Jason Sands Associate Editor
July 28, 2016

There comes a time when you realize you need to stop driving around tired, old junk that will catch on fire if you look at it wrong. While there's no denying the appeal of classics, there are still 40- to 50-year-old braking systems, wiring, and suspension to contend with—most of which is chuckling softly—looking for the most inconvenient time to break.

After having two older vehicles fail me on the same day, I wandered through massive amounts of Advil and onto a dealer lot, where I started checking out new cars. I finally had to face up to it: I needed a daily commuter. Sure, they're generally lame, but you can mine a diamond every once in a while. I didn't really have much in mind for my car-to-be, other than it had to be inexpensive, reliable, fast, and sip gas rather than slurp it. Since I'm a Mopar guy via diesels, that was my first thought, although I quickly dismissed the Charger (too big, too heavy), the Challenger (gas chugger), as well as Jeep derivatives. I couldn't bear to be seen in an import, and they're not nice to my 6-foot, 3-inch frame, so those were out. I quickly went through the GM catalog as well, pausing at the V6 Camaro, but I had something else in mind.

The car that was really burning my noodle was the 2016 Mustang EcoBoost, which instantly satisfied all of my qualifications. A base model hovers around $26,000 (inexpensive), it's a big-time gas sipper (32 mpg highway), and best of all, it comes with a heavily boosted, turbocharged, 310hp inline-four-cylinder that can be easily modified. While four-bangers are nothing new to the Mustang lineup (remember the SVO?), I really couldn't find a single downside to the EcoBoost platform, so I bought one.

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Driving Impressions

After peddling the car around for a few days in nearly every driving situation, I really couldn't find anything to dislike. Even the base model had cool wheels and a back-up camera for distracted parking-lot parents with a troop of kids. I like to shift my own gears, so a manual transmission was a must, and the six-speed performed very well in every way, including when I powershifted it mercilessly. On the freeway, it slid right past the EPA's rating with a 32.6-mpg performance. After hundreds of miles, the seats also remained comfortable, the car was quiet, and the exhaust made pleasant, turbo wooshing sounds. I also did the "Grandpa test" by putting my 72-year-old dad behind the wheel. He liked the traditional shifter (instead of those "stupid paddle things") and loved the big knobs on the stereo to change stations. "Hmmm, needs more power, though," he asserted. Can you tell he reads Car Craft?

Having a vehicle that can handle corners is utterly new to me, and after a few neck-bending cloverleaf onramp runs, it was clear the Mustang was in a whole new category that was separate from anything I had previously owned. Lateral G-force is listed in the 0.95g range on Pirellis, and honestly, it didn't feel that far behind on the Goodyear Eagles that were fitted to our base model. The only downside to our lateral shenanigans (and one of the few downsides to the Mustang) was that we could only take one passenger at a time, as the back seats are more suited to adolescent dwarves than adult-sized people.

At local stoplights and cruise nights, a lot of people were interested in the little turbo-four, but most of my time was spent explaining why I didn't buy a 5.0 model. Part of the reason is that I have an 11-second Nova, so I can just drive that if I want to go faster. But with tuned EcoBoosts on drag radials running mid-12s and tuned 5.0s running low-12s, I didn't see much of a difference. Sure, you can bolt a blower on a 5.0 and fly, but now we're talking tens of thousands of dollars over a base-model Eco. What I really needed was a 30-mpg car, and I was darn sure it wouldn't be some tedious econobox.

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OK, enough with the boring stuff and on to the big question: How quick is it? Well, that was a question we would soon answer on the track.

First-Run Notes: 14.98 at 95 MPH
These things are hard to launch! I tried slipping the clutch at 3,000 rpm, and it didn't work. The engine bogged and somewhere around redline came back alive. Ugh, a 2.38 60 foot. While it worked fine on the street, no-lift shifting at the track resulted in scary amounts of wheelhop. Speed on the big end was down, I wonder why?

Second-Run Notes: 14.78 at 93 MPH
I tried launching at 3,500 rpm this time wild mild success. The clutch is hard to slip, but I don't want to burn it up. I tried to wind out Third and could feel the car nose over. The mph is still way down, and buddies keep telling me a "driver mod" is in order.

Third-Run Notes: 14.35 at 98 MPH on a 14.45 Dial-In
OK, eliminations: time to either spin or win. We tried a 4,000-rpm launch with slipping the clutch and got a good short time—finally! What about my 0.06 reaction time? Good luck, everyone else, I'm going to win this thing— oh crap! I broke out! I'm just lucky the other guy broke out, too. Performance-wise, I held First gear out to the redline and it seemed to help a lot.

Fourth-Run Notes: 14.57 at 80 MPH on a 14.45 Dial-In
Second round, and again, I pulled off a good launch with a decent 0.10 light. The Mustang went 2.17 to the 60 foot and 9.22 at 78 mph in the eighth! Then, hard on the brakes—I don't want to break out. The timeslip said 14.57 at 80 mph off the gas; it would have been a 14.1 to 14.2 pass for sure all out.

Fifth-Run Notes: 16.36 at 66 MPH on a 14.45 Dial-In
No, I spun! It was a 2.54 60-foot time (ouch), and even with the 0.05 light, I'm a goner—unless a missed shift by the competition. He let off just after the eighth-mile.

Sixth-Run Notes: 14.80 at 80 MPH on a 14.45 Dial-In
We're going to win this thing! We're going all the way! We're—hey, why is there a win light in the other lane? As it turns out, trying to cut a light in a manual can bite you back, in the form of a -0.02 red light. Whoops, well, we didn't win, but we made it through 48 cars to the final six in the Street class, which isn't bad.

Final Thoughts

Well, we survived the dragstrip and the little Mustang performed admirably, even when hot lapping. Its low-14-second performance was pretty good considering the heat, and after seeing some new stock 5.0s run low-13s, we felt even better. In a second test 'n' tune at Redding Dragstrip, we duplicated our low-14s (even at factory tire pressure), so it's safe to say that's about what they run. In Car Craft style, though, we're not leaving the Eco alone, as we'll soon try aftermarket 91-, 93-, and 100-octane tunes on the little turbo-four. Why? Because, hey, stock is boring, and with 32 mpg at 75 mph, we can afford to mix in a little race gas.

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