2018 Ford Mustang: Best sports car buy in town?

Ford’s new Mustangs are all great fun to drive, from the affordable Ecoboost Coupe to the fast and furious GT Coupe Premium.

If you’re interested in the new Mustang, and you’re going to take a test drive — do as I say, and not as I do: Drive the little one first and the big one second.

I joined the Ford folks in Malibu on a cool November morning for an introduction to the 2018 Mustang family. Ford had taken over Calamigos Ranch and had brought a dozen pony cars to the mountains for test drives.

On hand were several variations of the high-powered GT Coupe model, but fewer of the entry-level Ecoboost Coupe. I’d have preferred to start with the Ecoboost, but when none was available, I slid behind the wheel of a GT Coupe and sped away.

The air was crisp and the roads were clear. The car filled with the smell of sage and I spun the GT Coupe onto Latigo Canyon Road.

It’s a tight, technical road that drops from Kanan Dume Road to Pacific Coast Highway through a series of sharp turns. I took it slow, knowing my limitations, and let the Mustang find its own pace.

The car was outfitted with the 5-liter, V-8 engine, mated to Ford’s relatively new 10-speed transmission. Using the paddle shifters, in manual mode, and enjoying the comfortingly responsive feel of the brakes, I urged the coupe into the corners and found it deliciously sharp and sticky.

The stiff suspension, improved by the special springs, stabilizer bars and damping system — options on this vehicle as part of the MagneRide and GT Performance packages — kept the Michelin PS4 tires glued to the pavement.

The engine under the Mustang hood was exhilarating, and the horsepower felt like an invitation for horseplay. When I saw the sign reading, “Slide Area,” I did my best, but try as I might I couldn’t get the back end to bust loose.

Turning north onto PCH I found the Coupe could also be quiet and contained. The front seats, I realized, were snug and comfortable. The back seats, such as they are, might be fine for storage but wouldn’t be of much use for passengers. The two cup holders upfront were a nod to daily driver needs.

But I wasn’t in the mood for daily driving. Turning onto Kanan Dume, I shifted into Sport mode, which uncorked the exhaust, and let the engine’s rumble turn into a roar. For the last quarter of the drive I rolled the windows down and soaked up the sound.

Half an hour later, I was in a similar GT Coupe, but this time equipped with Ford’s six-speed manual gearbox and painted a dazzling color known as Orange Fury. The stick shift heightened my engagement, and made me forget the pleasures of the 10-speed automatic.

I saw that, in addition to Sport mode, I was also offered Sport Plus, Snow/Wet, Track and Drag Strip options — the last two identified on the dashboard with crash helmet icons. (The dashboard also featured a speedometer marked Ground Speed, in case you thought you were airborne, and a tachometer marked Revolutions Per Minute, in case you forgot what RPM stood for.)

Hoping to be a good guest, and to be invited back to the next Ford event, I eschewed Track and Drag Strip, and contented myself with Sport Plus for a few miles along Mulholland Highway.

It was lovely driving. Working the crisp gearbox, and enjoying the same responsive brakes, stiff suspension and sticky tires, I eyed the cup holders and wondered how long I’d be able to use the manual as a daily driver before winding up with latte in my lap.

The morning burned away, and with it my chance to drive the Ecoboost version. A couple of weeks passed before I was able to borrow one from Ford, and give it a few days’ worth of test driving.

Unfairly, I was disappointed.

The Mustang with the smaller engine and the automatic transmission (a $1,585 upgrade from the 6-speed manual on these Mustangs) felt feeble and hesitant compared with its bigger displacement brothers.

I wasn’t just imagining things. The turbocharged 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine makes a respectable 310 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. But the 5-liter, V-8 numbers are 460 horsepower and 420 pound-feet. (The top of the line Shelby GTs go further, with 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque.)

The smaller-bore pony car seemed more interested in maximizing fuel economy than in having an interesting driving experience. In Normal, automatic transmission mode, under normal acceleration, the car fell into fourth, fifth or even sixth gear before it got to the end of the block. In Sport mode, using the paddle shifters, it was a little bit less anemic. But the paddle shift experience felt slurring, imprecise and lacking the sharpness I had enjoyed on the GT Coupe.

I also found that, because the driving was less thrilling, I was a little bit more aware of the environment. And I didn’t like the environment as much in the smaller car as I had in the bigger engine version — though the environments were exactly the same.

Undistracted by the amazing horsepower and handling, I began to notice that the visibility was less than ideal and that the driver ergonomics weren’t quite right. No matter how many times I adjusted the seats and the steering wheel I couldn’t quite find exactly the right position.

In other words, I should’ve had a V-8. Or tested the cars in the opposite order.

Either way, the new Mustangs continue to represent good sports car bargains for buy-American car shoppers. The 2.3-liter Mustang Coupe Premiums start at $31,500; the GT Coupe Premiums begin at $39,995.

Considering the competition, those are good reasons to pony up on a Mustang.

2018 Ford Mustang Ecoboost and GT Coupe Premiums

Times’ take: Classic coupes at reasonable rates

Highs: Timeless styling, 21st century power and handling

Lows: Driver ergonomics and visibility issues

Vehicle type: Two-door, four-passenger coupes

Base price: $31,500 / $39,995

Price as tested: $42,270 / $53,160

Powertrain: 2.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine / 5-liter V-8 gasoline engine

Transmission: 10-speed automatic / 6-speed manual

Horsepower: 310 / 460

Torque: 350 pound feet / 420 pound feet

EPA fuel economy rating: 21 mpg city / 32 highway / 26 combined on 2.3-liter engine; 16 mpg city / 25 highway / 206 combined on 5-liter engine