Review: 2011 Ford Mustang GT Coupe and Convertible

Potentially ruinous. All that work on an impressive new 5.0-liter V8 engine, chassis tweaks and other piecemeal refinements for the 2011 Ford Mustang GT are almost all for naught because of a single glaring issue. What could erase all the gains the Mustang has made for 2011? The answer is nestled between the front seats, and it goes by the name 6R80.

Despite the promise that a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission carries, not to mention the associated fuel economy, the auto ‘box blunts the Mustang’s edge severely. Can the new 5.0-liter V8 and wind in your hair make up for the dulling effect of the Mustang GT Convertible’s transmission?

The 2011 Mustang wears year-old styling that still looks up-to-the-minute fresh. Of course, there are retro cues in the sheetmetal, but the changes to the Mustang’s looks for 2010 deftly separate the newest Mustangs from the 2005-2009 cars. Surfaces are far more sculpted and much more playful with light, and the front-end styling brings a lot of the Shelby GT500 to the everyman’s Mustang. The $34,645 entry point for a V8-powered Mustang convertible is attainable, and the GT Premium Convertible carries SYNC as standard equipment, as well as the Shaker 500 audio system (both options on lower trims), along with interior ambient lighting. The gauges in the GT Premium also get into the chameleon routine with MyColor, and trim detailing dresses up the Premium’s interior with chrome accents and a glossy center stack finish.

With the arrival of the new V8, “5.0” badges make a return to the Mustang’s flanks after an 18-year absence. The folding soft top on the convertible saves weight and only consumes 3.8 cu. ft. of trunk space, though it does add some buggy-whip anachronism to the Mustang’s otherwise slick profile. Mustang GTs are also quickly identifiable by their grille-mounted foglamps and 18-inch wheels that fit snugly under the boldly flared wheelarches. Awkwardness does creep in around the tapered rear corners, but ponycars are bold, and the 2011 Mustang is no wallflower.

Fine assembly quality is on display both inside and out. Panel gaps are close enough to pass muster in the luxury world, and even without its roof, the Mustang Convertible feels tight, though there is cowl shake on some surfaces and distinctly less body rigidity than the coupe. The interior is much improved over the previous generation, though it won’t be winning any awards for opulence. The cabin is on par with its Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger competition. The dashboard is made of low-gloss, soft-touch material that presents well and the leather upholstered seats in the GT Premium Convertible we drove are comfortable, if under-bolstered.

Sadly, door panels are cheap-feeling hard plastic and make elbows ache. A power lower cushion and manual backrest adjustment may save weight, but it’s annoying in practice and gives the impression of cost-cutting more than any nod to trimming a few pounds. Taken in context with the rest of its class, however, the Mustang’s interior is well-imagined and functionally excellent. The power-operated convertible top has a rigid front panel that makes it less necessary to wrestle with the tonneau cover, and weather sealing is good. Predictably, noise is up over coupe versions; good in that you can hear the burble of the 5.0 more, bad in that there’s more wind noise at highway speeds. It’s nothing that the Shaker 500 audio system can’t overcome, if it’s tinnitus you seek.

The retro-themed interior, with its patterned-metal inlay, chrome-ringed electroluminescent gauges sporting a retro narrow font and running-horse emblems will please baby boomers looking to recapture their senior year of high school. Modern details hide inside, too. Ford’s Sync system is a star in everything, and illuminated door pulls, sill plates and footwells are a nice touch – in switchable colors, no less. The Rapid Spec 401A Premier Trim and Color Accent Package was tossed in on our test car, a $395 charge that adds colored trim to the seats, stitching and Pony badges on the door panels and a darker finish on the instrument panel.

The real news is the 5.0 liter V8 that makes its debut in the 2011 Mustang GT. Dubbed the Coyote during development, the dual overhead cam engine independently varies the timing of intake and exhaust events with a system Ford calls Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT.) Tubular exhaust headers and a classic “Powered by Ford” legend on the valve covers are outward signals of performance. Inside the aluminum engine block, jets of oil keep the pistons cool, main bearing caps are cross-bolted for rigidity and a baffled oil pan shrugs off repeated hi-g cornering. Ford knows it’s built a killer affordable performance car that can mop the floor with most vehicles it encounters, and has endowed it with an engine that can stand up to racing right off the showroom floor.

From behind the wheel, it’s immediately evident that the Mustang GT Convertible is no parade float, even with the automatic. The engine’s 11.0:1 compression ratio realizes its full potential on premium fuel, resulting in 412 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Horsepower drops off to 402 on regular fuel, while torque takes a greater hit, falling to 377 lb-ft. Truth be told, the automatic transmission is okay once you get used to it. There’s a delay for kickdown, as in most modern automatics, but shift quality is good and it gets itself into locked-up overdrive as soon as possible, resulting in EPA fuel economy estimates of 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.

There is no manual shift gate, sport mode or paddles on the non-telescoping steering wheel. You’re faced with the very same shifting options as your grandmother’s Crown Victoria: PRND321. It’s frustrating. Of all the cars in Ford’s lineup, the Mustang should be first in line when doling out the sporty shift programs. The V8 with automatic is perfectly happy to swallow interstate miles or drag race tarmac, but when the road turns twisty, it’s a dud thanks to the recalcitrant transmission.

It’s a shame that the automatic cuts into enjoyment, because the rest of the 2011 Mustang is so fully realized. The engine is responsive, throaty and strong; it’s a trifle to blow the car sideways by pulling into traffic over-zealously. There’s low-end torque and plentiful high-rpm power. The 245/45 Pirelli P Zero Nero tires on 19-inch wheels that our tester wore can only resist the wave of muscle from the engine so much, though the Mustang is easy to bring back under control once it breaks traction.

There’s finally satisfying mojo under the hood of a Mustang that can keep up with the excellent V8 engines in the Camaro and Challenger. The new 5.0 is the last piece of the puzzle to Mustang dominance in the segment, too. It’s still significantly lighter than its two main rivals, and moreover, it feels lighter on its feet. Live axle or not, this is one great-handling car. Ford’s electric power steering system can do impressive things like compensate for crown in the road or unevenly worn tires, but it’s also slightly on the numb side. The roofless structure is relatively solid, with only some occasional cowl shake. Load up those 19-inchers in a tight corner and the Mustang Convertible doesn’t feel like a clockspring winding up; that’s good.

For a $37,845 base price, our 2011 Mustang GT Premium Convertible was not only very well equipped, as it should be, but very capable. And most drivers will likely see the automatic transmission as an asset, rather than the detriment to driving enjoyment we found it to be. In our experience, the live rear axle simply isn’t an issue, despite the constant drone of the naysayers. The Mustang rides and performs impressively, with tightly controlled chassis motions and predictable handling. It’s a better-rounded package than either of its neo-ponycar colleagues, and it’s the only convertible in town, at least until the drop-top Camaro arrives next year.

In addition to being at the head of its own class, the 2011 Mustang GT Convertible is also a scrappy athlete that can mix it up with much more expensive and snooty hardware. In that sense, it’s a repeat of what’s always been great about Detroit performance cars – just try and find a better deal on a new car that performs this well. Even with the wrong transmission.