Of the more than 100 new vehicles I’ve driven this year, the 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt might be my favorite. I wish I could leave it at that, then channel some Steve McQueen icy blue stare and you’d just accept its greatness as truth and we could all do our own high-speed stunts while chasing two hit men in a Dodge Charger on the hills in and around San Francisco.
But that was then and that was questionable and this is now and this is certain: The 50th anniversary edition of the infamous Mustang with the legendary car chase from a movie that doesn’t quite stand the test of time is outstanding. And at just over $50,000, or about $3,000 more than a similarly equipped GT with Performance Package 1, the Bullitt with a planned two-year production run is kind of a deal.
The McStang comes in dark highland green (shadow black is an option, if you don’t care for heritage or verisimilitude) with subtle chrome accents and has red six-caliper Brembo brakes flexing behind 19-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels wrapped in Michelin PS4 summer tires (more on that in a bit). The grille is blacked out so there is no Mustang, and the only Bullitt iconography is a round target on the trunk and the fuel cap.
There is some modest badging inside, including a Bullitt welcome screen on start up, a fake aluminum dash piece and a Bullitt steering wheel center. Even the most significant upgrade is subtle: The 5.0-liter V-8 gets a 20-horsepower boost over the GT to 480 horsepower, which lifts top speed 8 miles per hour to 163 miles per hour, thanks in part to some engineering tweaks from the GT350. It can hit 60 miles per hour in about four seconds, according to some outlets, which is the same as the GT.
It might be difficult to tell the horsepower difference, even on a track, but there’s no mistaking the six-speed manual with the cue-ball shifter. It’s the only transmission offered, so that 10-speed automatic will have to go to the millennials and the parents who failed them.
So what’s to love? Let’s start with the cue-ball shifter. It’s like holding a sorcerer’s orb of power. Leave the palm on it while cruising and it’s relaxing, like some oddly satisfying stress ball. But then there’s something about powering through the gears that is both curved and firm, feminine and masculine, graceful and powerful.
And the sound. How sweet the sound. Active valve performance exhaust is the same as the GT and still worth a paragraph. It uses butterfly valves in one of the dual twin exhaust pipes to modulate sound in four different settings. Normal mode plugs in the amp; track mode takes it to 11. Rev the engine up to 7,400 rpm and the high gear range means you can keep it in third while climbing into triple-digit speed. As the scenery flicks by with increasing speed, the V-8 soundtrack in the cabin intensifies. Your chest thrums because the heart has finally met its match.
But there is also quiet mode, which tames the wild warble so you can drop off the kids at school or slip out of the subdivision on a Sunday morning without announcing to the world your intentions. This dynamism and respect to a world whose majority doesn’t much sing the siren song of the V-8 applies to active rev matching as well. On the track, active rev matching blips the throttle in downshifts so the engine doesn’t jump and the car lurch; the driver need not have to heel and toe it; on the street, active rev matching can elicits glares from every pedestrian who suspects you of foolishly revving the engine into a stop. In the Mustang’s excellent 12-inch LCD instrument cluster, there is a button to shut it off.
That cluster can also be reconfigured for different views to correspond with different modes, from snow/ice to track mode. With the advanced driver assistance systems with navigation and cross-traffic alert as part of the electronics package ($2,100), the steering wheel can feel a bit overwhelmed with buttons. But it, along with exceptional voice commands, minimizes the need to hit the small touch screen with the narrow buttons.
Even though the Mustang can fit two stunned kids in the back, it doesn’t have the classic muscle car size of the Challenger, nor does it have that whole retro vibe. Despite the 50-year-old references, Bullitt drives like a thoroughly modern sports car and has all the tech that comes with it. The Camaro probably is quicker, more powerful and better composed, but Bullitt Mustang looks better than them both, even without the Bullitt name. It’s just cool.
But those PS4 tires shouldn’t be used when it’s cold, or during our season’s first snowfall, which totaled 12 inches. Everyone knows this. Everyone should also know that even in better conditions, the 420 pound-feet of torque on the rear wheels can make it buck and wag. Don’t floor it from a stop entering a turn. It’s not the car that needs taming, but the driver who needs to be tamed from slamming the pedal in response to the primal call from the engine.
But, on the track, in the snow, during the commute, our love for this special Mustang never faded. If only we could say the same for the movie that inspired it.
2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt
Vehicle type: Pony car
Base price: $46,595
As tested: $50,390 (excluding $900 delivery)
Miles per gallon: 15 city, 24 highway, 18 combined
Engine: 480-horsepower 5-liter V-8
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Competitive rank: Bullitt Mustang, Chevy Camaro 2SS, Ford Mustang GT, Dodge Challenger.