Following a tried and true formula of having the engine in the front and the power delivery in the rear, the Ford Mustang is generally not associated with optimal poor weather capability. The result is that those who reside in climates that experience four distinct seasons tend to tuck their pony cars away for the winter months. There are some vehicles that are essentially designed and purpose-built to withstand and traverse harsh winter conditions with comfort, utility and ease. The Ford Mustang, is not one of them. So why would anyone in their right mind agree to drive a 310 hp rear-wheel-drive sports car over 1,400 miles from Toronto, Ontario to Winnipeg, Manitoba - a city renowned for its painfully long, harsh and unforgiving winters in December? Excellent question.
Being a Mustang enthusiast as well as past and current owner myself, I have been looking forward to driving the much-lauded 2015 model since I first saw images of its New York City unveiling back in December of 2013. I can’t think of too many circumstances that would cause me to hesitate in accepting an offer to drive it, but somehow one managed to present itself. The good news was that I would have three full days of seat time in a brand spankin’ new Race Red Ford Mustang Ecoboost with a six-speed manual transmission optioned out with the Performance Pack boasting Recaro racing seats, firmer front springs, a beefier rear anti-roll bar, a 3.55:1 limited-slip differential and larger brakes with four-piston calipers up front. The down side? The vehicle had to be delivered safe and sound to Winnipeg, Manitoba on a tight timeline with the forecast showing high winds, poor visibility and lots of snow. What started off as a joke then became a dare and a challenge, which I am rarely one to turn down.
Opinions on design are unique and subjective, but I find the styling of the new Mustang very alluring from every angle. The interior boasts much higher quality materials than previous generations as well, without the frustration of rattles or creaks which is also a welcome change. Cues were taken from the Mustang’s fighter plane heritage such as the Ground Speed indicating speedometer and toggle switches to adjust steering feel and traction control.
Setting off late in the afternoon under clear skies and just below freezing temperatures, my goal was to check-in to the Sudbury Hampton Inn by Hilton on Regent Street in time for dinner but Mother Nature evidently had other plans. Heavy snowfall started just North of Barrie and thankfully didn’t last long but did give me a chance to get comfortable with driving the ‘Stang in the snow during daylight. Winter conditions can be a great equalizer and quickly expose shortcomings in a vehicle very quickly. Neither twitchy nor high-revving, the new chassis and engine are well matched and stable. Handling is well-balanced and inspires confidence but the rapidly deteriorating conditions certainly still kept my attention. Had it not been equipped with the 245/40R19 Michelin X-Ice Xi3 tires, I would have declined the offer altogether. Winter tires are essential, but they aren’t magic and overconfidence comes with its own dangers. Apparently my stupidity does know boundaries.
The EcoBoost Performance Pack includes Pirelli PZero summer only tires (seen here). Fortunately the test car was outfitted with Michelin X-ice tires.
I didn’t reach a loss of grip where activation of the ABS (anti-lock brakes) was necessary during normal driving, but did test it out in an empty parking lot to see how well the system worked. Unlike previous generations of traction control, the new system is unobtrusive and helpful. My old SN95 would simply cut power once you were suitably sideways – bucking you in the opposite direction when traction was abruptly restored. Steering is also tighter and more precise than previous generations, making poor weather driving that much less eventful.
The next test came as I set out from the Hampton Inn before dawn the next morning as the mercury registered below freezing, without the wind chill. Surprising me once again, the EcoBoost powerplant fired right up without hesitation or drama via the push button ignition. Pulling onto the empty highway towards Sault Ste. Marie I was able to stretch this stallion’s legs a little as the cabin warmed up much faster than I expected, although I did have to remove my gloves to work the radio and heat controls. The updated SYNC infotainment system may be an improvement, but it is still infuriating. Featuring the non-heated cloth Recaro racing buckets, I found the driver’s seat as comforting and supportive as a mother’s hug regardless of how many hours I spent behind the electronically-assisted steering wheel with Comfort, Normal and Sport modes.
The Mustang faithful, myself included, will initially scoff at the thought of a four-banger under the hood. When it came to previous generations of the pony car I never understood why anyone would opt for anything other than the V8 found in GT models, because often times it was among the only redeeming qualities of the vehicle. No longer a consolation prize for those without the funds for a V8, the 2.3L EcoBoost boasts 310hp and 320ft-lbs of torque, which is embarrassingly more powerful than the output from the 4.6L V8 in my 2009 Mustang GT. While it may offer respectable performance numbers and fuel economy, it can’t possibly compete in the sound department, even with the sound amplified through the speakers. I won’t lie, I found this practice disingenuous and annoying.
This is how most Mustangs north of the Mason/Dixon line spend winter. Buried in the snow, and not leaving the driveway.
There is a nearly ubiquitous misconception that rear-wheel-drive is bad or dangerous in the rain and snow. This is a myth which I oppose vehemently and was reinforced often during this excursion. The first of many accidents I witnessed over the course of my drive was in my rear view mirror as a woman in a front-wheel-drive Honda Civic attempted to keep pace with me through a snow-covered corner south of Pancake Bay. Second-guessing her velocity mid-corner, she slammed on the brakes which sent her spinning 180-degrees across the oncoming traffic lane before smashing into the guardrail.
Highway 17 between Sault Ste. Marie is not a stretch of road you want to be stranded on, especially not in the winter. It is a barren and unforgiving stretch of highway. Gas stations, restaurants and shops have limited operating hours if they are open at all. Cell service is non-existent and areas where you can pull off the road safely are few and far between. There is however a plethora of transport trucks. Piloted by impatient and seemingly homicidal drivers, many of them pay no attention to the often poor weather conditions and lack of visibility, choosing instead to tailgate and pass multiple vehicles at triple digit speeds around blind corners with reckless abandon.
The drive across the top of Lake Superior can be among the most visually spectacular and treacherous in the country. This particular stretch of the Trans-Canada has been responsible for many untimely and horrific fatalities. I’ve traversed it many times by motorcycle in the summer, so I wasn’t completely ignorant to how much of a challenge it can be at the best of times, but driving one of the country’s most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of road in a rear-wheel-drive sports car in the icy depths of winter would be a whole new can of worms. Weather conditions can change both swiftly and drastically. White outs are commonplace and the highway is shut down often due to dangerous conditions. An ill-advised excursion of this distance and limited timeframe in such a vehicle requires healthy doses of spontaneity, tenacity and admittedly more than a little stupidity.
Planning on making it to Thunder Bay for a New Year’s Eve party with friends but being held up helping the Civic driver reach her destination safely, I was forced to spend the night in Wawa after the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) closed down Highway 17 in both directions. I decided to double back for a photo opportunity of the road block to prove to my friends I wasn’t lying about why I wouldn’t be making their soiree. Thinking I was attempting to traverse the highway I had just driven, the officer approached to say that there was no way I could get through that stretch of road, especially driving “That.” I wish I had a picture of his face when I responded with a sly grin, “I just did.” Visibility was nearly zero as I pulled into the parking lot of the Lakeview Hotel for the night that was filled with jacked-up 4×4 pickup trucks sporting camo and gun racks. Needless to say it was likely one of my most memorable and uneventful New Year’s Eve’s to date.
Setting off before dawn on New Year’s Day, I was once again met with sub-freezing temperatures, deep snow, gusting winds and poor visibility but the Mustang was warm, nimble and stable. Traction was substantial and the windshield wipers did their job well. I wasn’t the only one surprised by the pony’s poor weather prowess; I received strange looks and questions every time I stopped. The bright Race Red pony stuck out like a sore thumb in pickup truck country. Stopping for a coffee in White River the gas station attendant asked, “I heard the road was closed that way, how the hell did you manage to make it through to here driving that sporty thing?” Smooth, gentle acceleration, braking and steering inputs allowed me to calmly traverse roads few people would dare in even the most capable of off-road vehicles.
Stable, well-balanced and aerodynamic, the Mustang is everything an SUV isn’t. I’ve never been much of a Sport Utility Vehicle fan because the greater mass increase in ground clearance and ride height also bring a higher center of gravity, making them slower, heavier and more cumbersome. Thankfully after passing through Marathon the clouds parted as quickly as they arrived to reveal breathtaking scenery and some of the most enjoyable roads on the planet.
Rowing through the gears of the Getrag 6-speed transmission on clear, wide open roads, you couldn’t have taken the smile off my face with a sledgehammer. This stretch of road allowed me to truly test the new independent rear suspension and be able to comment on just how far superior it is to the former live rear axle. Both ride and handling are improved. Cornering is precise and smooth, even over road imperfections mid-corner which current Mustang owners will find especially impressive.
In the past, this much snow meant your Mustang was staying in the garage. With the modern ABS and ESC, combined with quality winter worthy tires, and good winter driving discipline, that’s no longer the case.
Another shocking revelation was how much better the fuel economy of the dual-scroll turbocharged EcoBoost is than in my five-speed Mustang. Despite being more powerful and me not trying to attain good fuel economy in the least, I managed to achieve an average of 24.7 miles per gallon while driving in mostly poor weather and in a ‘spirited’ yet safe fashion when conditions allowed.
I arrived at my destination in Winnipeg exhausted but at ease after nearly 40 hours of driving in just over three days. Absolutely filthy but thankfully without a scratch, the 2015 Ford Mustang EcoBoost proved itself to be a safe, smooth, capable and immensely enjoyable vehicle to pilot, regardless of the predominantly terrible weather conditions that were thrown at it.
If, or rather, when I upgrade my current S197 Mustang to the new S550 model I still won’t be driving it in the winter though. Regardless of its capability, exposure to the ice, snow and salt causes corrosion, with devastating effects to value and glossy finishes on paint and rims. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. For those who have no other choice however, I can safely say that with the proper tires, and right driving approach to winter conditions, the S550 Mustang can now serve as a year round driver for most of North America.