Car and Driver / Nelson Ireson / Apr 6, 2021 (photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company)
Ask 100 track-driving enthusiasts what the perfect track car is, and you're likely to get 100 different answers. Despite living in the shadow of the 760-hp Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 deserves consideration, especially if your track car needs to be a daily driver.
Named for the Mach 1 special editions of the past, the new Mach arrives this spring and is best thought of as a track-focused replacement for three discontinued Mustangs: the Mustang GT with the Performance Package 2 (PP2), the Mustang Bullitt, and the GT350. With the Bullitt and the GT PP2 out of the lineup, Ford goes so far as to bill the Mach 1 as the most track-capable 5.0.
Answering the call to speed is a 480-hp version?20 more than the standard GT?of the port- and direct-injected 5.0-liter V-8 from the Bullitt. Unlike the Bullitt, the Mach 1 utilizes Tremec's TR-3160 six-speed manual transmission borrowed from the GT350 instead of the GT's Getrag-built box and will also offer a 10-speed automatic ($1595) that wasn't available in the Bullitt.
For drivers still perfecting their craft, the Mach 1 features rev-matching downshifts?purists will be happy to know it can be shut off. Those looking to squeeze an extra tenth out of their times will like the six speed's no-lift-shift feature that allows you to keep the accelerator pinned during upshifts.
The Mach 1's suspension is bolted to the former GT350's front and rear subframes and features Ford's latest spec of magnetorheological dampers, which offer three modes to match the powertrain settings of Normal, Sport, and Track. Even in Normal mode, the Mach 1 feels responsive and sporty, while still comfortable and composed. Sport is great when you want more responsiveness on the street, but the real fun with the Mach 1 happens in Track mode.
To select Track mode, tap up on the driving-mode switch until the digital instrument panel displays a large, horizontal tachometer. A stability-control light illuminates to indicate that it is more permissive. Traction control can be turned off separately or left on; leaving it on doesn't seem to get in the way of a good corner exit, so why not save yourself some money on tires?
The first thing you'll notice is 5.0-liter's surge of torque that transitions to strong, steady power as you rip through the gears. The manual's no-lift-shift feature makes easy work of rapid-fire upshifts on a long straight, and the rev-match feature works perfectly as you ratchet back down into the braking zone.
Turn in and you'll notice the improved feel and precision of the Mach 1's steering compared to the Mustang GT's, courtesy of the stiffer intermediate shaft in the steering column and re-tuned electric power steering. You may even find you don't need to turn the wheel all that much as the Mach 1 rotates gracefully as you lift off the gas or trail off the six-piston Brembo calipers gripping Handling Package's the 15.0-inch front rotors.
As you begin to send power to the Handling Package's sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber transplanted from the Shelby GT350R, the attitude initially tends toward understeer rather than oversteer, something that the GT350R didn't do. According to the Mach 1's chief engineer Carl Widmann, that trait is due to a combination of the integral link rear suspension design and bushing compliance within the suspension, which cause the Mach 1 to dynamically toe-in the rear wheels when acceleration compresses the rear suspension. This gives the Mach 1 a stable feel, but also means you'll want to adjust your line slightly to plan for that initial understeer.
With the Handling Package, the Mach 1 is a largely neutral, easy-to-drive, very fast track car. Even running nearly non-stop for more than two hours, issues with brake fade or engine and transmission overheating were non-existent. All Mach 1s come with additional underbody ducting to cool the brakes, engine- and transmission-cooling upgrades, and a rear-axle cooler borrowed from the GT500.
For those who pride themselves on the multi-tasking macarena of three-pedal track driving, the 10-speed automatic isn't as engaging, and it lacks the manual's Torsen limited-slip differential, but it's at least as fast, and it lets you focus more of your effort and attention on actually nailing the lap. The paddle-shifters are a handy feature, but not necessary, even for track use; the automatic's algorithm is smart enough to call up the right gears for corners and hold them.
Ford offered the non-Handling Package cars for street use. On the road, the base car's handling traits aren't palpably different from the Handling Package car, aside from slightly lower overall grip levels offered by the narrower Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires. Still, the limits are very high, it's quick off the line, confident when cornering, and makes easy work of high-speed cruising.
Opting for the Handling Package adds $3500 the Mach 1's $53,915 base price, or $11,840 more than the cheapest way to spec last year's PP2 . Not exactly inexpensive, but it may strike just the right choice for those who missed out on the Bullitt and GT350 and are looking for a car that will let them hone their track skills without building a new wing onto the garage or taking out a second mortgage. And it does look pretty cool, too.