The Ford Mustang has come a long way since its 1964½ debut. Hagerty, the classic car insurance company, brought one of the original V8 Mustangs to a Ford-hosted track day in Upstate New York, and while the car was charming, it was also slow. That turned out to be a good thing, because at speeds over 50 miles per hour, the all-drum-brake, lap-belts-only coupe was terrifying to drive.
Switching over to a 2018 Mustang GT that could do 90 mph without breaking a sweat felt natural enough, and not just because it was equipped with seatbelts and airbags. Unlike the souped-up 1968 Ford Mustang fastback I once owned—because, like so many other idiots, I’d seen “Bullitt” as a teenager and had to have one—it went fast in more than just a straight line. The thing could handle.
In its normal guise, the Ford Mustang GT seems custom-designed to create revenue for state governments through speeding tickets. It’s a fast car thrown into a world filled with heavy traffic, bad roads and worse drivers. It’s the kind of car that makes a person say, “Gee, I wish I could drive this somewhere that didn’t have speed limits, potholes and errant bicyclists.”
That, my friends, is what the track is for. If you have the money, it is a world where the rules of the road are governed by physics (and a few safety regulations that aren’t nearly as onerous as most traffic laws). There, the whole point is to go into every turn as fast as possible without crashing, to accelerate flat-out down every straight bit of road, and to brake hard in every corner.
Of course, once you enter this magical realm of hard, fast driving, you might find yourself wanting some things a stock Mustang GT doesn’t have—bigger brakes, wheels and tires, for instance, or a suspension capable of keeping the car on the road in a 60-mph curve.
That’s where Ford’s Performance Pack comes in. Offered in two levels—Performance Pack and Performance Pack Level 2—it boosts the track driving capability of a stock GT. From a gut-level perspective, the difference in equipment between the different performance models is huge.
The stock GT comes equipped with 4-piston front brake calipers, 14-inch brake rotors and 8-inch-wide 18-inch alloy wheels wearing 235/50R18 Pirelli PZero Neros. The Performance Pack models feature the same 460-horsepower engine as the GT, but includes big braking and handling upgrades, notably a set of 6-piston Brembo calipers and 15-inch rotors offered on both levels.
The base-level Performance Pack gets 9-inch-wide, 19-inch alloy wheels with 255/40R19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires up front and 9.5-inch-wide alloys with 275/40R19 Michelins in the rear, as well as specially-tuned electronic stability control and electric power steering, and model-specific front splitters and rear spoilers. (The ones with Level 2-spec are bigger, of course).
Level 2 comes with massive 10.5-inch-wide front and 11-inch-wide rear 19-inch wheels, all clad in super-sticky 305/30R19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that lower the car’s stance a little bit for improved cornering. Magnetic damping (which means that the shock absorbers and spring rates are electronically-controlled) is available with the Performance Pack and is included with the Level 2 setup.
If you haven’t yet learned how to drive a car with a manual transmission and aren’t keen on trying it, shame on you. Oh, and also, Level 2 definitely isn’t for you. It only comes with a 6-speed manual transmission.
Both Performance Pack levels come with a rear differential geared for faster takeoffs—3.55:1 on the automatic equipped base-level cars and 3.73:1 on cars with the manual transmission. Performance Pack cars also come with structural reinforcements designed to stiffen the frame for better handling.
So what’s the Level 2 like to drive on the track? I took one for a spin at the Monticello Motor Club, not far from where the borders of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania converge. The car’s huge wheels, responsive steering and stiff handling seem to make it a good choice for drivers who want to turn in faster lap times. Ford says that when it tested the various GT trims on the hilly 2.1-mile track at Grattan Raceway in Belding, Mich., the Performance Pack GT shaved three seconds off the lap time of the stock GT. The Level 2 was another half-second faster than the stock GT. In racing terms, seconds are like years.
With my babysitter/driving coach in the passenger’s seat as I hurled the Level 2 around the track, the car stayed glued to the tarmac in turns that would have thrown a normal commuter car into the fence. Either I was doing pretty well by my third lap or my instructor was really good at internalizing his screams for help. As I rounded one corner particularly fast, he didn’t display any of the arm-flailing, handle-grabbing panic I observed from that poor car salesman who accompanied me on a test drive of a new Mustang GT back in 2005. (I tested the car’s limits, but didn’t end up buying it.)
Unfortunately, those three laps were all I got before management closed the track due to foul weather. So I drove it on Sullivan County, N.Y.’s none-too-fabulous public roads, which had been rendered even worse the day before by heavy rain and hurricane-force wind. Dodging service crews cleaning up downed trees and power lines, I liked to imagine I was some kind of modern-day ridge runner playing a game of cat and mouse with the local sheriff on back roads through the woods. The car screamed through every hollow.
That struggle may have been imagined, but one that was real was my fight against the steering wheel as the big front wheels dug into frequent road irregularities. Like the big wheels, the car’s Recaro racing seats—great for deep, fast turns on the track—were less than perfect out in the wild. I can’t imagine sitting in one in rush hour traffic day after day.
Other than a good arm workout, there were few other side effects to the ride and handling. For a track-tuned car with 3-inch-tall tires, it rode remarkably well on state highways.
Sadly, the few local residents I observed out and about during my brief excursion seemed none too pleased by the Mustang’s thunderous exhaust system—a herald of excess in a county where more than 17 percent of the population lives in poverty (compared with 12 percent nationally). I drove past several “We Love Monticello Motor Club” signs posted in people’s yards, but there were also a few that read: “Stop the Noise!” Beneath the beleaguered slogan, a racecar in a circle struck through with a slash.
Many automakers offer a track version of their most popular sports cars. Chevrolet has its Camaro ZL1 1LE Extreme Track Package, Nissan has its GT-R Track Edition, Dodge has its Challenger SRT Demon, and Ford has an even beefier Mustang called the Shelby GT350 (soon to become the GT500).
But those are all expensive cars, the cheapest one coming in at $70,000. The Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2 might be a little behind its more aggressive, expensive counterparts, but for a car that’s fully track-ready, it’s a screaming deal at just under $45,000. The standard Performance Pack adds $4,000 onto a stock GT and Level 2 adds another $2,500.
That said, Performance Pack Mustangs—especially the bellicose Level 2—aren’t for the faint of heart. It’s a fast, good-handling car, but its high performance strengths don’t necessarily translate well into everyday driving scenarios. There will be those who enjoy manhandling the steering wheel from tight racing seats as they plod through rush hour traffic, but most won’t be into that.
If you don’t plan on spending a lot of time tearing around the track (at Monticello, membership alone costs at least as much as a Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2), the regular Mustang GT—which is only a few seconds slower around the track than the Level 2 anyway—will fit the bill just fine.
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