Ford Mustang GT ($57,490)
Holden SS V Redline ute ($50,990)
Just call this Ford versus Holden with a twist. Within seven months that ‘twist’ sound will be of taps turning off in Victoria as Falcon production winds down after 56 years. Or it could be the cranking of floodgates opening as buyers rush to embrace the US-made Mustang.
Even before its December debut, the sixth-generation (and officially first-in-Oz) Pony car was so hot to trot it attracted 3000 forward orders.
Eighty-eight percent of buyers are choosing 5.0-litre V8 over 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 84 percent coupe over convertible and 64 percent six-speed automatic over manual.
Where the Mustang straddles pricing between $45,990 and $66,490, the Falcon spans through $36,400 to $55,690. Yet the Falcon tallied just 5938 sales last year. Until the XR6 Turbo and XR8 Sprint final editions arrive, for now we have to forget the Falc.
Buyers are not forgetting the Holden Commodore, however, with 27,770 moved last year. Although well down on the 38-year-old nameplate’s halcyon days – 76,849 sedans and wagons shifted from showrooms in 1998 – there has been a change in who is buying the big Holden.
No longer is the Commodore just fleet fodder, the portion of private buyers selecting more expensive V8 models stands at around 30 percent – the highest ever.
Holden responded by giving those buyers what they wanted: more grunt and more noise. In the final furlongs until the brand’s own South Australian production facility winds down late next year, the VF Series II arrives with a thumping 6.2-litre V8 and bi-modal exhaust.
Given our tested Mustang GT V8 coupe manual has two doors and costs $57,490 plus on-road costs, we chose a variant of Commodore often described as a ‘two-door sports car with a bloody big boot’.
The sports flagship SS V Redline represents absolutely the best our local engineers can do with such a big car. The ute is not only $3500 cheaper than the sedan, at $50,990 (plus orc), but it’s also lighter – 1755kg versus 1793kg, and closer to the 1701kg ‘Stang.
Besides, what better takes the fight to an iconic American than our own unique concept of a passenger-car-based sports utility? (For now, we’ll place aside the dreadful fact it will die out completely within 24 months).
When the 306kW of the Mustang leads its rival by 2kW, but the 570Nm of the Commodore is 40Nm ahead of its lighter foe, things are going to be close. So let’s take new Ford's reins and see if it can reign supreme against this local Holden legend.
Two doors, two seats and either a tin lid covering a small boot, or a bit of canvas covering a backyard-pool-sized one – they are the configuration differences here. Okay, the Mustang gets two back seats, but they are basically unusable such is the lack of headroom and legroom. So let’s focus on what is up front.
Saddle into the ‘Stang for the first time and the initial impression is not positive. It smells funny, like a glue factory (ahem) with plastics that haven’t yet set. The leather on the seats feels as cheap as the hard-plastic surroundings.
Then things get much better. The seats themselves are snug and supportive, offering heating and cooling functions and electric adjustment for the passenger, both of which are absent from its rival. The thin-rimmed retro-look steering wheel is a delight to hold, and the eight-inch colour touchscreen is simple to use, boasting digital radio also lacking in the Australian ‘coupe’.
The design of the dashboard exudes character and retro flair, and the toggles on the lower console to adjust steering modes (three) and drive modes (four) all ‘click’ up and down with surprising precision.
Step into the Commodore and the front seats feel broader and less supportive – potentially perfect for rugged Aussie tradies more than your latte-wielding writer. Likewise the steering wheel feels too large and the gearshifter falls less naturally to hand.
The Holden has demonstrably superior plastics, trim textures and general fit-and-finish, but its dashboard lacks flair alongside the stylised ‘Stang.
The ute has some technology tricks up its sleeve, however, adding a colour head-up display, internet apps connectivity, automatic park assist, reverse traffic and forward collision alerts and lane departure warning over its coupe rival. It’s clear that this contest won’t be won or lost over what is (or isn’t) inside.
Meanwhile the driver sits higher inside the ute that stands 1494mm tall, or 23mm above its sedan sibling and a full 113mm beyond the Ford. A shared width of 1898mm across the VF Series II range makes it 18mm narrower than its rival.
What isn’t shared in the Commodore range is length and wheelbase – the ute measures 5083mm long on a 3009mm wheelbase that respectively extends 144mm and 94mm further than the sedan and Sportwagon.
It means that while the wheelbase is shared with the Caprice, total length stops 77mm short of that limousine, resulting in less rear overhang.
Check out the differences to the Mustang, though: the baby Pony stretches 4784mm from tip-to-hoof, resulting in 299mm less body length than the ute, and its 2720mm wheelbase stops 289mm short.
Even the medium-sized Holden Malibu sedan has a 17mm-longer wheelbase. Put another way, the wheelbase of a $77,500 (plus orc) BMW M235i compact coupe is only 30mm shorter than the $20,000-cheaper ‘Stang.
ON THE ROAD
As a load lugger the SS V Redline ute makes a bloody great sports car. The ute has a payload of just 630kg and it can only tow 1600kg where the sedan and Sportwagon (with optional automatic) can lug up to 2100kg.
On another note, the SS V Redline ute circuited the Nurburgring in 8.0 minutes and 19.57 seconds to create a lap record for a utility around the iconic 20.8km German track.
That was back in 2013 with the 6.0-litre and automatic transmission version, at a time when a Renault Sport Megane hot-hatchback was only 11.49sec faster – or a half-second per kilometre. Further confirming the validity of its place here, the ute actually beat the time of the Mustang’s real US coupe rival, the VE-based Chevrolet Camaro.
The ute’s chances in this test don’t begin well following an urban drive in the Mustang, however.
It may not be the popular choice, but the six-speed manual in the Ford is one of the best of its kind, with a short, slinky and direct throw between gears that is completely unexpected in a muscle car. Likewise the steering is so immediate and so subtly responsive that you could be fooled into thinking you’re in a little Fiesta ST.
The V8 reads as a modern template of a large-capacity naturally aspirated engine, with all-aluminium construction, dual camshafts and variable valve and camshaft timing. What it translates to is a glorious soundtrack as the engine extends with enthusiasm past 7000rpm.
Throttle response is perfectly crisp and, along with perhaps the most lenient standard electronic stability control (ESC) this tester has experienced in a new car, means the Mustang pulls at its leads around town, egging the driver on to have a bit of a punt. It’s possible to get very sideways before the ESC reins in proceedings.
Did we really just say ‘direct’, ‘immediate’ and ‘subtle’ all in a few paragraphs about a Mustang? Around town the Ford coupe feels sophisticated, yet it also delivers a riotous time.
Swap into the SS V Redline ute and everything seems to happen slower. The manual is longer and looser (though it is still slick and miles better than previous Holden shifters) while the steering is less reactive on-centre.
The larger 6.2-litre V8 is slower to rev and not as keen to explore the top-end of the tachometer, hitting the wall just above 6500rpm. Holden also claims 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds versus its rival’s 4.8sec. Yet it’s also a much throatier engine and potentially quicker through the mid-range, while the bi-modal exhaust complements its personality with pops and crackles almost entirely absent from the Ford.
Where the two rivals join together is in their ride quality. Despite wearing a ‘GT’ badge, Mustang models bound for our shores get the Performance Pack kit optional overseas – including heavy-duty front springs, larger rear sway bar, extra bracing and firmer dampers.
All SS V Redline models run unique FE3 suspension that Holden claims is racetrack focused. Given that it matches the Ford’s 19-inch wheel size and general suspension philosophy, a slightly fidgety and lumpy ride from both makes sense, but neither descends into harshness.
Taking the ‘Stang for a gallop along quintessentially Aussie tarmac sees the tables to turn.
What at low speeds proved a playful Pony, eager to point and drift, can become quite snappy during faster cornering. The short wheelbase can be felt in its slithering attitude to small throttle or braking inputs, meaning they need to be carefully modulated. Yet beyond the initial steering response, the tiller provides no real feedback.
Despite our country scoring the harder suspension, this Ford can feel floaty when pushed over a tight and bumpy hillclimb, robbing the driver of confidence. Tellingly, the ESC reacts more to vertical body movement and pitching over bumps than it does with tail-out attitude. It’s a fantastic seven-tenths car; maybe eight-tenths if you’re game but certainly not nine-tenths.
Conversely, nine-tenths is where the honed Holden thrives. If it felt less tight around town, then the opposite is true beyond city limits. For a vehicle with essentially the same ride quality as the Ford, the SS V Redline feels more planted and more agile.
It’s also possible to track road surface-changes through steering that becomes tighter and more connected as lock is wound on; especially in Redline-exclusive Competitive mode that is weightier without turning mushy. Likewise the Competitive mode of the ESC is immaculately tuned and more balanced in its interventions than its rival’s standard setting.
Perhaps the ute, with its firmer rear suspension, doesn’t quite possess the classic Commodore trait of rolling subtly onto its outside wheel during cornering. Instead it just sticks and goes, while the longer wheelbase means its backside can be modulated incisively on the throttle – slowly slipping out and coming in, rather than edging suddenly sideways.
Behavioural differences could also come down to Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres that are superior to the Pirelli P Zero units on Ford, though both get 275mm-wide rears. Both score Brembo brakes, though the Holden’s 360mm rear stoppers are up 30mm on its rival and it provides better pedal feel overall.
In some ways the verdict here is a horses for courses call. Not until the very end of testing did the odds shorten considerably on one of these two-door sports cars.
Quite literally the Mustang will attract people who will stop, stare, point and recognise. It feels as characterful in its styling as it is sophisticated in its drivetrain, which is an absolute delight. The chassis, too, is sweet except for some under-damped behaviour.
It is a lovable package that we would pick every time if we spent most of our time around town or wanted to drive the odd hillclimb.
The SS V Redline suffers nothing for being a ute, however, and is just as focused in its ride quality and fast in a straight line as the ‘GT’ car. Yet it also delivers more depth to its overall dynamic package.
It simply gets better the harder you drive. Thus, on material terms – placing aside image, but noting it is also $6500 more affordable – the sports utility crosses the finish line first in a super-tight two-horse race. A win to Holden... by a nose.
Photography by Alex Bryden.
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