entry level

I recently drove the new-ish 5.0 V8 Mustang GT. Rather unsurprisingly, it is not a sophisticated and nuanced sports car. It felt more like a brute instrument, and I mean that in the best possible sense.

McQueen Bullitt green please

dark green in a nod to McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang

Serious horsepower and torque coupled with relatively soft suspension provides for a lot of drama. Step on the gas and the rear suspension squats, pushing the long hood even higher into your field of view while the engine’s wave of torque pins you back. Heavy braking does just the opposite, with the car pitching forward giving you a better view of the immediate pavement. Commit to a turn at decent speed and the car leans hard on its outside wheels. There’s a real sense of speed and momentum that makes the Mustang a genuinely exciting drive.

A shameless part of me really wants a muscle car because it’s just so much fun. For driving on the street, I’m betting the base Mustang GT is more fun that the hardcore GT350R model with its screaming 526hp flat plane V8 and ridiculously wide (305/315 front/rear) carbon fiber wheels. The reason being that you can’t push the GT350R to its limit often in the real world. It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

gross exaggeration

gross exaggeration

This notion of the entry level car in the ranks often being the most fun extends to a surprising number of cars. McLaren’s newest model, the 570S, is getting a lot of love. McLaren intentionally focused on driving enjoyment, leaving the lap record to the more expensive and less renown 650S. BMW’s 1M was more highly regarded than the corresponding generation of M3, and the upcoming M2’s seems poised to continue the trend. How about Porsche? The GT4 has too much grip and is effectively geared for top speed runs on the autobahn, leaving the base Cayman (not Cayman S) as the real driver’s car.

So if money was no object, do people have the self control to spend less and get the more fun but more basic cars? Probably not. Sports cars are about the theater, and it takes many forms. Is the GT350R’s fancy kit really necessary for a road car? Not even close but the appeal of a car is as much in the story behind it as anything else.

sleeping giants

It’s been more than five years since American automakers received government bailouts or generous lines of credit, and we are finally seeing the fruits of the restructuring that took places as these companies were forces to refocus after decades of running aimless. Ford is on a roll and in the midst of a wild turnaround. They went from inconsistent and totally unique cars for each market to a strong consolidated global lineup.

I wrote a while back that the Mustang brand was better off dead. I stand corrected with the launch of the GT350R. With a high revving flat-plane V8, carbon fiber wheels and a stripped interior, the Mustang seems to suddenly have more in common with sports enthusiasts than anything besides a Porsche Cayman or Z/28 for the money. A Mustang that’s more of a sports car than an M4? It’s incredible what a few choice upgrades can do to the perceived value of something.

quintessential halo car

quintessential halo car

Possibly the biggest sign of the turnaround is debut of the Ford GT concept, which serves to garner hype for the production car that is set to arrive next year. The original Ford GT40 was possibly the biggest home run in motorsport history. Enzo Ferrari backed out last minute in the sale of his company to Ford. Henry Ford was furious and exacted revenge by building the Ford GT40 which beat Ferrari along with everyone else at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1966 through 1968. While Corvette and Viper struggle with brand perception, the Ford GT name has possibly more cache than Ford knows what to do with. No one seems concerned about paying $200k for a Ford GT. Hopefully, the upcoming Ford GT lives up to expectations.

While Chryster and GM have each launched some interesting products recently, I’m less than convinced in their entire product line. Do I like the 707hp Charger Hellcat? Yes but it doesn’t make the Chrysler 200 anymore appealing. GM wants Cadillac to be viewed on par with the German brands but that’s a tall order. They’d probably have better luck starting fresh with a new brand. Their V performance lineup looks promising, but they have to be massively better than competition to steal customers. Brand perception is a bitch.

At the end of the day, all American brands have squandered so much cache over the decades. America is a high tech powerhouse in many regards but our automotive industry can feel at times like it peaked in the industrial revolution.

baggage

2014 marks the Mustang’s 50th anniversary on sale. Yet few would argue that it’s been a smooth ride, and Ford’s decision to launch the new Mustang to coincide with the anniversary highlights everything that’s wrong with the brand.

Debuted in 1964, the original Mustang was a pony car, not a muscle car. Then Carroll Shelby’s GT 350 came along and redefined the Mustang brand. That’s about all the Ford wants you to remember. They would rather you ignore the fact that the third generation Mustang was on sale from 1979 to 1993 or that new sixth generation is the first to get independent rear suspension. Basically, Ford has been lazy with the Mustang, and now they want a pat on the back for dragging the brand through the mud for the better part of a half century.

Quit the charade

Quit the charade

If Ford had cared for the Mustang like Porsche has cared for the 911, which coincidentally celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, then the Mustang would be something to truly cherish. Instead, the brand feels hollow. At its inception, it may have resonated with people but now it just feels burdened with decades of neglect. The biggest hurdle facing the new Mustang is that it’s a Mustang.

Sports cars cannot rest on branding alone, especially bad branding, and the Mustang has become the poster child for rental cars, often dressed in garish colors, as opposed to the enthusiast’s choice. There’s little racing history in the Mustang’s bloodline, let alone simply being known as a competent sports car. Legitimacy breeds desirability, and the Mustang has virtually none.

Ford can make great sports cars (Ford GT), but the Mustang brand is holding them back. They won’t kill the Mustang simply because they’ve already invested so much into it. Keeping the brand alive is the safe move, and safe is rarely good for a sports car’s image.