2011 Ford Mustang GT

A muscle car performs two functions. Like most cars, it moves people and things between places. Unlike most cars, it makes you think you’re stronger than you are. It makes you tall enough to play power forward. It gives you 20-inch biceps. Stamp the accelerator, feather the clutch, throw the shifter...and it makes everything alright.

Americans instinctively understand this. And, in recent years, America’s “Big Three” automakers have done their best to take advantage of it. But the results haven’t been the same for each of the three.

Chrysler built itself a badass-looking muscle car in the Dodge Challenger, but one that’s still too heavy, its interior still a little too much like a $15,000-Dodge Caliber, its engines just a little too weak for their huge size, to really pull off the trick. There are well-done Challengers, but most feel more like a sketch of a muscle car than a finished product you’d buy.

Chevy did better with the Camaro. The numbers, on paper, are outstanding. But the look is a little too outlandish, more like a cartoonist’s impression of a muscle car. Those ridiculously high doors seal the deal. Sitting in it, you can’t help but feel that you’re a kid in the bathtub pretending to drive a muscle car.

Only Ford – the only automaker to build its pony car continuously since the moment it was introduced —really gets it. A week in a V8-powered 2011 Mustang GT Premium Coupe proves it. This may be the most authentically American car there is. It looks massive and strong, it screams like a warrior charging, and it longs for an open road. It’s the most soulful muscle car, and in a way, the only authentic one left.

You don’t buy a muscle car just for how it looks. But this is the best-looking Mustang since the first-generation car left the stage in 1973. It has all of the classic touches required of a new standard-bearer for the Mustang line, from the slight aggressive cant to the front fascia to the retro turn signals—the brake lights flash in a sequence, 1-2-3, from the center out. The classic fastback roofline is there. You can’t describe it without burning through a year’s supply of the word “classic.” Yet it’s clearly a modern interpretation of the (nope, not gonna say it again) original. There are curves beneath those sharp angles. A bulging shoulder line (something cribbed from the Challenger, if we’re being honest), gives the impression that the car is actually tensed, ready to explode off the line.

The right color goes a long way toward setting it apart. Our tester shows up in a neon hue Ford calls “Grabber Blue.” When the specs first showed up, we thought the shade would be a bad idea. In person, it’s a showstopper. More than once, when we get out of the car, strangers stop us in parking lots to compliment the paint job. We get thumbs-up signs in traffic.

You don’t buy a muscle car for its luxurious cabin. But you’ll like this one from the inside. The interiors of some muscle cars feel like afterthoughts—like designers ran out of money when they got to the cabin. The exterior evokes a primitive yearning for power, but it’s all disappointment when you open the door. When it comes to the cockpit of the Mustang, not a word of that is true.

You open these heavy doors and settle down into low-slung bucket seats. Ours are black leather, with accents in the same neon blue that, on the sheet metal, had the neighbors talking. Ice blue accent lighting throughout, and the same color on the gauges, just radiates cool. The color accents are a $395 option, but it’s an option you should select. Rear-seat passengers might not be as pleased. Those seats are tight, and the sweeping fastback roofline leaves them with a tiny porthole instead of a real window. Kids might like it. Adults...well, it’s a great car for impressing one passenger. Invite your favorite person and leave the rest to find their own rides. A race-bred steering wheel, thick in your hands with coarse stitches in the leather, feels exactly like you want it to.

You should be buying a manual, because driving a muscle car without that visceral command you get from using your left foot to connect that massive engine to the wheels is pointless. The shifter, a polished-aluminum ball just the right size (cool in your hand with short throws), is brilliant. Some designer spent days getting that little ball right, and they should retire happy knowing they nailed it.

Ford products have the best technology interface in the business in the form of the excellent SYNC infotainment system. The Mustang is no exception. SYNC allows you to control your phone, iPod or other Bluetooth-enabled device through the car with voice commands. It’s part of the $2,340 Technology Package, and we know from experience in other cars that it works brilliantly. But in the ’Stang, we barely touched it. Who needs to be entertained by something external when driving this thing? The wheel, shifter and pedals are all the entertainment you need. A well-tuned Shaker 500-Watt audio system adds to the experience, though. We’ll cop to using that quite a bit.

You buy a muscle car for the way it feels when you throw it into gear and put your right foot to the floor. Ford engineers know that very well. Dropping the 2011 Ford Mustang GT into gear and watching the tach climb toward redline, while the scenery rushes by is a feeling every American should have (at least once a month) to keep some perspective on what is possible.

Every configuration of the Mustang drives well. We like the V6 so much, we built it into the DUB Edition Mustang. But even we have to admit, there is no other engine in the world quite like the 5.0-liter Coyote V8 Ford put under the hood of our GT Premium.

The 5.0 and the Mustang have a long history together, but the engine has been out of production for years. This isn’t the same mill as the classic. It’s better. The Coyote uses variable inlet and exhaust valve timing to push out 412 horsepower and 390 lb.-ft. of torque. Numbers-obsessed car magazines will point out that those figures are lower than what you get in the Camaro’s LS3 V8. But we’d counter with two facts: One, the Mustang is more than 255 pounds lighter, so the power has to move less mass; and two, when pushed, the Mustang’s V8 can buckle the pavement underneath the car, accelerate from 0-60 mph in holy-sh*t-that’s-fast! and make everything that has ever gone wrong in your life recede in the rear view mirror at a satisfying pace.

The 5.0 is not an engine that wants to be driven sedately around the neighborhood. Power peaks at 6,500 rpm and redline comes at 7,000. In other words, to get the most out of it, you have to push it near its limit…and you’ll want to, believe us. This car begs for the open road. No, better yet, it longs for it. If you try to take it on a short, leisurely trip to the corner store, it’s likely to find its own way to an uncrowded highway and lay down the miles.
The six-speed manual transmission is one of the best Ford has ever offered. The clutch is surprisingly light and forgiving for such a powerful car, and throws are short and satisfying. And though muscle cars are all about straight-line speed, the 2011 Mustang is more nimble than it should be. The 3.73-ratio limited slip axle, a $395 option, helps matters. Engineers spent more time honing the suspension, even borrowing control arms from last year’s GT500 to make this a muscle car that can almost hang with pure sports cars. It’s firm, though, your teeth will rattle over even the smallest speed bumps.

Our tester came with a performance brake package, including Brembos and 19-inch painted aluminum wheels. They look good, and could stop a freight train, but other journalists have told us they’re not necessary; the stock wheels and brakes are quite good as well, and the package adds a lot to the sticker at $1,695.

And, then, there is that sound. The Coyote makes a beautiful, righteous growl no other car can make. The sound you have filed away in your imagination labeled under, “What should a good, old-school, American muscle car sound like?” Well, here it is. It’s a hellhound’s growl. It’s the roar of justice. It will have neighborhood men eyeing you with suspicion, and neighborhood women knocking discretely late at night. Ford engineers understood exactly what they had when they heard that sound. Get this: they built a resonance pipe behind the dash to amplify the exhaust note in the cabin. That, in the end, is all you need to know about this car.

The first muscle cars (that is, the first Mustangs) were built for a very democratic purpose: to bring the best American race-bred engines into the price range of the average buyer. The new generation has strayed from that purpose a bit. Our tester’s sticker came in at $38,760, including destination charge. When you can get a first-class European sport sedan for less money, is a muscle car still worth it? If it’s the V8 Mustang GT, we think it is. Its beautiful bodywork with its modern interpretation of classic lines; the gorgeous interior, which oozes sex appeal and power; and that glorious engine, putting an absurd level of power at the command of your right foot. It’ll transport you from place to place. But more importantly, it’ll transport you to another place inside when you let it find that open highway.

All of that for $39k? It’s a steal.

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