American Dream Car: 2018 Ford Mustang GT with GT Performance Package

What is a dream car? Is it a mid-engine exotic machine from Italy? A custom-built British sedan that weighs more than a Ford Expedition and costs more than the house the blue oval SUV is parked in front of? Is it a Japanese coupe with grip and grunt that will iron out the wrinkles in your face?

Yes. A dream car is anything you want it to be (and just have to have). It doesn’t need to come from a particular part of the world or be made out of advanced composites. All it has to do is inspire you to dream about it.

The 2018 Ford Mustang GT with the GT Performance Package is a dream car to me. I don’t care that it’s made out of steel, has an old-school manual gearbox, and can be purchased within the working lifetime of people who don’t have the title of Count before their names or the letters MD after them. Those are some of the reasons I love it. Before I got the chance to drive it for a week to review, I drifted off to sleep many times fantasizing about driving it through the twists and turns of the Texas Hill Country around Austin. Ford gave me permission to take it for some test laps around a local track, so I envisioned driving it hard and fast where speed limits didn’t apply right before I left the world of the awake.

Although Ford is going to concentrate its product line mainly on trucks and SUVs in the coming years, it hasn’t forgotten about the Mustang. It facelifted the 2018 model inside and out, upgraded its powertrain and transmission options, and now offers two upgrade bundles that bridge some of the performance gaps between the Mustang GT and the Shelby GT350.

The Car

My GT Premium Fastback test car was equipped with the milder of those two bundles, bringing its as-tested price to just under $50,000. With the GT Performance Package, Ford’s tech team started with the Mustang’s core and built outward. They tuned the chassis, electric power steering, and ABS and stability control systems specifically for the $3,995 upgrade. Engineers fortified the suspension with heavy-duty front springs and a larger rear sway bar. Optional MagneRide dampers from the GT350 were designed to keep the Mustang GT composed on and off the track by adjusting the suspension based on factors such as speed, steering angle, brake pressure, lateral and longitudinal acceleration, and drive mode.

According to Mustang brand manager Mark Schaller, the MagneRide setup is “the biggest step forward” for the S550 Mustang GT’s Performance Package. Its ability to provide a softer ride on the street – something he especially appreciates on the rough roads up in southeast Michigan – and a firmer ride on the track means it offers “the best of both worlds.”

Six-piston Brembo front brakes and larger rotors help the 3,705-pound pony come to a stop quickly. Those sit behind black 19″ X 9″ front and 19″ X 9.5″ rear wheels wrapped in 255/40R19 front and 275/40R19 rear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S high-performance summer tires. Manual cars, such as my Triple Yellow press loaner, get a Torsen differential and 3.73 gearing. A performance rear wing puts the GT Performance Package’s finishing visual touch on fastback models.

On the Outside

The 2015-2017 Mustang GT’s looks were aging gracefully, but Ford’s design team gave the 2018 model a makeover to go along with all of its other new features. The lower hood features updated vents and slopes downward between altered front fenders toward a redesigned grille. Tweaked headlight cases shine their LED light out above the revised LED fog lights and turn signals. The vents below those make the new Mustang GT look as if it has fangs. Compared to the more restrained and modest previous S550 Mustang GT, the ’18’s aggressive front end borders on overkill.

If you look closely at the tri-bar LED taillights, you’ll notice they have a slight “C” shape to them. The Mustang GT’s new quad pipes are more evident than the last version. Ford equipped my test car with its new Active Valve Performance Exhaust, which I could set to operate in Normal, Sport, Track, or Quiet mode. Shortly after receiving the Mustang GT, I quickly satisfied my curiosity about how the quiet mode sounded…then never used it again. Normal sounded so throaty and deep that I often left it engaged, although when I charged toward winding roads, my next move was usually a thumb flip that put the exhaust in its even louder and angrier Sport setting.

On the Inside

The changes Ford made to the 2018 Mustang GT’s cockpit are harder to spot but no less significant than the exterior updates. The seats are covered in restyled upholstery. Hand-stitching appears on the new dashboard. Before the engine comes to life, the starter button pulses 30 times a minute – the same as a pony’s resting heart rate. To the right of that is a toggle switch for selecting the drive mode: Snow/Wet, Normal, Sport, Track, or – new for 2018 – Drag. The back seat is mostly the same as before: Only good for groceries or transporting small children.

Ford gave my test car its 401A Premium Plus Package. That contains such upgrades as a heated steering wheel, voice-activated navigation, and the new 12-inch LCD digital instrument cluster. Depending on which drive mode I selected, it showed a different gauge format. Trick stuff, but I wouldn’t have complained if my loaner had the old-school analog tach and speedo.

Under the Hood

The most significant updates to the new Mustang GT are under the hood. Engineers redesigned the Coyote V8’s cylinder heads and paired those with a new crankshaft and connecting rod bearings. Fuel is now supplied via port and direct injection. Those tweaks add up to 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque.

Ford replaced the dated six-speed automatic with a quick 10-cog box. It didn’t forget about its manual gearbox option, though. The six-speed now features a new dual-mass flywheel for reduced NVH, a twin-disc clutch to handle more torque, larger syncros for the first four gears, and new architecture designed to reduce shifting effort while improving the 6MT’s feel. Ford’s customers haven’t forgotten about driving stick, either. According to Sam Schembari-Negroni, part of Ford’s Car Communications team, “Roughly 50-percent [of Mustang GTs] are sold with a manual transmission.”

Over the past few years, I’ve driven the S550 versions of the GT convertible and California Special. Like the transmission in those two cars, the 2018 Mustang GT’s six-speed had short throws. The biggest difference was in the clutch. In the ’18 model, it seemed more particular about low-speed inputs than the clutch in the older Mustangs.

On the Road

With its more focused suspension, the Mustang’s ride quality had a suitably sporty stiffness to it that caused the rearview mirror to shake whenever I went over rough pavement. No matter which mode I had the Mustang in, its steering felt heavy. It was a constant reminder that I was in a substantial, V8-powered American car. The amount of features around me left me little to wish for – aside from a radar detector. SYNC 3 was a breeze to use and pairing my phone to the Bluetooth and WiFi systems couldn’t have been easier. The late spring heat down here in Texas made me especially thankful for the ventilated front seats. What I liked even more than those was the fact that Ford didn’t get too cute with its audio controls. No touchscreen, no buttons, just two large knobs: one for the volume and one for tuning. That system wasn’t broken and Ford didn’t try to fix it.

The new Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires felt slippery at times, even when they had enough heat in them. While going straight down an access road, I put my right foot down and could feel the back end squirming as the rear rubber searched for a grip on the pavement. A light coating of gravel on a curvy country road caused the back tires to slide during a low-speed turn. Luckily, the breakaway was slow enough that I was able to reign in the Mustang before it took me for a 180.

At the Track

The 4Ss behaved much better once I got to the Harris Hill Raceway (H2R) in San Marcos, Texas. The owner, Bo Rivers, was kind enough to let me run his 1.82-mile, 11-turn road course in the Mustang GT to truly test its performance enhancements. He told me via email, “We have a dozen or so members with V8 Mustangs. A week rarely goes by that someone isn’t out learning to balance the weight on the chassis with smooth applications of throttle, brake and steering. Employing all that torque without spinning the car takes plenty of seat time. Once owners learn to finesse their control inputs and work with the chassis, Mustangs are some of the best true pony cars out here.”

Given my lack of familiarity with the track and the Mustang’s track limits, I ran the majority of my 10+ laps in Sport mode, although I did make a few passes in the you’re-on-your-own-if-you-screw-up Track setting.

After a 3-4 runs through H2R’s 150+ feet of elevation changes, it quickly became apparent that the GT Performance Package’s front Brembos were well matched against the weight and power they had to combat. Through H2R’s various turns and elevation changes, the enhanced suspension felt flat and composed. The steering was as heavy as it was on the street, making me feel every rapid transition from one target to another in my shoulders.

Cones directed me toward corner entry, apex, and exit points, but they didn’t keep me from occasionally entering a sweeper with too much speed. Those mistakes became moments of enlightenment. The first couple of times I overcooked a turn, the part of my mind that remembered Youtube videos of Mustangs wiping out while leaving Cars and Coffee events expected the back end of the car to go sideways quickly and violently. I was surprised – and relieved – to discover that if the 4Ss gave up trying to hold onto the track, they gave up in unison, which allowed me to control the slide and correct it.

I drove away from H2R with a new outlook on the Mustang GT. It’s not a car to be taken lightly. With the GT Performance Package, the Mustang GT is ready for high-performance driving. It demanded the same readiness from me. Although it didn’t hide my flaws at H2R, it forgave them. It wasn’t a flyweight track toy I could flippantly toss around the course without concern or concentration.

If I was willing to use my shoulders and work for that ideal line, that smooth corner entrance, that perfectly close pass by the exit cone, then the 2018 Mustang GT was willing to work with me. I just had to earn it. The 2018 Mustang GT is still a dream car to me, but my fantasies of owning one will now be more vivid because they’ll include a real-world knowledge of its dynamics on the road and at the track.

*Track photography provided by Christopher Fishback Wright

About the author

Derek Shiekhi

Derek Shiekhi is a native Texan who grew up loving cars because of his father, who took Derek with him to buy early Mustang convertibles and Post-WWII pickups from GM. Throughout high school and college, he dreamed about cars, and returned to college to earn a second degree in journalism. After writing for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, Derek joined the Texas Auto Writers Association, and is a member of the organization's board of directors.
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