Fifteen years ago on a cool Spring morning I woke up at 4 AM to embark on my first journey to the Tail of the Dragon. I was 13 years old and could only ride as a passenger with my father in his 2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1. Even though I wasn’t able to drive, I was still just as excited for the adventure. We drove 600 miles from New Jersey to spend time with other car guys in our family, and I never could have guessed how important those moments were in shaping my future.
My passion for cars came from my dad, who has owned Mustangs as long as I’ve been alive. I can still smell the interior of his 1993 Fox Body that we would take to the Jersey shore for go karts and pizza. He replaced that Fox Body with his Mach 1, which he still owns, and that is the steed that carried us on countless other trips to Tennessee when I was a kid. Those memories are priceless, and they are undoubtedly one of the reasons I’m even able to write this article. Every car person has some sort of sentimental memory attached to a specific type of vehicle, and for me it’s the Mustang.
Fast forward 13 years and I’m back at the Tail of the Dragon in a Mischievous Purple Ford Mustang for Pride at The Dragon. A lot of stuff happens over the course of a decade. My EcoBoost press car has the same 310 advertised horsepower rating as my Dad’s Mach 1, the Mach 1 nameplate has returned yet again in recent history, and I’m writing this article on an LGBTQ automotive website supported by a community of people I never could have even dreamed of meeting. All of that to say that this trip and this loan mean more to me than just a Mustang on some twisty roads. These are my childhood dreams come true, and then some.
What Is It?
We’re all probably more than familiar with the current ‘S550’ generation of Mustang, especially with the next-generation ‘S650’ Mustang right around the corner. But outgoing models almost always come paired with some special financing deals, even in economic times like today’s. We’re also equipped with the knowledge of reliability thanks to years of real-world consumer testing. So, there’s also a lot of upsides to buying a car at the end of its production run.
My specific Mischievous Purple Mustang is equipped with Ford’s 2.3L EcoBoost turbocharged four cylinder, 10-speed automatic, and a 3.15 limited slip differential. With a few other tech niceties and interior upgrades, the sticker price sits just under $42,000. Mustangs have always been known as a sort of blank canvas for enthusiasts to modify and make their own. Even still, Ford has done an exceptional job at giving us special treats that no aftermarket company could easily achieve, with things like the flat plane crank “Voodoo” engine in the GT350. But this more basic EcoBoost harkens back to the Mustang’s roots with a good set of bones to build upon.
2022 Mustang Drivetrain: EcoBoost and Automatic for Hard Driving?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never personally been an advocate of the 2.3L EcoBoost four… but more because of aforementioned reliability, and not because of how it drives. In practice, the EcoBoost has an elastic torque curve that is straight up addictive. It delivers a smooth shove from the lowest parts of the rev-range, builds predictably to a peak of 350 lb-ft at 3200 rpm, and then slowly tapers off around 5500.
I love an engine that revs, but I don’t find myself revving out this EcoBoost on the Tail. And at the same time, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. The little turbo four has enough grumbly, torquey character within those 5500 revolutions to be thoroughly engaging.
Meanwhile, the 10-speed automatic transmission doesn’t leave me feeling the same way, mostly given laggy response from the paddle shifters. While upshifts are fine, downshifts leave a lot to be desired. When you finally get the downshift you asked for via the paddles, you’re gifted with literally just a downshift. There is no rev-matching or throttle blipping to be had.
In Drive, with drive mode set to Normal, the transmission sifts down through all 10 gears like butter, but hit the (super fun) toggle to change modes to Sport or Track, pull the shifter back to “S” for Sport, and you’ll be disappointed. The 10-speed hasn’t been taught to play like this, waiting to downshift until you’re exiting a corner, instead of preemptively downshifting on entry like more finely-tuned automatics and DCTs. I’m genuinely excited to see what Ford does with this carryover automatic in the upcoming S560-generation Mustang, as it has a lot of potential and pairs well with the EcoBoost’s character.
2022 Mustang Handling: Ease Into It
Before I even got to the twisty roads I found myself in a U-Turn lane on an empty stretch of Carolina highway along the foothills of the Appalachians. It was rainy, and I admittedly had not studied the window sticker very thoroughly, bit I figured there was no better time to see if the Mustang had Ford’s optional limited slip differential.
Thanks to the EcoBoost’s low-end shove and the Pirelli all-season tires’ less-than-adequate traction in the wet, I quickly found out it indeed did have a locking differential. Even more, the diff locks up very quickly and smoothly allowing this Mustang to easily live up to its legacy of oversteer any time you want it – and sometimes when you don’t. Normally that would be an amazing thing to say about an entry level pony car, but the rear end leaves you wanting some more feel in order to predict when it wants to step out. You know that something is happening back there, but it’s hard to feel exactly what until some opposite lock is needed.
Once we got to the twisties on the Tail of the Dragon itself, the dampness had dried up and I settled into a rhythmic dance over the undulating curves. I found that trail-braking into corners tucked the nose in and induced a bit of understeer that the differential quickly turned into a neutral feeling chassis back on throttle. Too soon though, and oversteer is quick to re-introduce itself with a heavy foot. After a few hundred miles in the Mustang, it became much easier to predict handling closer to the limit. Other high-performance Mustang models come from the factory with stiffer rear bushings to allow for more feel and less squish for this exact reason.
Like so many things in life, your affinity for a certain person, place or thing is largely shaped by past experiences and memories. Despite some less than ideal performance characteristics for a sports car, that didn’t stop me from bonding with the Mustang as a good pony car over the course of the weekend. It was quiet on the highway, its adaptive exhaust positively snarled when powering out of corners, but required some time to get a true feel for the chassis.
Some might argue that last trait isn’t necessarily a positive one, but I think it’s befitting for a pony car in this price range. It wasn’t the sharpest, it didn’t have the most grip, it didn’t shift the fastest. It didn’t matter. It carried me through four days of mountain roads with giggles of opposite lock, while chasing 200 of our closest LGBTQ friends in their own beloved sports cars. And much like those memories I made in my dad’s Mustang Mach 1, thirteen years ago, these are indeed, also, priceless.