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At Speed With The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1

Author: Bradley Iger | 04/13/2021 < Back to Motor Life Home
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During the peak of the muscle car craze, Ford faced mounting competition from the likes of Chevrolet’s Super Sport models and Mopar’s budget-minded hot rods like the Plymouth Road Runner and the Dodge Dart. The Mustang had already proven to be a bonafide hit, and with the help of Carroll Shelby, the Blue Oval had reshaped the Mustang’s reputation from a “secretary’s car” into a legitimate performance icon. But while the GT350, GT500 and Ford’s own Boss 302 and 429 provided well-heeled buyers with plenty of fast Mustangs to choose from, the company still needed an option for mainstream enthusiasts who were looking to square off at the stoplights in style.


Introduced for the 1969 model year, the Mach 1 was a pitch-perfect response. Effectively blending brawny bodywork and tire melting performance even in base trim, the buying public responded accordingly, and the Mach 1 outsold the GT by a factor of more than 14 to 1 in its inaugural year on sale.


2021 Mustang Mach 1 base wheel

The standard Mach 1 wheel is the sharp looking five-spoke seen here on this blue example.


Decades passed before the nameplate was revived in proper form, but that moment eventually arrived in 2003 when Ford introduced the Mach 1 package for the SN-95 generation pony car. More than a simple appearance package, it was equipped with performance hardware from both the 2001 Bullitt Mustang as well as the top-spec SVT Cobra, along with its own unique shaker hood scoop, Magnum 500-inspired wheels, and host of other unique components to help it stand out from the rest of the lineup.


Now, seventeen years after production of the SN-95 iteration ended, Ford has revisited its past once again. The strategy is strikingly similar to the last time around, with engineers digging into the parts bin of the now-out-of-production Mustang Bullitt and Shelby GT350 models to assemble a high performance blend of the two while throwing a few new tricks into the mix for good measure. To find out if they’ve recaptured that old school swing, we headed out to Willow Springs International Raceway to put the new Mach 1 through its paces at the track and out of the desert roads surrounding the facility.

Inside And Out

2021 Mustang Mach 1 colors

This Fighter Jet Gray color (foreground) is exclusive to the Mach 1 Premium, though a wider array of colors are available. Hood and side stripes are standard on the Mach 1, though the gray/orange combination is unique to the Appearance Package.

In the six years since the S550 generation Mustang debuted, Ford Performance has developed a veritable arsenal of go-fast hardware for the modern day pony car, and that has provided its engineers with a lot of parts to mix and match to put together the Mach 1. Its powerplant is a modified version of the Coyote five-liter used in the Bullitt Mustang, and makes an identical 480 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, but it’s been upgraded with the GT350’s intake manifold, oil filter adapter, and oil cooler to enhance its track capability.


But unlike both the naturally aspirated Shelby and the Bullitt, the Mach 1 can be had with a choice of gearboxes. The manual transmission on offer is the slick, close-ratio Tremec 3160 six-speed unit from the GT350 rather than the Bullitt’s MT-82 box, and for Mach 1 duty, Ford has added auto rev matching (which can be disabled, if one chooses) as well as no-lift upshift features. Ford’s 10-speed automatic is also available in the Mach 1, and benefits from an upgraded torque converter as well as a Mach 1-specific software calibration. Both transmissions are outfitted with coolers as standard, as is the Torsen limited-slip rear end.


On the chassis side of the equation, the standard Mach 1 ostensibly slots between the GT Performance Pack 1 and Performance Pack 2 models in terms of tuning, with Mach 1-specific front springs, MagneRide dampers, sway bars, and EPAS calibration. The brakes are the six-piston Brembo units seen elsewhere in the Mustang performance lineup, while the brake booster comes from the Performance Pack 2. Even the GT500 donated a few organs, with the rear subframe, bushings and rear toe-link of Ford’s top-spec Shelby Mustang finding their way into the Mach 1.


2021 Mustang Mach 1 underhood

This variant of the Coyote 5.0-liter is similar to 480hp iteration used in the Bullitt (and amakes the same amount of power), but it’s been upgraded with the intake manifold, oil filter adapter, and oil cooler from the GT350.


A staggered set of Michelin Pilot 4S summer tires wrapped around Magnum 500-style 19-inch wheels are the standard rolling stock for the Mach 1, while the Handling Package gets its own unique set of wider wheels and ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Mach 1s with the Handling Package upgrade also score a larger front splitter, the GT500’s rear wing, stiffer springs and dampers, and adjustable top strut mounts to dial in more negative camber for track use.


While the performance enhancements are fairly comprehensive, the Mach 1’s aesthetic changes are, unfortunately, not as significant. The hood and side stripes are optionally available as part of the Mach 1’s Appearance Package, but outside of that, the most obvious external changes versus the garden-variety GT are the larger side intakes below the turn signals on the front fascia, the faux fog light grille, the black accents, and throwback badges. It’s a similar situation in the cabin as well, where standard Recaro seats, Mach 1 callouts on the sill plates and instrument panel and the Bullitt’s cue ball-style shift knob (on cars equipped with the manual gearbox) are the most obvious differentiators from the standard GT interior.

Behind The Wheel

2021 Mustang Mach 1 handling pack

With its wider wheels and enhanced aero, the Handling Package noticeably ratchets up the Mach 1’s visual aggression.


We started the day off roaming the streets south-west of WSIR on a mix of fast, arrow-straight desert two-lanes and more technical canyon roads near Lake Hughes, and Ford supplied a posse of identically-equipped standard Mach 1s with the 10-speed automatic transmission for the job.


Upon firing up the Coyote and giving the throttle a few blips, we noted that the Mach 1’s exhaust note isn’t quite as rich as the Bullitt’s was. Ford explained that they plan to sell the Mach 1 globally in identical specification, so they outfitted the model with 4.5-inch perforated exhaust tips rather than the more traditional exhaust tips on the Bullitt in order to capture some of the high frequency sound that could have potentially violated international noise regulations. It’s still got plenty of bark in Sport and Track modes, but some of the character in the tone is slightly muted.


Out on the sunbaked desert tarmac, the revised MagneRide adaptive dampers did an admirable job of keeping ride quality in check while hauling the mail down some desolate stretches of highway, but the standard Mach 1’s suspension tuning is noticeably software than the latest GT350’s, and we missed that button-down chassis on some of the windier sections. The Handling Package likely cures some of that, but we weren’t given the opportunity to a drive a Mach 1 spec’d as such on the street, and it’s worth noting that S550 Mustangs that are factory equipped with Cup 2 tires have a reputation for tramlining in pavement features, so the potential tradeoff might not be worth it for some would-be Mach 1 owners.


While responsive and surprisingly versatile in its shift behavior based on the drive mode selected, the 10-speed automatic seemed to always be busy doing something, either downshifting five gears at a time when we laid into the throttle to pick up the pace, or upshifting into the overdrive cogs while at speed, even in Sport and Track drive modes. Eventually we got tired of arguing with the transmission and started dictating the gear changes manually with the paddles. It’s not as satisfying as a manual gearbox, but the automatic does score some points here for bouncing off the rev limiter rather than automatically upshifting when the shifter is in the Sport position and you’re using the paddles.


2021 Mustang Mach 1 interior

Defined largely by the unique Dark Spindrift instrument panel and Mach 1 callouts, the interior changes versus a standard GT are subtle.


When we got back to Willow Springs, Ford set us up with stints lapping Streets of Willow in both automatic and manual-equipped Mach 1 models with the Handling Package. Here the automatic likely delivers slightly faster lap times under ideal circumstances (and manually shifted with the paddles), but the Tremec six-speed was undoubtedly our transmission of choice. Ever since it was introduced back in 2016 in the GT350, we’ve loved the short, precise throws it delivers and the much better gear ratios it offers versus the MT-82. It’s even better here, as auto rev matching allowed us to focus more on our line, braking zones, and throttle inputs rather than dedicating a portion of our attention to heel-toe footwork. The no-lift upshift feature is welcome, too, but feels less essential.


The Coyote’s output is well matched to the grip and chassis tuning of the Handling Package, allowing us to push the Mach 1 up to – and occasionally beyond – the mechanical limits without fear of putting the car in the dirt, though we noted that there isn’t a ton of useful information coming through the steering rack. When the front end pushed or the back end kicked out, usually the first indication of it came from the nose of the car not pointing in the same direction as the steering wheel, as opposed to some early information from the chassis. It doesn’t kill the fun, but it’s another aspect of the Mach 1 that had us longing for the sharper tuning of the Shelby GT350.


Perhaps of greater import, though, is the fact that the Mach 1 doesn’t really effectively establish a unique personality of its own, both aesthetically and dynamically. While the Bullitt was defined by its understated cool factor and excellent cruising manners, and the Shelby by its visceral, sportscar-like character, the Mach 1 simply exists in a gray area between the two without really pushing the platform in a new direction in any substantial way. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, considering the fact that the S550 Mustang GT is fundamentally a very solid performance car, but to revive such a storied nameplate without an earnest attempt to develop an identity for it feels like a missed opportunity. Here’s hoping that a few more perfectly rev-matched downshifts of that Tremec will help ease the pain.

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