Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Ford Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2 First Test: The Best Mustang GT Available

But can it tangle with a Camaro SS 1LE?

But can it tangle with a Camaro SS 1LE?

This is not a comparison test. And it is a comparison test—sort of. Right after they scan the car’s performance results, we know the first question from the Blue Oval faithful and Bowtie Brigade is going to be, “Is the 2018 Mustang GT with the new Performance Pack Level 2 (PP2) as good as the Camaro SS with the 1LE package?” Although we did not have both cars at the same time to do it properly, they were, in fact, tested in the same locations and by the same drivers. Because both were included in our annual Best Driver’s Car Tests (2016 and 2018), we have pages and pages of detailed staff notes on both, from their respective test days, and from the road. Finally, our on-call gentleman racing driver, Randy Pobst, threw down hot laps at the same track in both, and he’s a consummate debriefer after stepping out of a car. So, grab that bottle of artificial tears, pin your eyes open, and let’s do this.

History Repeating?

In what is perhaps the longest-running automotive rivalry, we’ve been comparing Mustangs and Camaros for 50 years; about 20 times as of this writing. Most recently, seven months ago, we pitted a Camaro SS 1LE against a Mustang GT Performance Pack (now dubbed “Level 1”) in a comparison test. Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman then said, “To put it bluntly, the Camaro is in another league,” and “in the ways that actually matter to car guys, the 2018 Mustang got its butt handed to it.” At that time, Ford indicated there would be a PP2 but that it wouldn’t be ready until summer. Well, here we are. In what Ford describes as an after-hours skunkworks prototyping program with track-rat Ford engineers, the PP2 would surely address the performance gap with the Camaro 1LE, right? They had their benchmark and a grudge to settle. MT technical director Frank Markus does an excellent job unpacking all of the Performance Pack 2 changes here, but essentially it contains all of the items below from the $3,995 USD Performance Pack (PP1):

  • Spun aluminum instrument panel with oil pressure and vacuum gauges
  • 19 x 9.0-inch front; 19 x 9.5-inch rear cast aluminum wheels
  • 255/40R19 front; 275/40R19 rear summer tires
  • Brembo six-piston front brake calipers with vented 15.0-inch front/13.0-inch rear rotors
  • Firmer springs (than standard GT)
  • MagneRide Damping System
  • Underhood strut tower brace
  • Undercarriage K-brace
  • Larger rear anti-roll bar (than standard GT)
  • Larger radiator (than standard GT)
  • Rear wing
  • A 3.73:1 ratio, Torsen limited-slip differential
  • Unique stability control, electric power-assisted steering, and ABS tuning

And for an additional $2,505 USD ($6,500 USD total), the fastback six-speed manual-only Mustang GT Performance Pack 2 further adds/replaces:

  • 19 x 10.5-inch front, 19 x 11.0-inch rear forged aluminum wheels
  • Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, 305/30R19 at all four corners
  • 20 percent again stiffer springs up front; 13 percent stiffer in the rear
  • Front and rear anti-roll bars that resist twist by an additional 12 and 67 percent, respectively
  • Retuned MagneRide Damping System with track calibration
  • High-performance front splitter and rear spoiler
  • Further stability control, electric power-assisted steering, and ABS tuning

Bench Racing

Compared to the Mustang GT PP1 with its narrow “just-right” rpm window for the best results, combining the Mustang GT’s Drag mode and the Coyote V-8’s throttle response with the PP2’s wider/stickier tires make launching easier. My notes from the PP2 test day recall, “Easy to launch with modulated wheelspin because the throttle is so linear and the tires are so easy to ‘read.’ Great shifter, but one must push the clutch all the way to the floor to avoid crunching into third gear. Tallish gearing and a 7,400-rpm redline mean over 70 mph (113 km/h) at the top of second gear.”

At 4.3 seconds to 60 mph, it eked a 0.1-second lead over the PP1-equipped GT. This also makes it the third-quickest stock Mustang we’ve tested. The 2018 Mustang GT with a 10-speed automatic got there in 3.9 seconds, and the 200-pounds-lighter (91-kg) 2012 Boss 302 Laguna Seca in 4.0 seconds. Expectedly, both the PP1 and PP2 (with the same 460 horsepower) cross the quarter-mile finish line in an identical 12.6 seconds, but the downforce-optimized aero package on the PP2 GT finds it going slower at 113.5 mph (182.7km/h) to the PP1’s 115.1 mph (185.2 km/h) trap speed.

Too bad for both of them that the torque-rich Camaro SS 1LE (455 lb-ft versus the Mustang’s 420 lb-ft) reached 60 mph in 4.0 seconds flat. My track-day notes on the Camaro hint at a couple reasons why: “Well, there are two ways to skin this cat: either almost bog the SS off the line then go to wide-open throttle, or you can slightly raise the launch rpm and ride out some easily controlled wheelspin. Both work to the same end with the latter being more consistent. The short-throw shifter is terrific, and the no-lift-shift program is awesome. Ford could learn a ‘thinger two’ from this Camaro.”

That’s right. During the entire quarter-mile run, a driver can keep the throttle pedal pinned to the firewall in the Camaro SS. Just kick the clutch pedal and grab the next gear while the engine belches/waits a split second for the clutch to engage again before giving full power back. Do it right, and it practically feels/sounds like an automated manual transmission. Back-to-back runs prove it’s measurably quicker exploiting no-lift-shift. In the end, it was a close virtual race, but again, the Camaro SS 1LE wins the drag race against both of the Ford GTs (PP1 and PP2) with its own 12.4-second 114.2-mph (183.8-km/h) pass.

Late-Braking

With the PP2’s stickier-than-PP1 tires and increased overall tire footprint, stopping from 60 mph required 10 fewer feet. From my notes that day in Track mode, “Firm, firm, firm pedal, great bite, flat attitude, and excellent fade resistance. Tremendous brakes. [In order: 98, 95, 94, 95, 97 feet].” Compare these comments to those from the Camaro SS 1LE, “The same old two-stage long-travel brake pedal on the Camaro. It really doesn’t give you much pushback/feedback, but boy does this Camaro stop short. Very little wander or dive in Track mode. [In order: 99, 96, 95, 95, 94, 95 feet].”

After lapping WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in a 2017 Camaro SS 1LE, Randy Pobst concurred by saying, “The braking g-loads from the seat of my pants felt very, very strong, but about three laps in, I got more pedal travel. The car would still stop well, but it took longer to get to the maximum g, and the long pedal’s a little bit disconcerting.” When asked if the Mustang GT PP2 got anything particularly right on Laguna Seca, Randy’s first response was, “Brake pedal feel—I really liked that. In fact, in the Shelby GT350R, I always thought it was a little too much; this car seems a little bit pulled back on the initial bite, and it’s just really confidence inspiring. Really stops.”

Both the Mustang and the Camaro utilize vented, steel discs and Brembo calipers to get the job done very effectively. Both stop from 60 mph in just 94 feet, but we’ll give this round to the Mustang. We like a steady, talkative brake pedal and the confidence that the brakes are clamping from initial pedal input all the way to a standstill.

Race Track in a Bottle

Our figure-eight test is a proven way to combine acceleration, braking, cornering, and the transitions among those into one easy-to-digest pill. Not quite a racetrack, but it’s not a bad miniature simulation of one. We’ve measured a couple current-gen Camaro SS 1LEs here with times of 22.9 and 23.3 seconds. The Mustang GT PP1 did the deed in 24.0 seconds flat, and the PP2 lowered the time to 23.6 seconds. Testing director Kim Reynolds’ notes tell the story, “When did the Mustang get such great brakes? In fact, I didn’t quite realize how good they are until the tires were warm. You can really use them and it’s kinda weird to drive a Mustang that stops like this. The two-three upshift had a lot of motion and resistance for me, which slowed those shifts—a lot. Chris wasn’t as bothered on the dragstrip, but here, I’m judging when I have to brake and turn in about 1 second [approaching 75 mph (121 km/h)], and so having to think about the shifter is a distraction. Lots of grip on the skidpad [1.06 g]. The tail can walk around very easily with throttle, but what’s much better here is that I’m not chasing the yaw angle with steering [sensing the fixed ratio] because its response seems a lot more predictable. Fun car. Faster than I expected.”

Compare that with Kim’s reaction to the Camaro, “Heck of a nice car to drive. Sure, it feels a bit big and slightly ponderous, but it turns in crisply, brakes very hard, is real predictable, and its shifter is remarkably good. At first, I was staying in second for the full lap, as it’s really, really close to getting away with it without a two-three shift. Later, I tried a few with shifting, and that shift doesn’t waste much time as the shifter is so good. It’s so easy to three-two downshift and heel-toe. What a terrific performance car. Basically understeers mid-corner [at 1.09 g], but it’s actually close to a drift and the tail rotates around pretty good if you get into throttle too early.”

Because of the ease with which the Camaro routinely plunks down low 23-second figure-eight laps and the confidence it inspires, Round Three goes to the Camaro.

A Race Track in a Dry Lagoon

Randy’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca post-lapping impressions will help clear the air some more. There’s nothing like a race car driver who can immediately unpack a car’s strengths and weakness, the probable reasons for them, and in easily comprehended ways. No wonder auto manufacturers steal him away from time to time to help set up their cars before their release. As he stepped out of the car, Randy said, “This Camaro SS 1LE is a terrific car to drive on track—almost unbelievably good considering it’s on a Goodyear Eagle F1 tire, which is a pure street tire. It’s not an R-compound track tire. The engine is a big V-8, sounds great, fat torque curve, and it takes a while to get to the redline. I think partially because the car has really tall gears and a fairly wide ratio split. I did a lot of the track in third gear, and the engine pulls from midrange to top end all the way through. Best feature? The front-end grip. All the way through the corner, I could adjust the car with the steering. The front end never died, which is kind of unusual on a front-engine rear-drive V-8-powered pony car. [Yet] I didn’t find the throttle to be linear. I want a linear throttle. I don’t want it playing games, and I felt like it did. When I asked for 20 percent more, I didn’t necessarily get 20 percent more. So I had to be gentle with my throttle application because I wasn’t real sure what I was going to get. It had a little bit of oversteer, like, all the time. Yeah, lots of corners. I kind of went all the way around there with the tail out, feeling a little bit like a hero. So it was—I mean, it was a pleasant feeling. I smiled a lot.” The fruits of his efforts was a 1:37.77 lap time.

After lapping the Mustang GT PP2, Randy had this to say, “I found that the only Mustang that was a really good track car to this point was the GT350R, which was a Shelby Mustang. [The Mustang GT has] been playing catch-up ever since. The plain GT wasn’t good enough on track. The Performance Pack 1 wasn’t good enough on track. The Performance Pack 2 reminds me very much of the Shelby GT350 non-R, which means it’s really, really good. The racer in me would put a little more front anti-roll bar in it, to tame a little too much oversteer in the entry phase, and later when I go to power. But coming into turn nine or through the corkscrew, the thing was pretty darn planted. I mean, it’s well on its way to a kind of “R” feel. I liked it on track—a lot. I love the engine. These tires are terrific, and I was looking at the lap time, and it was a 1:38-something.”

But he paused with, “The frustrating thing on this Mustang was that the AdvanceTrac—the stability control—has a little bit of a mind of its own. We were able to turn it off, but half a lap later, it comes back in. It’s very interesting. It was actually trying to cover for that entry oversteer that I was feeling. It’s like it’s learning, then it starts sticking its nose in my business. And the rear’s just not hooked up. I just feel like this is another example of a chassis-dynamics guy who likes a little bit of oversteer. I think that keeps it from being perfect.” The 2018 Ford Mustang GT PP2’s best lap at Laguna, 1:38.42, is just 0.65 second behind the Camaro’s best but a whopping 2.64 seconds faster than the 1:41.06 of a 2012 Boss 302 Laguna Seca edition.

When asked how the Mustang GT PP2 compares to the Camaro SS 1LE, Randy quickly replied, “It’s not balanced like that damn Camaro. It’s still not there, but it could be. Just a little tweaky-tweak.” Besides the difference in the outright lap times, which were close, the Mustang’s twitchy entry attitude and its pesky stability control system were no match for the composure and confidence supplied by the Camaro SS 1LE—even on a street tire. Can you imagine what the Camaro would do on a Pilot Sport Cup 2? This round goes to the Camaro.

The Real World

On the same, serpentine country road, the same Camaro confidence and sure-footedness Randy liked on the track came through again. While both the PP2 and 1LE come with driver-selectable self-adjusting dampers, the Camaro’s trustworthy front end and its ability to better soak up bumps and jumps (even in the stiffest Track setting) just make it a better back-road companion. It’s this kind of “I can drive a Camaro like this on a road like this?!” bafflement that prompted many staffers to later echo one another by saying variations of, “The Camaro SS 1LE isn’t just a muscle car; it’s a world-class sports car.”

In the Mustang, on the other hand, a majority of the staff complained about the unsettled chassis (in Sport+ or Track). Unlike on a flat race track, the imperfect back road caused constant vertical motions so that it never felt settled and stable at any given moment. Somewhat counterintuitively, the fixed-ratio steering also earned a demerit here, with “very little on-center or mid-corner feel.” Almost every staffer complained about the need to exercise vigilance. Said one driver, “I’m constantly adjusting the steering angle, trying to find the line and the set.”

Most of that can be attributed to the Mustang GT PP2’s tendency to nibble and tramline on cracks, seams, road crowns, and grooved highways. We’ve noted similar aberrant behavior from another Ford with 305-section R-compound front tires (the Shelby GT350R), as well as the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28. So, unlike the obedient Camaro SS 1LE, the Mustang GT PP2 needed persistent attention to merely follow the road, much less to choose a driving line. It’s also frustrating that the Mustang’s Sport+ and Track modes don’t allow the driver to override their heavy, preset steering weights and instead select Comfort to alleviate some of the effort required at the wheel. In the Camaro, one can do precisely that. Back roads belong to the Camaro in this comparison.

Four to One

In this non-comparison comparison test, we’ve used our recent data and real-world experiences to offer a first test of the 2018 Ford Mustang GT PP2, and also to predict the outcome of the inevitable comparison to the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE. According to the stats, it was far closer than the rout that the PP1 suffered when put to the same task. This bout, however, again goes to the Bowtie Brigade. Although the Mustang GT PP2 tipped the scales 34 pounds (15 kg) under the PP1 Mustang, there’s still another 94 to go to reach the lighter 3,735-pound (1,694-kg) Camaro SS 1LE. Weight is not the only factor, though. The new Performance Package Level 2, with the addition of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, indeed helped its performance, gaining grip for better launches, shortened braking distances, and greater lateral-g loads in corners. However, those tires also hindered its everyday drivability and fingertip control on fun roads. And even though the track-tuned suspension worked well on a track, it was far less settled on real roads. Randy Pobst’s Laguna Seca lap times were less than a second apart, but in his analysis, the Ford’s performance and behavior still had room for improvement. The 2018 Ford Mustang GT PP2 is, indeed, the best Mustang GT ever. However, with outright wins in acceleration, figure eight, skidpad lateral-g average, a Laguna Seca lap time, as well as the unanimously favorable subjective analysis from our staff and Randy Pobst, the Camaro SS 1LE is still the best all-around pony car available—but by a narrower margin this time.

2018 Ford Mustang GT (PP1) 2018 Ford Mustang GT (PP2) 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS (1SS / 1LE)
BASE PRICE $40,180 $44,685 $44,995
PRICE AS TESTED $49,670 $51,675 $46,295
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe
ENGINE 5.0L/460-hp/420-lb-ft* DOHC 32-valve V-8 5.0L/460-hp/420-lb-ft* DOHC 32-valve V-8 6.2L/455-hp/455-lb-ft** OHV 16-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,863 lb (54/46%) 3,829 lb (55/45%) 3,735 lb (54/46%)
WHEELBASE 107.1 in 107.1 in 110.7 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 188.5 x 75.4 x 54.3 in 188.5 x 75.4 x 53.9 in 188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in
0-60 MPH 4.4 sec 4.3 sec 4.0 sec
QUARTER MILE 12.6 sec @ 115.1 mph 12.6 sec @ 113.5 mph 12.4 sec @ 114.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 104 ft 94 ft 94 ft
0-100-0 13.6 sec 13.3 sec 13.1 sec
LATERAL ACCELERATION 1.00 g (avg) 1.06 g (avg) 1.09 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 24.0 sec @ 0.83 g (avg) 23.6 sec @ 0.86 g (avg) 23.3 sec @ 0.86 g (avg)
2.2-MI ROAD COURSE LAP Not tested 98.42 sec 97.77 sec
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 15/25/18 mpg* 15/25/18 mpg* 16/25/19 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 225/135 kW-hrs/100 miles* 225/135 kW-hrs/100 miles* 211/135 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.06 lb/mile* 1.06 lb/mile* 1.02 lb/mile
“* hp/torque values derived using 93-octane fuel; EPA’s values with 89-octane
**SAE certified”