UPDATE 5/27/21: This review has been updated with test results.
Ask 100 track-driving enthusiasts what the perfect track car is, and you’re likely to get 100 different answers. Despite living in the shadow of the 760-hp Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 deserves consideration, especially if your track car needs to be a daily driver. Named for the Mach 1 special editions of the past, the new Mach is best thought of as a track-focused replacement for three discontinued Mustangs: the Mustang GT with the Performance Package 2 (PP2), the Mustang Bullitt, and the GT350. With the Bullitt and the GT PP2 out of the lineup, Ford goes so far as to bill the Mach 1 as the most track-capable 5.0. We headed to Willow Springs International Raceway to verify that claim, and we learned that although the Mach 1 isn’t perfect, it’s fast, it handles surprisingly well, it’s comfortable enough for a commute, and it looks pretty cool, too.
Answering the call to speed is a 480-hp version—20 more horses than the standard GT—of the port- and direct-injected 5.0-liter V-8 from the Bullitt. Unlike the Bullitt, the Mach 1 utilizes Tremec’s TR-3160 six-speed manual transmission borrowed from the GT350 instead of the GT’s Getrag-built box and will also offer a 10-speed automatic ($1595) that wasn’t available in the Bullitt. For drivers still perfecting their craft, the Mach 1 features automatic rev-matching downshifts—purists will be happy to know it can be shut off. Those looking to squeeze an extra tenth out of their times will like the six speed’s no-lift-shift feature that allows you to keep the accelerator pinned during full-throttle upshifts.
The Mach 1’s suspension is bolted to the former GT350’s front and rear subframes and features Ford’s latest spec of magnetorheological dampers, which offer three modes to match the powertrain settings of Normal, Sport, and Track. Even in Normal mode, the Mach 1 feels responsive and sporty, while still comfortable and composed. Drive the worst roads in your area and you’ll feel the Mach 1’s inherent track-readiness, even in base form, but even then, the ride quality is nothing to moan about. However, we will complain a little about the Mach 1’s tendency to tramline over uneven pavement, the car’s steering wheel tugging in its driver’s hands over undulations much as we’ve experienced in the GT350. While this adds an air of tactility to the Mach 1’s helm, it can be tiring; the revised steering knuckles found on the GT500 and the final GT350Rs would be welcome here. We found the car’s Sport mode to work good on the street for its livable-yet-heightened responsiveness, but the real fun with the Mach 1 happens in Track mode.
To select Track mode, tap up on the driving-mode switch until the digital instrument panel displays a large, horizontal tachometer. A stability-control light illuminates to indicate that it is more permissive. Traction control can be turned off separately or left on; leaving it on doesn’t seem to get in the way of a good corner exit, so why not save yourself some money on tires?
The cars we drove at Willow Springs included the $3500 Handling Package-equipped. The first thing you’ll notice is the 5.0-liter’s surge of torque that transitions to strong, steady power as you rip through the gears. The manual’s no-lift-shift feature makes easy work of rapid-fire upshifts on a long straight, and the rev-match feature works perfectly as you ratchet back down into the braking zone. Turn in and you’ll notice the improved feel and precision of the Mach 1’s steering compared to the Mustang GT’s, courtesy of the stiffer intermediate shaft in the steering column and re-tuned electric power steering. You may even find you don’t need to turn the wheel all that much as the Mach 1 rotates gracefully as you lift off the gas or trail off the six-piston Brembo calipers gripping the 15.0-inch front rotors.
So far so good. But now it’s time to get out of that corner and off to the next. As you begin to send power to the Handling Package’s sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber transplanted from the Shelby GT350R, the attitude initially tends toward slight understeer rather than oversteer, something that the GT350R didn’t do. According to the Mach 1’s chief engineer Carl Widmann, that trait is due to a combination of the integral link rear suspension design and bushing compliance within the suspension, which together cause the Mach 1 to dynamically toe-in the rear wheels when acceleration compresses the rear suspension. This gives the Mach 1 a stable feel, but also means you’ll want to adjust your line slightly to plan for that initial understeer.
Back at our Michigan test track, that initial push was less evident as our similarly equipped test car adhered to the skidpad at 1.05 g—an impressive amount of grip yet less than we’ve seen from GT350s and the GT PP2. Stops from 70 mph happened in a tight 141 feet. Although it weighed marginally more than either of those models, it’s worth noting that our 3844-pound Mach 1 arrived on less-than-fresh Michelins and its adjustable front camber plates weren’t set to their most aggressive position, so it may have some additional stick to give. We’ll confirm when we can test another example on newer rubber.
Fresher tires also may improve the manual Mach 1’s straight-line acceleration, which we measured at 4.3 seconds to 60 mph and 12.6 seconds at 115 mph through the quarter-mile. Again, those are strong efforts—and spot-on with the outgoing Bullitt’s—but they trail the times of the GT PP2 and the GT350 by roughly a couple tenths of a second.
With the Handling Package, the Mach 1 is a largely neutral, easy-to-drive, very fast track car. Even running nearly non-stop for more than two hours, issues with brake fade or engine and transmission overheating were non-existent. All Mach 1s come with additional underbody ducting to cool the brakes, engine- and transmission-cooling upgrades, and a rear-axle cooler borrowed from the GT500.
For those who pride themselves on the multi-tasking macarena of three-pedal track driving, the 10-speed automatic isn’t as engaging, and it lacks the manual’s Torsen limited-slip differential, but it’s at least as fast, and it lets you focus more of your effort and attention on actually nailing the lap. The paddle-shifters are a handy feature, but not necessary, even for track use; the automatic’s algorithm is smart enough to call up the right gears for corners and hold them.
Ford offered the non-Handling Package cars for street use. On the road, the base car’s handling traits aren’t palpably different from the Handling Package car, aside from slightly lower overall grip levels offered by the narrower Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires. Still, the limits are very high, it’s quick off the line, confident when cornering, and makes easy work of high-speed cruising. Trundle along at a steady 75 mph as we did on our 200-mile fuel-economy test and the manual-equipped Mach 1 will match its 22-mpg EPA highway estimate. But regularly dip into its accelerator to hear its brassy rumble—which we admit is not as intoxicating as the GT350’s harder-edged wail—and you’ll average closer to the 16 mpg we recorded during our car’s test.
Details like the Fighter Jet Gray paint (a Mach 1 exclusive), retro-themed Mach 1 logos on the fenders, low-gloss stripes on the hood and sides, a 3D-mesh shark-nose grille, and a rear diffuser borrowed from the Shelby GT500 balance nods to Mach 1s of the past with modern style and aerodynamics. Base versions ride on 19-inch wheels, 9.5 inches wide at the front and 10.0 inches wide at the rear that are shared with the Mustang GT with the Performance Package 1. Those larger wheels hint at the more-than-a-Mustang-GT potential that lies beneath the surface, but Handling Package models are further distinguished by inch wider wheels, an extended front splitter, and Gurney-flapped rear spoiler.
The Mach 1 starts at $53,915, or $11,840 more than the cheapest way to spec last year’s PP2. With the Handling Package, $1595 Recaro leather seats, $1295 Mach 1 Elite Package, $250 rear-seat delete, and a couple other options, our example came to an as-tested $62,745. Not exactly inexpensive, but it may strike just the right choice for those who missed out on the Bullitt and the GT350 and are looking for a car that will let them hone their track skills without building a new wing onto the garage or taking out a second mortgage. And it does look pretty cool, too.
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