Master blasters: Last Aussie hero versus US legend

So you thought muscle cars had died out? The Ford Mustang GT and the Holden SS-V Redline sedan are full-noise reminders that the breed not only survives but still presents brilliant buying.


THE first rule of automotive law goes like this: Nothing is new. What has been before comes around again.

So it goes with almost every technology, every idea … and with every brand battle. Before Ford versus Holden there was Henry versus the General. Once both brands shut up their Australian shops, we’ll be back a Blue versus Red battle fought by products that aren’t made in this part of the world.

For now though, we’re in an interesting phase: Ford has already put its post-Falcon XR performance V8 into play even before the old Aussie slugger has been laid into its grave.

Holden, on the other hand, is still keeping quiet about the firepower it plans to put into the field of battle beyond the time it closes up shop, at the end of next year.

In the meantime, it is sticking to a tried and true, with a bunch of performance Commodores headed by the SS-V Redline, the most potent car it has ever factory-produced.

Which is best? Well, before we get into that, let’s agree that neither is a weak proposition.

The Mustang that Ford has finally determined to create in right-hand-drive – a mere 50 years after the nameplate came out – is the king of America’s mainstream, blue collar performance cars.

The SS-V Redline is also a magnificent opportunity. Holden makes no bones that this model, which employs a 6.2-litre V8 that was previous the preserve of Holden Special Vehicles’ Clubsport cars, was a special project. The brand basically determined to make it the best they have ever built as a reward to a firm fanbase.

These cars are special. Accordingly, we determined to give them special treatment. The story here talks to how they drive on the road.

The accompanying video was created to show why they deserve recognition as bone-fide muscle cars of the highest order. With permission from both brands, we put manual versions of the SS-V Redline and Mustang GT Coupe, respectively pricing at $75,990 and $77,880,  through their drift-tastic paces on Manfeild’s handling arena.

Ford Mustang GT Coupe

IF star value is all that matters, then the Mustang is a great go-to: Nothing else on the road at the moment is so obviously set to turn a head, draw a crowd, start a conversation. It is an utter attention magnet.

With the GT, there’s more to talk about beyond that eye-catching shape. Yes, the EcoBoost is a great technological advance and the four-cylinder versions’ pricing is definitely an attraction, but an eight-cylinder engine in a Vee arrangement has, and always will be, the true heart of this car.

With petrol prices as they are it’s a great time time to buy a V8 and even if those circumstances weren’t so convivial, it’s be hard to say no to the Mustang: Not only is there is no other sub-$100k V8 coupe on the market but it also gives you V8 power cheaper than almost any other sports car. Well, almost.

And this is just the engine you’d hope to find in a Mustang. Producing 306kW of power and 530Nm of torque, it’s an impressive unit, smooth and snarly, with with more flexibility and better manners than many V8s of yore and almost as much burbling charisma.

When measured in isolation, oomph is pretty much up to Gone In 60 Seconds standard and even though the soundtrack isn’t always that’s nothing that a Ford-approved optional exhaust from the States won’t fix.

The secret to getting the very the best this engine has to give is easily disclosed: Buy the manual. I know what you’re thinking about that; but honestly, the three-pedal set up is not such a burden. Sure, the clutch is heavy – not not as much of a muscle-builder as the Holden’s – and there’s a take-up bite that you have to watch for, else it’ll be bunny-hopping off the line. But really, it’s pretty easy to acquaint with and, once you discover that in urban situations it’ll pretty much do everything in second and third gear, then it’s a cinch.

The pay-off is in how well the engine enacts with this transmission. The auto V8 is a quick machine, but the manual is more invigorating because it allows far more direct involvement. Ultimate engagement is important because of how this engine uncoils its muscle; low rev performance isn’t as much of a strength as with larger capacity eights – it really doesn’t come fully alive until you reach 4000rpm. From there on, it’s game on, of course, right up the redline if you dare.

That’s where the manual comes into its own.  The auto is configured to change up through the cogs around 5000rpm even in its sport mode, and doesn’t always kickdown as quickly as you like, whereas the stick shift of course is an access-all-areas all of the time pass; you can just keep the engine at its meatiest all of the time and it sounds, feels and reacts much more ferociously as result.

While Ford doesn't offer an official 0-100kmh time for the Mustang, our testing suggested the manual is markedly quicker to the highway limit than the auto. It might also be faster in the 80-120kmh zone, equally important to know because that’s your overtaking performance. All this beside, it just sounds snarlier and you feel much more in tune with what it is about. Drop the clutch, hear the the tyres chirrup, watch the nose lift and feel the rush … it’s a hugely addictive experience.

The thrill of finding yourself more wholly in tune with the car’s soul also reaches to the dynamics. Even when accepting that Mustang is more a cruisy GT car than an outright thrusting sports machine, the first-time adoption of a multi-link rear suspension has to rate as the greatest single design improvement wrought this car, one that shows it to be a muscle car with no small amount of cornering talent.

Admittedly, even though it has three modes - Normal, Sport and Comfort – the steering is still a little vague. The driving modes - Normal, Sport, Sport Plus and Track – that allow the driver to tailor the car to suit the conditions are more worthy; though from our experience Track is a bit mis-named: It’s fine for the road, too.

The sportier the setting, the better the handling. The chassis generates a serious amount of grip, so you can lean into corners at fairly high speed and be confident that the car will stick. A limited-slip differential is standard and that helps with traction on the exit of corners, though it’s possible to unstick the back end. Because of the IRS, breakaway is far more progressive so it’s less a butt-clenching moment, but we were surprised to discover in the track component that on occasion, at the zenith of the slide, it’ll dig and hip-hope back just like the old live rear axle cars did. The difference is that, with the IRS car, there’s a good chance of safe recovery.

True, it’s not a mega-sized MX-5. On a very challenging road, the size and weight of the Mustang tend to count against it. You'll be working the brakes hard, slipping around in the seat (unless you option to those nice Recaro chairs availed Stateside) and the ride is on the firm side. But the thing is Ford has prepared for that; those Brembo brakes and fat, 19-inch Pirelli P-Zero rubber is very specialist fare for a blue collar car, but their inclusion to this recipe will never be considered an example of over-egging.

Speaking of which … Ford has kept the GT specification simple, with the racing stripe on ours being one of just three options, but its kit content is pretty good. Ambient lighting, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, heated and ventilated leather seats, nine-speaker sound system, SYNC2 with eight-inch infotainment touchscreen and Track Apps including an acceleration timer - but no Line Locker function, aka 'Burnout Mode' because Australian regs don’t allow it. Dammit!

Slide behind the wheel and some many of the classic chintzy cues are there - the retro switches, twin dials with 'Ground Speed' and 'Revolutions Per Minute', the three-spoke wheel – that even the big dose of modernity, in the form of the SYNC infotainment touch screen, doesn’t keep it from feeling like a rebirth of a past life car.

Ford is at pains to point out this car is a big step forward in quality over its predecessor but the poor plastics, mismatched switchgear, cheesy faux-metal finishes and so on take the ambience down a notch. But that’s just what you get at a blue collar price.

At nearly five metres long and almost two metres wide, the Mustang is big fella, but only on the outside. Those in the front have a decent amount of room, but anyone seeking to slip into the back will not have an easy entry or egress and will feel seriously hemmed in.

But the Mustang isn't a family car and as soon as you press the starter button and the V8 rumbles into life you tend to forget all the disappointing stuff.

Holden Commodore SS-V Redline

Mustang’s development crew will have never heard of this Commodore: To their eyes, the only GM product they have to consider are the Camaro and perhaps the Corvette.

But in this market and for this exercise, it’s run what you brung – and until the General’s American coupes are released in right-hand-drive, the closest competitor for the Pony Car is something bigger and, being a four-door sedan, far more family-orientated.

However, several aspects make the Redline a worthy competitor and genuine option to the Ford. It’s Holden’s hero, of course, and has every right to hold that status. Second, it’s actually a little bit cheaper than the GT Coupe even though it goes bigger in every sense: Exterior dimension, interior space, specification-wise and – most importantly – under the bonnet.

Especially under the bonnet: With Commodore as we know now on death row, Holden has determined their sports king should out with a bang, by making it as good as can be in every aspect, including sheer wallop. That means equipping it with an engine that is one heck a big banger.

Replacing the old 260kW/571Nm 6.0-litre V8 the 6.2-litre 'LS3' previously only found in the HSV range is a conversion that delivers a red-blooded level of grunt, with 304kW and 570Nm being generated, and hardly at Green-tinged intent, since economy and emissions worsen.

Still, as we say, fuel is cheap and it easy to forget that it slurps even more than ever once you try it at phwoar footing. This is a fantastic engine, even moreso than the Mustang’s: That Holden generated so much more tyre smoke during our drifting exercise speaks volumes to the 6.2’s bigger-lunged capacity and, in particular, to it having so much more torque.

But it’s not just the tyre-immolating action that entranced – with the Holden, you get a soundtrack that simply stuns. It’s a huge surprise to those of us who thought that Australia’s archaic drive-by noise rules had all but silenced the eight-cylinder roar that is so crucial to this experience. Clearly there’s a way to get around the red tape that Ford’s people need to hear about.

The story of how Holden’s tuners were able to make this car sound more lion-hearted than any other Redline and even the Holden Special Vehicles’ Clubsport that used to have this engine to itself when pushed while also keeping within the regs was told in our VF2 launch story earlier this year.

Basically it’s an incredible feat that involves a bi-modal exhaust made all the better by some real Aussie ingenuity. A sound tube from the engine bay and a special hole with the exhaust pumps the V8 soundtrack directly into the cabin, rather than trying to isolate it. But that’s just the half of it: Get hard on the throttle and the world gets to hear about it to; it’s a glorious, screw-you song that, it has to be said, comes out being stronger and more meaningful than Ford’s.

The extra edge to the soundtrack is abetted by genuine performance ferocity; this is no lazy V8 by any measure. Again, the manual gearbox provides a better channel than the alternate auto; yes, it’s a chunky device, heavier and slower than Ford’s. This car demanded special care in upshifting from second to third, and downshifts couldn’t be hurried either, but the reward comes from being able to explore every part of its massively impressive performance base. 

The broader torque and power spread provides a cleaner delivery than the old 6.0-litre and Ford’s engine; there’s more shove down low and as much willingness to rev out. This makes it massively engaging when driven with enthusiasm.

The shove and energy is patent enough to convince Holden to u-turn on past reluctance to provide performance data. Cited official 0-100kmh and 0-400 metres times of 4.9 and 13 seconds shave half a second off the old car’s. By the 400m post, it’s up to 182kmh – a 20kmh gain. Phew. And, as I say, you get to hear all – not just a deep-throated bellow but also the encore of an evil over-run crackle.

Glory in the power and you’ll be on first name terms with every local service station cashier. Our antics resulted in an average of 18 litres per 100km; a previously tested automatic settled into a 15.5 L/100km average with pure road driving.

Like Ford, Holden doesn’t settle on just outfitting a big engine in the hope the rest of the car can keep up. What a car like this really has to have is good strong fundamentals: Good tyres, a decent chassis, precise steering, reliable brakes.

The previous SS-V Redline did a lot of box-ticking in this respect, but the new one earns even higher scores. It is a truly rewarding drive, with excellent handling and grip and extremely good steering feedback and stopper feel.

What makes it good – great, actually – is the precision of the thing. At this level of performance personality you have to anticipate that Holden will have taken most of the body movement out of the suspension during cornering ands over bumps, but what I’ve previously liked about the Redline setup previously still maintains in its retune, in that it’s firm without falling into harshness and hyperactivity.

Funnily, whiole the road-driving suggested the steering is still a little slow and the front-end will push wide in heavy cornering, the track outing delivered quite an opposite opinion: Indeed, our resident Mr Drift, Gavin Halls, simply couldn’t stop raving about the quality of the steering feel. He also noted that engine is instantaneous enough to be more easily balanced on the throttle than the Mustang was. As the video shows, go deep on the power and there’s no end of smoking and sliding.

Any improvement? Like Mustang, the SS-V tailors to enthusiast appeal by having a launch control, but Ford’s is much easier to enact. Other than than, nothing comes to mind …

All this makes the SS-V a stupendous swansong. Specification-wise, they punch pretty evenly on the basics, but the higher quality of the Commodore’s materials and fit and finish was plain to see. Australian leather is also better than the American stuff and the Alcantara inlays are nice.

The SS-V Redline kits out with keyless ignition, navigation with live traffic, nine-speaker Bose sound system, MyLink, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, colour head up display and a sunroof, but it also has technologies absent from the Mustang in the form of a forward collision warning and lane departure warning.

The SS-V Redline stands out as the best sub-$100k sport sedans on the market – it also out-punches in the fight between the American icon and the Australian classic. That’s not to call the Mustang a loser; it’s fantastic that Ford’s legend is finally with us in right-hand-drive and we hope it’ll remain part of our lives for many years to come.

However, what makes the Redline all the more special is that it is running against the clock. In just over a year from now, the VF line will be no more. This Redline will definitely be one of the Commodores that defined a special period and, in all likelihood, will become an appreciating future classic. It’s that good.