REVIEW | 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 is more than just a gaudy face

03 September 2021 - 15:27
By Thomas Falkiner
Love it or hate it, there's no denying the fact that the Mach 1 is a surprisingly capable performance car.
Image: Supplied Love it or hate it, there's no denying the fact that the Mach 1 is a surprisingly capable performance car.

Thomas Falkiner swaps his laptop for some time in the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 — a focused piece of Americana that turns out to offer a lot more than a brash sticker job. 

Mach 1 — that sure is a fancy name. Where does it fit in the Mustang range?

So the Mach 1 essentially plugs the gap between the standard Mustang 5.0 GT and the way more exotic Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500 models — neither of which have found their way to SA. As such it not only receives an 8kW jump in power but also a generous smattering of chassis and suspension upgrades to significantly improve the car's handling.

This increased capability is reflected in an extra macho exterior that pays homage to the original Mach 1 that first broke cover in 1969. This means you score 'Fighter Jet Grey' metallic paint, myriad scoops and wings, bold bonnet and door decals plus a set of black 19-inch five-spoke alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres staggered 255/40 front and 275/40 rear. Behind them lurk bright orange six-piston Brembo brake calipers.

Giant six-pot Brembo brakes provide ample stopping power.
Image: Supplied Giant six-pot Brembo brakes provide ample stopping power.

Tell me more about those suspension mods ...

A standard Mustang 5.0 GT is by no means a blunt object. Indeed, long gone are the days where you could safely make jokes about these pony cars not being able to take corners. The Mach 1, however, has been sharpened to a fine new edge of eagerness courtesy the fitment of standard 'MagneRide 2' adaptive dampers paired to a stiffer set of front springs and beefier front and rear anti-roll bars. Ford also equipped this gap-filler with the rear subframe, bushings and toe-link controls from the aforementioned GT350 snd GT500.

A plethora of suspension and chassis mods endow the Mach 1 with fine handling.
Image: Supplied A plethora of suspension and chassis mods endow the Mach 1 with fine handling.

Interesting. Can you feel their presence out on the road?

Hell yeah! The sum of these parts is immediately noticeable as the Mustang Mach 1 feels significantly more planted when steered through the bendy bits. For me, however, the most discernible difference between it and the 5.0 GT is just how flat the Mach 1 corners. Despite the considerable increase in mechanical grip (those large Michelin Pilots stick like crazy when up to temperature), this Mustang changes direction with hardly any body roll. Even less if you dial those dampers into the more aggressive 'Sport+' or 'Track' settings, although ride quality will suffer as a result — especially on our crap Johannesburg roads. 

Now I didn't have the Mustang Mach 1 in my possession for long but when I did get a chance to take it out for a drive I found that it performed best across everyday mean streets with the engine, steering and suspension maps set to 'Normal.' With this set-up in place you get a machine that can rip through bends with the best of them. Sure, the steering isn't the most communicative (also for a car with such a large engine up front the nose feels unnaturally light) but once you learn to cope with this shortfall and trust in the ample traction, well, you'll be blown away by how much corner speed this big old 'Stang can carry. Almost at odds with its considerable size and heft, the Mach 1 feels supremely buttoned down and substantially more planted than the 5.0 GT upon which it is based. 

What also struck me is just how neutral this Mustang handles. Unlike in the 'entry-level' 5.0 GT that feels notably looser at the rear, the Mach 1 has a much greater sense of balance between the two axles. This inspires increased driver confidence, particularly when changing directions at speed. However, having said this, you can still use that throttle pedal to great effect when it comes to adjusting your line through corners.

Styling is an acquired taste.
Image: Supplied Styling is an acquired taste.

I see. So would you say that 'hooligan streak' been toned down a bit?

Oh no, it's definitely still there. While the Mach 1 certainly goes about its business in a much more focused manner, it remains gleefully game for a bit of tyre-shredding horseplay should you ever feel the need. From performing great big smokey burnouts to pulling lairy drift manoeuvres that'll see your passengers reaching for the nearest grab handle, this is a car that refuses to take itself all that seriously. Which is kind of enduring in a way. Usually when manufactures try to make a car more 'track-orientated' said vehicle sacrifices some playfulness so it can better chase essentially meaningless lap-times. And while the Mach 1 easily romps around your favourite track quicker than the 5.0 GT, it will, with some mild provocation, be as fiendishly entertaining when you want it to be. 

Free-revving Coyote V8 delivers 338kW and 529Nm.
Image: Supplied Free-revving Coyote V8 delivers 338kW and 529Nm.

What about that engine? Still good in 2021?

Absolutely. While this tuned 5.0-litre Coyote V8 doesn't make quite as much power as Mach 1 models in other markets, it still delivers an impressive lick of pace when you nail that accelerator pedal to the firewall. Yeah, let's make no bones about it — this Mustang is a seriously fast automobile and getting up to its 249km/h top speed is a devilishly easy feat. Buttery smooth and capable of revving all the way up to 7,250rpm, this motor dominates much of the Mach 1 driving experience with its rasping induction snarl and bombastic exhaust note. I also love the fact that it remains naturally aspirated in a world where pretty much everything has had a turbocharger plumbed into its intake system. 

What I didn't love, however, is the 10-speed SelectShift automatic transmission to which my test car came mated. This is the first time I've actually sampled this gearbox in a modern Mustang and I must say that I found it immensely disappointing. It's slow and ponderous (especially on quick downshifts when you're grabbing two or more gears) and detracts from the rest of the car's talents. In fact every time I drove the Mach 1, I found myself wishing that it was equipped with the Tremec T-3160 six-speed manual. Unfortunately only 15 of the 90 Mach 1 models bought into SA are fitted with this gearbox.

10-speed SelectShift automatic left the author cold.
Image: Supplied 10-speed SelectShift automatic left the author cold.

So, sketchy automatic transmission aside, you're giving it a thumbs-up?

Sure. Look, the Ford Mustang is something of an acquired taste in our vast automotive landscape — you either love them or hate them. Objectively speaking, however, I've got to concede that the Mach 1 version is actually a surprisingly sharp driving tool that blends together immense straight-line pull with sparkling handling dynamics — it really is so much more than a sticker job. It's easy to poke fun at its good-time boy image, find fault with the many chintzy interior plastics and palm it off as just another dumb American muscle car riding on the laurels of lore and legacy. But to do so is to discredit a proper piece of performance machinery that will surely reward any petrol-blooded enthusiast. 

Priced at R1,182,100 (R1,203,800 for the auto), it's also decent value for what you're getting. Especially in a world of R1,957,388 bucktoothed BMW M4 Competitions. Unfortunately there is just one small caveat and that's the fact that all SA-bound models have been sold.

Fast Facts: Ford Mustang Mach 1 automatic

Engine: 5038cc naturally aspirated V8 petrol

Power: 338kW at 7,250rpm

Torque: 529Nm at 4,900rpm

0-100km/h: 4.4 seconds (claimed)

Top speed: 249km/h (claimed)

Fuel: 13.7l/100km (achieved)

Price: Sorry, they've all been spoken for