WHO KNEW that comparing apples and oranges could be this much fun?
First published in the June 2017 issue of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
The brief was to gather Tickford’s breathed-on Mustangs and see how they stacked up against more familiar home-grown fare from Holden and HSV.
For this fleeting snapshot in time, Aussie buyers can back-to-back blue-collar right-hand drive V8s from opposite sides of the Pacific. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, fruit analogy notwithstanding, and with a combined 1574kW of the good stuff split between them, drawing some sort of conclusion from this melee was never going to be a genteel discussion.
In the blue corner we have a pair of pugnacious ponies that Tickford reckons can land first round knockouts on the lineal champs in red. It divides nicely into a dust-up between two naturally aspirated and two supercharged powerplants and there’s not too much to separate them on price.
The 304kW Commodore SS-V Redline’s sales proposition is easy to identify. It’s the cheapest car here and in terms of metal for your money, this is the default pick. If you’re cash strapped, read no further. At $54,490 in this manual guise it’s ceding a fat wodge of grunt to the Tickford Mustang Power Pack 360, which takes the standard GT’s 306kW and adds another 54kW. That seems a hefty amount for an exhaust, cold air intake, throttle body spacer and ECU tweak. Pricing for the engine work alone will set you back $6990 over the standard Mustang GT’s $54,990 list.
Upping the ante quite extravagantly is the HSV Clubsport R8 LSA, presented here in 30th Anniversary guise. This sees power creep up 10kW to a thudding 410kW, while torque also eases its belt a little to 691Nm. The only automatic car of the quartet, the Clubbie’s $82,490 price tag reads like a misprint when the same amount can just scrape you into an entry level 140kW 1.8-litre Audi A6.
To keep the Clayton hellion on its toes is Tickford’s supercharged Mustang offering. All 500kW of it. This car is still a development work in progress and fills a void created by Ford Australia’s aim of selling a factory-warranted Roush supercharged car falling foul of Australian Design Rules.
There’s no such worry for Tickford, the company honouring its work for the balance of any existing warranty. Pop the bonnet and the tidily finished Roush-branded blower clamps itself to the top of the Coyote V8 like some sort of belt-driven facehugger. Tack another $19,490 onto the price of the $55K Mustang GT and you’ll find yourself behind the wheel of a car with an almost embarrassing surplus of kilowatts.
THERE’S no lake and not really much of a mountain at Lake Mountain. What there is makes the early start from Melbourne well worth the suburban schlep. With the holiday crowds gone, there’s a snaking road to nowhere, nothing open at the end of it and nobody to object to any perky driving.
First to be pointed at the bitumen that’s lazily draped over the hill folds is the SS-V Redline. There’s a familiarity to slipping into this VFII Commo’ and even with Holden’s focused FE3 sports suspension, there’s a languid flow to its body control that’s immediately endearing.
The chassis is decently tied down in extremis and has just enough reassurance about its pitch and roll axes to let you know exactly how hard it’s working the tyre contact patches.
Almost everything about the Redline speaks of a car that’s enjoyed some decent budget and a clear development path that traces back over a decade to the introduction of the VE generation. Teething issues have been massaged away one by one, leaving a car that feels admirably suited for local conditions. It’s quick too, especially over roads that throw malevolent compressions, cranky cambers and inconsistent surfaces at it.
You need to dial 4000rpm onto the clock to really get the 6.2-litre lump into its stride and while the LS3 has never been an inherently musical engine, the in-cabin note is purposeful enough, largely thanks to that cheap but effective Baillie Tip exhaust. The pedals are beautifully positioned for heel and toeing down through the gears and the brake pedal feel and progression is about as good as it gets, in this class at least. What’s not so great is visibility through tighter corners, the big-boned A-pillars capable of hiding an oncoming B-double.
The manual gearbox, while not bad of itself, is at odds with the efforts of the rest of the Redline’s controls. The steering’s more delicate than the car’s macho affectations might suggest, the pedals reward a deft touch and then there’s this hairy-chested throw that feels like you’re trying to smash an 8-ball pool break. What’s more, manual gearboxes with electronic parking brakes as fitted here are a wholly dispiriting combo.
It’s hard to argue with the way the SS-V – a vehicle with a bigger footprint than a millennial BMW 7 Series – demolishes a set of switchbacks, though. The front end is just mighty, the 19-inch Bridgestones doggedly keying into the scabby blacktop, helped by the benign long-travel brake and accelerator affording the rubber every chance to weasel out any residual adhesion. A consequence of that travel is that you need to really commit to big braking, something that can lead to a heart-in-mouth moment if you’ve stepped from something a little more overservoed. Something like a Mustang with the Tickford 360 Power Pack, for example.
Everything is immediately more direct in the Mustang, for better and for worse. On the run to the drag strip at Heathcote, it’s apparent that there are some roads where this car just doesn’t work very well. Anything with sudden and sharp compressions quickly sees the short travel suspension run out of answers. It’s the only car I’ve ever climbed out of with bruised pinky fingers from being repeatedly crashed into the steering wheel spokes. Occasionally it feels as if a combination of heave and pitch sends the longitudinal axis a long way aft, the whole front of the car bobbing its head.
Get the Mustang onto a more consistent surface and it feels special. The body control is sharper than the Commodore’s, turn-in is more incisive and throttle mapping far more aggressive. It feels like a supersized Toyota 86 until you try to drift it like a Hachi-roku, whereupon you find that the neurotic throttle response requires equally rapid hands.
The 3.0-inch mandrel-bent exhaust and engine work gives the Coyote 5.0-litre the voice it so signally lacks in standard form. There’s that characteristic Bullitt wub-wub at idle and, unlike many tuner cars, there’s clearly been a lot of work put into linearity of engine response rather than merely achieving a big number. About the biggest compliment you’d pay to the power uptick is that it feels factory-grade.
This car also wears a Tickford wheel and tyre set, featuring 10-spoke satin black alloys and staggered width 20-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT tyres. With tyre pressure sensors, locking wheel nuts, fitting and balancing, that’s going to leave you a McDonald’s meal’s worth of change from $4500. Then there’s the Tickford sports suspension that lowers ride height by 25mm for that great hunkered-on-its-rubber look, but which could use a little more gradation in compression damping.
The tyres tramline more on city streets than the Holden’s slimmer 19-inch hoops, sniffing out and nibbling at any minuscule contour in the surface.
The engine requires a few more revs on the board than the Redline, getting into its stride at 4500rpm, so you need to be a bit more diligent with gear selection when attacking a tight corner. The pedal box isn’t as well set up as the Holden either but the steering feels far meatier, the front end even more tenacious and the brakes feistier, although it requires a more measured pedal application.
The Mustang also sounds much more aggressive on the way out. What it doesn’t feel is a lot faster, something that our performance data attests to. The Tickford doesn’t get its snout in front until 160km/h, and there’s a mere tenth of a second between the two cars to 400m. For a car with a 56kW power advantage and which is hefting 80-odd kilos less timber up the strip, we’d have expected a wider gap. Time to see if some forced induction can open up a wider advantage.
The HSV Clubsport R8 LSA is a formidable package we know well, and the 30th Anniversary version’s massaged outputs are unlikely to make us like it any less. The bi-modal exhaust has been tweaked on this version to go louder sooner but the biggest news for keen drivers is that the Clubbie not only gets the Bosch torque vectoring set-up as seen on the GTS, but also beefs up the stoppers with chunky four-piston calipers. Six-piston AP Racing items are an option.
Parked next to the Redline, the HSV looks enormous, the bulkier chin and butt mouldings, lower ride height and more pronounced lateral lines making it look half a class bigger. It’s not a car that shrinks around you on a tight road either, but it’s astonishingly lithe for such a hefty unit. The torque vectoring helps here, although that requires some fairly focused throttle commitment to generate that degree or two of yaw to fire you out of a corner in vaguely the right direction.
The front end takes longer to trust than in the Redline, largely due to the stiffer sidewall hysteresis of the OE fit Continental ContiSportContact 5P tyres, which grip harder but are a little more taciturn than the Holden’s malleable Bridgestones.
The only car here with an automatic gearbox seemed likely to make a decent show on the strip and so it proved, the Clubbie being comfortably the quickest off the mark, the extravagantly overstuffed supercharged Mustang only coming past above 130km/h. We managed 14.5 seconds to 200km/h in less than perfect conditions. Away from the straight-line swagger, the 6L90E six-speed auto isn’t quite as satisfying.
Most of the time it’s still a better fit for the Clubbie than the Tremec manual, but that denial of downshifts as you lean on the brakes into a corner can be frustrating. After a while you give up on pinging the paddles and see if the software can make a better fist of things, which often feels – and sounds – clumsy.
The Clubsport promises real potency, but it can be caught surprisingly off guard for a supercharged car. Peak torque is at 4200rpm and peak power a heady 6150rpm.
The net result of this is that it feels more significantly less linear in its power delivery than you might expect. The flipside of this is that it’s endowed with a surge to the redline that’s laugh-out-loud hysterical. I haven’t heard such a manic shriek since Uncle Martin snagged his scrotum in a split plastic sun lounger while on holiday in Milford-on-Sea. For a car that’s so refined at cruising speeds, this unhinged duality of personality sets the HSV apart.
The supercharged Mustang doesn’t do bandwidth. Getting in this car at the start of a challenging road is like being thrown into a Central American prison. Your mouth goes a bit dry, you’re hyper alert and you know you’re going to have to wrestle it into submission before it escalates the violence out of hand. It has no benign side. That said, it shares the same suspension set-up as its atmo sibling, which is fantastic on the Lake Mountain road.
Nothing can really live with the black car up here. Full throttle is something you need to work up to, and keeping the throttle pinned for even a handful of seconds sends a raucous caterwauling howl across the valley, overlaid by the shrill keening of the supercharger. It’s hilariously traction-limited, notching the sprint to 100km/h only four-tenths quicker than its naturally aspirated sibling, but it reaches 200km/h fully five seconds ahead. We don’t have many roads that really do this car justice.
Point-and-squirting up here in the hills will do for now, though. The steering feels best in its heaviest mode, working nicely with the MT82 manual ’box. The auto would make life easier, but the manual suits the blown Mustang. The rest of the car puts no effort into making life easy, so why not stick with three pedals? Besides, it sounds so much cooler when you blip a big flare of revs on the way into a hairpin when you know the HSV driver behind is flailing impotently at a plastic flap and hoping for the best.
If you absolutely must win traffic light drags, then a Mustang probably isn’t the best car for you anyway. It’s a sorry realisation that more often than not, you’ll be blitzed by an A45 AMG.
Placing these cars in any kind of order seems invidious. The supercharged Mustang is by far the biggest event, with charisma in spades and no shortage of talent either. If pressed, I’d probably forgo the suspension mods and just opt for the engine work. The pitiful 61-litre fuel tank combined with its frightening thirst inject a bit of tedium into the Tickford’s day-to-day functionality, having you planning cross-country strops like a Tesla owner. On balance, the highs this supercharged Tickford delivers more than compensate for the frequent servo visits.
The HSV Clubsport R8 LSA is endowed with far more bandwidth. It can do grey Monday morning commutes as happily as it’ll tackle a track day at Phillip Island. It’s hard to knock the value proposition, the Clubbie having been worked into a hugely impressive all-rounder. It’s too big for its own good as a sporting car and that places huge demands on consumables like tyres and brakes but otherwise grumbling feels churlish.
The Tickford Mustang Power Pack 360 progressively wormed its way into our affections, however the V8 coupe’s appeal is as a budget sports car and piling on extras soon sees the bottom fall out of your value proposition. It never feels as quick as the manufacturer claims but it now has that extra V8 attitude that the standard ’Stang lacks. For $62K, if you just opt for the exhaust and engine tweaks, it’s an easy recommendation. For Australian roads, the suspension work probably needs a do-over.
The car that everybody said they’d buy if they were spending their own money was the unassuming SS-V Redline. That’s as good as a winning definition as you’re likely to get and it’s rare that the slowest and least extrovert car of the bunch will win the popular vote. We don’t subscribe to the ‘everybody gets a medal’ school of thought here at Wheels, but these are four very worthy performance cars. The Commodore just gets more right more often, and for less money than any of the others, and that’s testament to the experience in local tuning. It’s no surprise that the best car I’ve driven on a British B-road is a Lotus Elise, the best car to tackle a French autoroute is a big, soft Peugeot wagon, and the finest autobahn weapon I’ve sampled is a Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG. For covering kilometres in Australia, the SS-V just flat-out works.
The Mustang will doubtless come very good, but it’s a work in progress, trying to hit the ground running to finesse something that Holden has taken years to learn. This VFII isn’t going to be around for too long, however, and we’ll miss it when it’s gone. Whereas the Falcon felt as if it had run its course, the rear-drive Commodore is going out at the top of its game. Yet the Tickford Mustangs lay down a heck of a marker in this asymmetrical skirmish, and fans of blue-collar V8 muscle aren’t about to be short-changed.
Setting aside old allegiances? That might take a bit longer.