the backroads late at night. Everything is sharpened and composed, and perfect for shaving off those tenths and hundredths of a second.

That made switching to the coupe with the 10-speed automatic transmission and without the Ecoboost Handling Package and its tuned suspension interesting. Suddenly, in normal mode, the chassis was leaning around a little under acceleration and cornering, and bringing some understeer with it. However, on the roads we were on, we found ourselves with big grins as we had to really engage with the car. If anything, the handling package and Sport mode made the challenging roads too easy during the day with traffic about, and sparked a debate on whether we would add it with our own cash.

Either way, the engine is an absolute peach to drive. Sport mode livens things up and the exuberant popping from the exhaust is the cherry on top. The wide torque band means you're not relentlessly crashing up and down the gears, and while that can be a lot of fun it's not ideal when taking driving seriously. That's something the autocross and backroad bombers will seriously appreciate.

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Verdict: It's A Horse For Any Course

Not only were we genuinely impressed with the car, but also the fact that Ford let its team develop it while we're still in an age where people see the 4-cylinder and V6 engines in America's sports car as "the poor man's Mustang". The truth of the matter is that a finely honed weapon is a finely honed weapon, and this will run around many tracks as fast as the top end Mustangs from the beginning of the decade. Ford absolutely understands that.

As for whether we would add the Ecoboost Performance Pack, well, that would depend on the level of enthusiasm. For someone that wants to take their driving ultra seriously, absolutely tick that box. For the more casual enthusiast that wants their car to make them grin every day, then you can leave it off and ditch those extra tenths in exchange for a slightly less competitive but equally thrilling and enjoyable ride.

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