Achtung, baby! There's a new sporting-coupe king in Germany, and it's named after the mighty P-51 fighter that cleared the skies over Bavaria some 73 years ago. In March, the the Porsche 911, the Porsche Cayman, the Porsche Boxster, and the Audi TT. It's not a matter of Germans having a nose for a bargain, either; a plain-Jane five-liter GT costs about 50 grand overseas compared to the $32,395 base price in the States. It appears that Mustang ownership justifies premium pricing in the land of the Nurburging and the autobahn. What's going on?
The revitalized 'Stang, which threatened to take the 2015 PCOTY crown as a five-liter GT before finally winning top honors in 8200-rpm GT350R trim, has been a huge success on this side of the Atlantic as well. Yet there's still a whiff of redneck-chic about the original ponycar and its customer base, and there's still a lot of contempt for the nameplate among the sports-car cognoscenti. There's nothing the Internet car-enthusiast demographic loves more than trashing stereotypical Mustang owners. A rash of recent high-profile crashes at car-club meets has spawned all sorts of drama, up to and including tongue-in-cheek on the White House website to ban Mustangs from public car shows.
Part of the problem is that the 1979 "Fox body" Mustang and its immediate successors were both hugely popular and remarkably durable, so there are still a lot of them around. There was a Dodge Challenger back in '79 as well, a re-badged Japanese-market Mitsubishi Galant coupe, but those cars had a half-life just slightly longer than that of nobelium-253, so they were all safely recycled into Haier dishwashers well before Dodge brought the nameplate back as a rip-snorting HEMI-powered RWD coupe.
No surprise, then, that various and sundry misconceptions about the Mustang and its capabilities continue to run rampant everywhere from Cars and Coffee to your local NASA trackday. There's nothing that BMW and Porsche owners like better than looking down their noses at Mustangs. Show up in a new Mustang to a lapping day and you'll hear all the cliches: The Mustang is heavy, it doesn't steer or stop well, it wallows in turns, the rear end is uncontrollable, and it just loves to exit the track tail-first.
None of that's really true. The Mustang isn't a lightweight, but the GT350R comes within a hundred pounds or so of a BMW M4. The steering in the new car is almost sublime, and if you aren't satisfied with the available Brembo brakes, the aftermarket will bring you all the way up to IMSA standards for less than half the cost of a single replacement OEM Porsche ceramic brake disc. Every model in the current lineup handles remarkably well, and the GT350 is almost in a class of its own among four-seat performance cars. As far as it being a tail-happy crash magnet . . . well, it kind of is, but you can authentically apply the same sobriquet to the M4, the 911 GT3, and the AMG-fettled two-door Benzes.
If you haven't driven a Mustang lately, or if your opinion of the brand is based on experience with the old live-axle cars, you'll be quite surprised by the 2016 model. Somewhat ironically, it has the same basic engine lineup as the '79 Fox body: 2.3-liter turbo four, mid-size V6, and five-liter V8. That's where the similarities begin and end. The fit and finish stands up against anything Germany or Japan can offer. The interior is both classic and modern, with brilliant seats and up-to-the-minute infotainment. There's plenty of feedback available from the steering wheel, and the controls all operate with the same solid authority you'd get in an Audi.
On the move, the big Ford is smooth, quiet, and light on its feet. The GT and GT350 are equally comfortable doing triple digits on the open freeway and clipping down to the apex point on a narrow two-lane. No car of this size has ever been this comfortable on fast back roads. The overall driving experience is remarkably Germanic, and there are clear commonalities between the locally designed Mustang and the global ST-model Focus and Fiesta. In fact, if I can be slightly heretical for a moment, the only real differences between the current Mustang and the best of the current BMW lineup are the high door sills . . . and the availability of a manual transmission with all the engine choices. Oh, snap!
Don't take my word for it, though. Just ask any German performance enthusiast. Clearly the Mustang has made an impression with the buyers over there. It's chewing through the local heroes the way the supercharged-Merlin-engined P-51 made short work of the Focke-Wulf FW190. It's true that the 911 GT3RS can leave any Mustang for dead around a racetrack, but even in its home country, the fastest Porsche sports car is a rare and expensive sight. Think of it as an Me262, right down to the, shall we say, involved servicing requirements.
Of course, the German car fanatics who read R&T will say that the March sales numbers represent an isolated incident, a perfect storm of inventory availability and the same occasional fascination with American novelty that causes so many tourists from der Vaterland to follow Michael Schumacher's example and spend their summers riding Harleys on Route 66. But what if it's not? What if it's a perfectly reliable indicator of things to come?
After all, the German automakers have spent the last 15 years tirelessly engineering the last vestiges of character and authentic heritage out of their automobiles. The same industry that once presented its customers with a wide variety of iconoclastically engineered choices is now locked in a tail-chasing circle of imitative, unoriginal product. The aircooled 911, the Ro 80, the 450SEL 6.9, the original blacked-out BMW M5—they're all gone, replaced by a bunch of monstrous SUVs that can make the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs but which are all fundamentally the same loathsome lump of self-destructing electronics and fragile AWD powertrains.
Let's imagine for a moment that this isn't just an anomaly and that the German enthusiasts are tired of driving interchangeable transportation pods. They want something real. Something different. Something American. The Mustang will continue to sell. Pretty soon the mighty roar of the Challenger Hellcat will be heard bellowing its way across the last unrestricted sections of the autobahn. Parking lots from Berlin to Bonn will overflow with Wranglers. You'll see a Corvette around every corner. And what's that squared-off silhouette in the distance? Is that . . . a Ford Flex at the Cologne train station?
No matter what happens, there's a lesson to be learned from this sudden Euro-Mustang mania. American automakers got pretty lazy and self-satisfied during the so-called Malaise Era of the late Seventies and Eighties, which opened the door for the German automakers to bring us fascinating and characterful cars. Can you imagine picking a Lincoln Versailles over a BMW 528i, or choosing a downsized deVille over a Cosworth-powered Mercedes 190E 2.3-16?
If German buyers are choosing Mustangs over the increasingly bland and indistinguishable offerings from their home team—well, that's a warning that should ring loud and clear in boardrooms across the Continent. The last time something like this happened, back in 1944, the German response was to develop secret weapons like the Dornier 335 and the infamous rocket-powered Komet. Given a choice, enthusiasts will choose character and style pretty much every time. That's how BMW conquered the American back road, and it's how the Mustang is winning the battle of the autobahn.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.