Words - Jonathan Hawley
Photos - Cristian Brunelli
Ford’s reborn pony car – here as a low-volume import – attempts to kick down the barn door to show a couple of well-bred two-doors a thing or two about pace and pedigree
THIS STORY could read like a wake, and, given this is probably the last drive you’ll read of the current Holden Monaro in Wheels, it probably is. But, as the preachers say, it’s also a celebration of life ... not to mention the power of inanimate metal and hydrocarbons to be transformed into beauty, performance and tyre smoke. The Monaro might well be dead for the time being, but its spirit lives on, if the wealth of talent available in the pair of coupes you see here is anything to go by.
That menacing black outlaw is, of course, a Ford Mustang, which is a little like a tale from beyond the grave in itself. The ’Stang isn’t for sale in Australia – well, not officially from a Ford dealer, at least. But place a phone call to Mustang Motorsport in Melbourne as we did, and it can deliver a spanking new 2006, 4.6-litre GT (or a cheaper V6-powered version) fresh off the boat and converted to full ADR right-hand-drive compliance.
The only proviso is, you’ll have to be a handy earner. The price is $115,000 (plus another $3500 for an upgrade package including leather trim, side airbags, a better sound system and those aggressive silver stripes). That’s almost twice the tag of the final-edition Monaro CV8-Z, which asks just $60,490. It’s obviously a steep ask, but you have to factor in the conversion work done by the importers – some three weeks of down-to-socks-and-jocks rebuild – and the Mustang’s exclusivity.
If this is shaping up as a Pan-Pacific muscle-car championship of sorts, well, why not head north to Japan, and throw in the Nissan 350Z as well? The Zed has been with us a few years now, but late last year copped an upgrade that included a 221kW version of the 3.5-litre V6 formerly reserved for the 35th Anniversary edition. There’s also more compliant suspension settings taken from the 350Z Roadster, a slightly different look to the front end, and better quality materials for the interior and dashboard. Unlike the Monaro and Mustang, the Zed’s a two-seater and missing a couple of cylinders, but for grunt, attitude and ability, its heart is true. At $67,990 for the Track version tested here, it also looks like a bargain against the Mustang GT, if less so alongside the four-seat Monaro.
Ford’s current Mustang is a sensational-looking iteration of the original pony car, thanks in part to its shark-like snout and relatively compact dimensions. The 32-valve V8 is good for 224kW and 433Nm, with power directed to the live rear- axle via a five-speed manual gearbox. It’s a far from sophisticated recipe, but, in a car weighing less than 1600kg, promises to be an invigorating one.
Settle in behind the brilliantly retro steering wheel and deeply recessed (and very hard to read) instruments, fire up the V8, and there’s little doubt the Mustang isn’t just muscle, it’s proper hard. Prod the throttle and there’s a rich, throaty, real old-school V8 rumble from its twin pipes. The five-speed Tremec slots positively into first, the long-travel clutch finally bites and the sensitive throttle pedal delivers the goods. The stable door is open, and this horse truly bolts. Throttle response is wonderfully urgent from the moment you breathe on the pedal, and there’s a real kick from 4500rpm to the 6400rpm cut-out.
It’s quick, with 100km/h coming up in 6.3 seconds and one gearshift, while 400 metres is just 14.5 seconds away from standstill. There’s plenty of drama, too; the nose lifts, the rear-end squats and, without too much provocation, a pealing squeal of wheelspin splits the air. If the traction control works, we didn’t notice.
For all that, though, the difference between the Ford’s performance and the 350Z’s is in no way the gulf you might think. The Zed (on damp ground) clocked 0-100km/h in 6.6sec and 0-400m in 14.7, despite less capacity, but also a good 100kg less weight and appreciably better traction.
Both, however, are eclipsed by the Monaro. With 5.7 litres, 260kW and 500Nm – grunt that demands careful clutch/throttle balance for a quick getaway rather than spinning, go-nowhere Bridgestones – the Holden eats Mustangs and spits out Nissans, requiring just 6.0 seconds to sprint to 100km/h and hitting 400 metres in just a whiff over 14 flat. The Monaro is more muffled in sound but still meaty, if nothing like as loud as the ’Stang from the outside. Its gearchange is also much heavier than the Ford’s surprisingly light and slick, box, but the big Holden coupe is still smooth, quick, and easy to drive.
Dynamically, the differences between the three are marked, as could be presumed given their varied origins and hardware. The 350Z is less performance coupe, more pure sports car, with its shorter wheelbase, strong, flexible engine – slightly punchier in the top end thanks to the changes that came with the facelift – and stiffer suspension combining to give depths of grip and accuracy the other two ultimately can’t match. It feels much smaller, and steers better because of it. The fact that the suspension rates have been backed off a notch with this updated version is welcome. Over bumpy territory there’s now reasonable compliance instead of bucking harshness.
In these conditions the Mustang is much less happy. It combines the razor-sharp turn-in of a new MX-5 with the rear-axle control of an EA Falcon, and is disconcerting to drive hard, if perversely fun at the same time because of the challenge it presents.
The steering offers zero feel, though, and the poorly controlled rear-end dances and twitches over patchy surfaces, requiring jabs of opposite lock to counter the bump steer. No surprises, too, that it axle tramps fiercely when gassed up over less-than-glassy hotmix. At least the softish suspension – surely tuned for Detroit’s potholes and California’s jarring concrete freeway joins – brings a very comfortable ride when cruising around town.
The Mustang’s brakes require a hefty shove to get them going – there’s a heart-stopping soft spot on application – but they do the job, eventually. In comparison, the Monaro’s stoppers are reasonable, given its size and weight, but the 350Z Track, with its big Brembos, are just brilliant, time and again.
The Monaro strikes a largely happy medium between body control and roll stiffness, with more than enough rear-driven grunt to help dial out its inherent mild understeer. It really is still very good, given the ageing platform – its adjustable dynamics allowing it to squat nicely on its loaded outside rear tyre and offer progressive, beautifully controllable oversteer. It’s a forgiving, effective, yet comfortable tool, with a ride part way between the Mustang’s softness and the Zed’s no-nonsense grit. All that and the power to move mountains, provided the correct selection has been made between the tall ratios of the vague-as-ever six-speed manual.