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2016 Mustang EcoBoost Track Review

Photography by: Graham MacNeil

Ford really wants to sell you a Mustang with a turbo four cylinder. They started by derating the V6 engine in the 2015 S550 compared to the 2011-2014 S197 V6 to make the EcoBoost 2.3 litre more differentiated. Then, they offered a performance pack on the EcoBoost but not on the V6. Now, they killed the V6 all together for 2018 and will only sell you a V8 or this EcoBoost. I love a good V8, everyone who knows me knows that. This is a Mustang, which means it needs a V8. If those aren't enough reasons, I always prefer natural aspiration over forced induction. That's three strikes against the EcoBoost-powered Mustang. But I'd be lying if I said the idea never intrigued me.

It's the lightest (if you account for features). It has the best weight distribution. It has the same great chassis as the GT. It's very affordable and it has a lot of potential to make more power. Aftermarket? Endless support. There's plenty of good about it. The question is this: if you stop thinking about it as a cut-rate Mustang with the wrong engine and start thinking about it as an entry-level sports car, is it any good? .. I'd like to pull off a Top Gear moment and tell you "To find out, the producers gave me [insert amount of money] to go and buy one." But I have no producer.. and I can't go and buy one. Fortunately, though, one of my HPDE "students" showed up in a 2016 Mustang EcoBoost so I had a chance to find out what it's like on track. First, let's address the elephant in the room; the power. Comparing best tests from Car and Driver, the results are not that bad:

2011 Mustang V6      2015 Mustang EcoBoost
0-60 mph 5.4 s 5.5 s
0-100 mph 13.0 s 13.3
1/4 mile 14.0 s @ 104 mph 13.9 s @ 102
rolling 5-60 mph      5.8 s 6.8 s
Is it worth it? 18 mpg 22 mpg

I would say traction is a wash, but the V6 has a clear advantage in top end power, judging by the 0-100 mph number and trap speed. The whopping 1 second difference in the rolling 5-60 mph test would make a very good advertisement for naturally aspirated power and the troubles of turbo lag. A later test of a 2013 V6 was 2 tenths quicker to 60 mph (5.2 s) but slower to 100 mph (13.4) and tied the EcoBoost in 1/4 mile ET & trap so I'm assuming better launch at the expense of trap speed which isn't unusual. Some may consider that a better test but it shows the V6 to launch better and tie the EcoBoost in top end power, so take your pick. Either way, they're very close and to give credit where credit is due, the new Mustang is much more refined and feature-rich, and therefore heavier, yet the performance is very close and it is much more efficient, where the EcoBoost returned 22 mpg in Car and Driver's hands during the test vs the V6's only 18 mpg. The sound is nowhere near as good. That's saying a lot since a V6 Mustang is not one of the best sounding V6's in the first place, but objectively, the only downside to the EcoBoost is the turbo lag. So let's say you keep it on boil as you would on a track, are you on to something?

It turns out, yes, very much so. But let's establish something first. This is NOT meant to be a track car from the factory. Sure, you can get the performance pack and improve it but that is by no means a comprehensive makeover for track duty. Once you get that out of the way and set your expectations straight, disappointment will be a lot less likely. Basically, don't expect this to be either a Shelby GT350R or Camaro ZL1 1LE - minus the power - and you'll be happy.

For starters, it's a little soft for a serious track car, although it's perfectly fine for a few track days and HPDE's a year (and for what it's worth, my Boss 302 is also relatively soft, especially compared to cars in its performance bracket). That said, it's not ponderous or sloppy, not by a long shot. It's composed and body motions are nicely controlled. The softer suspension made it deal with our old track's asphalt and bumps beautifully. It's not a light car, weighing approximately 3,600 lb, plus or minus. Nor is it small either, being about as large in exterior dimensions as Ford's midsize Fusion. Driving around the paddock onto pit lane, it feels like a large GT car. But once pushed, it shrinks around you and feels like there's a bonafide sports car chassis underneath the "business suit" and layer of comfort/isolation.

The balance is surprisingly nice for what is ultimately very much a street car, especially considering that this is the volume engine Ford expects (and tries) to sell the most of. It will obviously default to limit understeer unless provoked, but like I mentioned, if you set your expectations straight, it's nothing you wouldn't expect in a car like this. It's actually better than I thought it would be. The lighter front end is noticeable compared to my Boss 302, even if ultimate grip and handling balance is in favour of the Boss. And perhaps now would be a good time to mention that this car isn't entirely stock. It has wider wheels and tires. The tires were BF Goodrich G-force Sport Comp 2's, measuring 275/40/18 all around (picture above was before the wheel and tire upgrade), which is a couple of sizes up from even the performance pack's 255/40/19 (in width, of course, not diameter). Despite all stock suspension otherwise - base, not even performance pack - grip was very good with the bigger tires.

Turn in was also good and response was prompt. There is also a decent amount of steering feel, combined with good heft. It is not razor sharp, but it is a very stable and confidence inspiring car to drive fast so it's hard to complain. The first day of the weekend was actually quite wet, but the car seems to have been built for those conditions. I and my "student" quickly picked up pace and speed despite the wet conditions. I think it is an absolutely fantastic car to learn high performance driving in. Like the tires, brakes weren't stock, although they were OEM - takeoffs from a Mustang GT (a side note, buddy that owned the car said they were $400 or $450 for a full set of brakes, including discs, calipers, and pads, and it's what Shelby America does with stock Mustang parts on cars they build. It's a fantastic deal if you're upgrading from a V6 or EcoBoost).

Back to the brakes, they were very strong and bite at top of the pedal was top notch. In fact, I felt it might have been a little too sensitive sometimes, but you got used to it after a while and the strong bite was confidence inspiring. Fade? Not a hint of it. Now, we didn't push the car very hard and only stayed on track for about 25 mins at a time, so keep that in mind. But if you are buying this car to learn high performance driving in, you likely won't run into fade issues for a long time with those brakes. I can't comment on the stock, base brakes but I suspect that at least the performance pack brakes are nearly as good as the GT takeoffs that were on this one.

Now here's where it gets interesting.. as you'd expect, when it comes to what's under the hood, things get complicated with a 4-cyl turbo Mustang. I'll start with the good. It is a very torquey engine. It is also very tunable and there are a lot of options for getting more power out of it. He had the Ford Performance ProCal tune, which comes with hugely substantial claims:

  • Peak gains of 25 hp at 5500 rpm and 70 lb.ft. torque at 2200 rpm
  • 40 hp and 60 lb.ft. torque average gain from 2500-5000 rpm
  • 75 hp and 64 lb.ft. average gain from 5500-6800 rpm
  • 100 hp maximum gain at 6000 rpm 
In other words, it makes the car a decent amount more powerful at peak, much more powerful midrange, and gets rid of the power drop after peak. The torque hits like a freight train with boost and pulls really strong after that. If you aren't one of those people that likes to wring out an engine, I think you'll LOVE this one. The bad? This incredibly strong torque surge comes with a price.. it's not an easy engine to modulate. Remember how much I loved the grip and stability in the rain? The engine threatens to ruin it all if you aren't careful. A couple of times, boost hit unexpectedly as we were trying to find the car's limits in the rain and the back end quickly came out. This also makes it difficult to smoothly induce rear end slip to correct understeer/increase yaw. Despite the long rear end (3.31 without the performance pack) and wider tires, the car still was easy to brake traction if you don't modulate the throttle well and boost hits too soon.

If you're a fan of old turbo cars, you'll love this. Porsche actually said (according to Car & Driver article) that they did not try to hide the boost/turbo nature of the new 700 hp 911 GT2 RS. Instead, they left it feel like a turbo engine does. But I love an engine with linear power delivery and easy-to-control power output so that was disappointing for me. At least the engine didn't feel like it lost power as the day went along, although as was the case with the brakes, we weren't pushing to the limit, and it wasn't a very hot day so I can't completely rule that out. It doesn't sound half bad either, if a bit muted (although probably for the best..). And while the torque means you don't have to shift a lot, the shifter was pretty good and we never missed a shift. The pedals are arranged well for heel and toe downshifts. And it's really hard to complain with 380 lb-ft torque at 2,500 rpm..

Now, with all of that in mind, moment of truth: would I buy one? I'm afraid.. yes, yes, I would. But the problem I mentioned I first is still there.. I still think of it as a cut-rate Mustang. Every time I try to think of this car, I always ask myself if I would get it over the Mustang GT (that's a no, if you're curious) and that is the wrong question to ask and the wrong way to look at the car. Looked at independently, the picture comes into focus. It's spacious for a 2 door coupe, comfortable, and well priced - you can build one with just the performance pack for $29k (in the US, $34k in Canada). It has a great chassis, very tunable engine, and fantastic after market AND OEM support from Ford Performance. It was good fun to drive and quick. In fact, I really, really want to go out and buy one with no options, just the performance pack. I previously thought no PP to save some money since I want the Track Handling Pack, but the larger radiator, unique ABS tuning, and Torsen diff are well worth it. Then, this will follow (after a few of track days stock to see what it's like, perhaps some lap times):
  1. Ford Performance ProCal tune
  2. Ford Performance EcoBoost Track Handling Pack
  3. Camber plates
  4. Fit the widest wheels and tires I can. According to American Muscle, that's 305-section wide up front and 315-section wide in the back. Say hello to 19"x10" front and 19" x 11" rear wheels. 

I would love to find out what a simple, mostly OEM bolt-on setup like that would do to the attitude/grip levels and certainly lap times. I bet it would surprise a lot of people. The wheels, tires, and diff, would solve most of the traction-busting torque surge when boost hits too.

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