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Dearly departed Ford Focus RS, thank you for signing your organ donor card. You, along with some cheeky Mustang engineers, have given new life to a misunderstood ‘Stang — and hope to those car enthusiasts who prefer finesse over brawn. By taking the defunct RS’s potent turbocharged engine and a few choice parts from the V8-powered Mustang GT, Ford’s skunkworks created a well-rounded and engaging sports machine with the body of a muscle car and the heart of a hot hatch. It’s essentially the sum of its parts. And that’s a good thing.
The Good: It’s a new twist on an old favorite — the Ford Mustang, but one aspiring for agility over brute force. Opt for the Handling Pack, and you have yourself a delightful, well-balanced Mustang built for enthusiastic driving.
Who It’s For: The buyer who enjoys curves, and knows you could get a fully optioned EcoBoost HPP for the price of a bare-bones Mustang GT.
Review: You wait impatiently at a stoplight. Red turns to green; you drop the clutch, then launch. There’s roaring fanfare, maniacal tire squeal and a white-knuckled cowboy grip on the steering wheel. It’s an exercise in physics: force transmitted backwards onto the pavement through the tires produces an opposite reaction in the form of a (mostly) forward trajectory.
For many drivers, that’s long been a typical V8 Mustang experience: straight-line adrenaline. With the High Performance Package (a.k.a. HPP, not to be confused with O.P.P.) however, engineers have done something special with the ‘Stang platform: they made the basic, entry-level model feel lighter and tighter, like an honest-to-God sports car.
The total package is remarkable. It starts with the aforementioned 2.3-liter Focus RS engine, modified with a larger turbocharger and larger radiator and running at 22 pounds of boost. 90 percent of peak torque is founded between 2,500 and 5,300 rpm, a range 40 percent wider than a base Mustang EcoBoost engine. The car pulls hard, revs climb all day, yet it’s not brash; it’s all usable power. And it’s very well-mated to the chassis; it feels genuinely more nimble than the Mustang GT. Having a four-banger under the hood saves some weight up front as well, allowing for an oh-so-nicely-balanced weight distribution of 53/47.
The car’s balanced proportions can be complemented via two options; to see what’s what, Ford had journalists hit up California’s undulating Highway 1 just north of the Golden Gate Bridge to test themselves. Option number one, the High Performance Pack, adds performance tires, brakes, and chassis and aero bits from the Mustang GT Performance Package to the EcoBoost. You can up the experience by opting for the Handling Pack on top of that, and you should: it’s transformative. You could never DIY-upgrade your car to the extent of what this $1,995 option brings to the table: magnetic ride dampers, a limited-slip differential, 19×9.5-inch Pirelli P Zero Corsa4 summer tires, a thicker rear swaybar and a pair of grippy Recaro seats.
All of these components effectively shrink the Mustang: the package urges you to carve through abrupt off-camber canyon turns, tap the brakes, then accelerate out with more confidence than you would in plenty of other cars, ones with more power and less attention to handling detail.
This Mustang is loud, too. Rev the motor to the max (in Sport+ mode, of course) then upshift, and you’ll get exhaust pops loud enough to trigger janky car alarms. Bopping around town, the rev-matching 10-speed automatic is a little jerky, but some time with the car ought to help drivers learn its quirks and adapt. (Still, we suggest the six-speed manual.)
While you can’t hear much of the turbo hiss inside the cabin, it is audible from the street — or inside with the windows down. Speaking of inside, the car’s interior is pretty basic; that said, you can option it up with items like a digital instrument panel, extended leather and color-matched dashboard stitching.
Every car picks up a gimmicky (albeit thoughtful) dashboard plaque with a unique chassis number plate. And aside from two conservative “High Performance 2.3L” badges mounted to the quarter panels, there’s not a whole lot to commemorate what might only be a 10,000 unit run. Perhaps they should have made the Handling Pack standard, gone all-in with this as a special model, and dubbed it an SVO for nostalgia’s sake.
Verdict:With so many choices on the entry-level sports car field, the HPP with Handling Pack is a dark horse candidate — but one that can run with the best of ‘em.
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