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2020 Ford Mustang R-Spec review

By Louis Cordony | Photos: Nathan Jacobs, 21 Feb 2020 Reviews

Ford Mustang R-Spec review feature

Australia's very own supercharged 'Stang finally fanged on Aussie roads

I have been driving this Ford Mustang R-Spec for a while and I’m sick of waiting. This next straight I’m going to give it the berries. But, fully aware that the standard Mustang’s footprint underneath me is handling more than half as much power again, I toe the throttle the way you’d ease into a cold pool. 

Its exhaust bellows as supercharged air feeds eight hungry cylinders. Then I throw it into third, hit the loud pedal hard, and the tarmac before me starts disappearing. Fast. 

At 3000rpm there’s a noticeable layer of extra shove. At 4000rpm the surge keeps building. It’s not stopping at 5000rpm. Six thousand? You’re surfing what feels like a tidal wave, but there’s still another 1500rpm to go. Seven thousand? I glance over at photographer Nathan Jacobs in the passenger seat. His face says it all. This thing is something else.

But there's also something familiar about this Mustang. It is a boosted, Australian-built, limited-edition R-Spec. Just like the FPV F6 Typhoon version that debuted in 2007, and the FPV Boss 335 GT that continued the legacy in 2012. The only thing that has changed here, of course, is the vehicle’s country of origin – and partner manufacturer.

Ford Australia, together with tuning house Herrod Performance, has created the Mustang it always wanted to since Dearborn denied us the Shelby Mustang GT350, and tricky ADRs smothered earlier attempts to rectify this. The GT350 was a flat-plane-crank 392kW track monster that could have been a local hero – if only Ford America had decided to build them in right-hand drive.

We’re okay with missing out because what is almost as significant as Ford Australia instead unleashing a fully compliant supercharged monster on Aussie roads (with no less than a five-year factory warranty accessed through Ford’s nationwide dealer network) is that it has re-opened Melbourne’s defunct Broadmeadows factory to build it.

MOTOR comparison: Mustang R-Spec v Camaro ZL1

There, with 20 Herrod Performance-trained staff manning five stations, it partly strips down a Mustang GT before arming it with select bits from Ford Performance’s modifications catalogue. Finally, it will apply locally designed exterior upgrades that make every R-Spec look like the one you see here. Ultimately, 500 units are planned at $99,980 each.

So, what bits from Ford Performance exactly? The third-generation Coyote 5.0-litre V8 in every R-spec houses a Roush supercharger calibrated to Ford Performance specifications. While a lack of expensive local certification on the power figures means we don’t have exact numbers, we understand they’re close to Ford Performance’s claims of more than 500kW and 800Nm for such an engine.

Breathing through a larger pod-filter and intake chamber, the blown Coyote dumps gases into a Borla exhaust that runs from the primaries back. Its mufflers also retain the stock active exhaust flaps, so it can adjust its growl to each drive mode. And while you will see ‘Ford’ etched on the exhaust tips, ‘Herrod Performance’ is stamped into its mufflers since, as a Ford Performance distributor and expert, the company developed and integrated the ADR-friendly system with the Ford Performance bits.

Speaking of which, the car’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres, measuring 255mm at the front and 275mm up back as before, now stretch over wheels that are half an inch wider. As well as sharpening response, the stretched tyres complement a set of fatter anti-roll bars that can be adjusted.

On top of them are a set of springs that lower the car 20mm and stiffen the rates 20 per cent. Then, as perhaps you would expect from an OEM, each car’s adaptive suspension Magneride controller is flashed with Ford Performance’s calibrations that match the pre-determined rates and height. That’s the beauty of installing parts from the same eco-system.

Last but not least, the rear spoiler has been pinched from the Shelby Mustang GT350 to improve downforce. Along with FPV 335 GT R-Spec-esque stickers down the side and an over-the-top racing stripe, all the black bits above the belt line are finished in gloss, and those below it are finished in satin-black to match the wheels. The result is striking.

From the driver’s seat, you will be pleased to hear the Mustang finally has an engine that can leverage the ridiculously long ratios in its six-speed manual transmission. Unfortunately if you’re allergic to left-leg work, it’s all the R-Spec will use, but since the Mustang driveline was beefed up with thicker half-shafts and a twin-plate clutch in 2018, it will handle the grunt at no cost to driveability.

As I guide the R-Spec through the gates at Heathcote Park Raceway, it dawns on me that the absence of an automatic, and its clever launch control, will make my job here a little harder. And even if there are ways to eke out a winning number, ranging from dropping the tyre pressures to selecting a certain fuel brand, I’m testing the R-Spec in its most representative trim, with a full tank from the local servo and placard tyre pressures (set at 32psi).

Besides, I should be thankful simply to have the R-Spec on the start line under blue skies, given Victoria’s recent temperamental weather. And after some runs to shake down the car, warm the tyres and clear some debris from our tracks, it’s clear the summer sun is working its magic on the VHT. So what are we waiting for? Let’s launch this thing.

Turn all stability controls off, engage Drag mode for optimised damping, then line up. Slot first. Bring the clutch pedal to about half way, or just under its high bite point, before dialling up the revs – otherwise, lifting off from the floor lets the revs drop too far before the clutch bites, and the car will bog.

The track is gummy enough to accept around 3600rpm. Blend the clutch in swiftly with some throttle. It shudders and tramps as engine and wheel speeds equalise, but it grips from about 40km/h and you’re left to concentrate on the shifts.

First gear hangs around until 89km/h, but it’s not as savage as you might expect since torque is limited in the first two ratios to protect the driveline and preserve traction. Throw the stick down the gearbox when the revs near 7500rpm. Bam! Second gear hits home hard.

Concentrate now. Crossing the H-pattern’s tightly spaced gates is difficult. Rush it and you risk a costly baulk. Ease into third at 134km/h and then it’s basically eyes on the road all the way home. Except there should be more if the R-Spec is making the power it should. Fourth beckons at 198km/h and a 500kW car should be on the other side of that before pulling chutes. But our trap speeds are down.

We’re seeing 186km/h on the VBOX with a 13.01sec pass and then 181.76km/h with 12.97sec.  Newman, who’s clearly arrived to offer encouragement, jokes that maybe I need some more practice. But he’s not so sure once it’s his turn in the driver’s pew. He bags 100km/h from rest in 4.70 until a miss-shift from second to third at 134km/h ends the run prematurely. Still, it’s not as frustrating as our poor trap speeds.

After giving the R-Spec some time to cool, he catches a break. Hitting 100km/h from rest in 4.96, he brings the R-Spec home in 12.78sec at 189.47km/h. It’s clear that giving the Mustang time to rest allows power, and therefore trap speeds, to creep back up. But finding the time between every single attempt to cool it down takes forever.

We give up, frustrated. Clearly, on a cooler day, or knowing exactly how to launch the thing first time out, we could improve those numbers. But even the R-Spec’s specific rear-diff cooler running overtime can’t convince the conservative ECU its engine is not in danger of hurting itself in all this heat.

Ditching Heathcote for the tight mountain corners near Broadford offers no respite. Dive into a hairpin, get on the throttle and, while the rev counter arranged as a band across the Mustang’s brilliant digital instrument cluster charges to redline, the gut-squeezing gallop I experienced earlier this morning (and only briefly at the strip) is gone. It’s as if the throttle plate has stopped half way.

Rather than dread turning off the traction control, I hastily disable ESC to confirm whether lateral G is causing it to cut power. Unfortunately not. It’s clear the ambient temperatures, which have steadily climbed up to near 30 degrees Celsius, have melted our chest-beating monster into something more anaemic.

Luckily, the R-Spec is not just a one-trick pony. Although its gallop is slower in this heat, there’s still a lot to enjoy on these roads. That optional billiard ball-style shift knob makes rowing the six-speed a delight with the flawless rev-match system. The brakes are sharp, precise and welcome on the descent.

But it’s the suspension that’s a true highlight. The lowered package feels more confident taking corners. Where a standard car feels a bit top-heavy and wobbly entering a bend, the R-Spec is more precise off-centre and finds a stance sooner in the corner. The steering also offers more feedback through a front-end that feels glued to the road thanks, partly, to the roll-bar set to soft on the front.

What’s more, this extra precision, control and grip has not cost the R-Spec much, if any, ride comfort. Besides the usual thumps as its wide wheels and stiff tyres deflect over road joints or potholes, there’s still plenty of damping travel to soak up medium-speed bumps.

As for its touring credentials, the Mustang’s forward vision and airier cabin are welcome in comparison to something like, say, a Chevrolet Camaro. And you score a fair bit of kit. The Recaros fit all sizes and hold you well, while the Bang & Olufsen Play audio thumps hard. Apple CarPlay is thrown in too.

Because of these things, you will enjoy driving the R-Spec everyday. There’s now so much usable torque down low that you can burble away from a stop in second gear. Easily. There’s nothing intimidating about it either, because its fury lurks in the higher revs, where the Coyote V8 really gets breathing.

The exhaust note, while a smidge boomier than the stock one, keeps the noise outside the cabin. Meanwhile, the supercharger irons out the power band into something wonderfully linear, and the extra torque is always perfectly proportional to the amount of throttle. It’s expertly tuned.

Yes, on a hot day a Camaro SS might have more teeth on a strip or winding road. And that’s okay because we know that, while the R-Spec might not make full power all the time, it’s always working to protect its warranty.

When it’s a toss-up between bulletproof reliability and always-on knock-yer-socks-off power, which it inevitably will be at this price point, I know which side of that compromise we would want to be on. And that’s the rub here. The R-Spec feels like it rolled off the Dearborn factory line. The choice selection of Ford Performance parts are calibrated seamlessly into one whole and improves the Mustang breed to a higher degree of sophistication.

But even that can’t solve the inherent problem in ’chargin an already highly-strung atmo V8. Sure, at its very least when the power’s down, the R-Spec feels closer to an atmo MY18 with some welcome extra grip, more precision and a lot more presence. And that’s a bit disappointing if you’re here for the horsepower. But then, at its very most when it’s making everything it should, the R-Spec is something else. Something potentially great.

PROS: Loads of presence; more grip; improved handling; impressive ride; insane power...
CONS: …but only in the right conditions. No auto option
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

TRACK TEST

By Tony O'Kane

The Mustang Mystique is one that’s been born largely out on the open road and in front of Hollywood cameras, but when it comes to race tracks and rally stages it’s Fords like the GT40, Sierra Cosworth, Escort and RS200 that have a stronger association.

But movie stars can be track stars too: just ask Patrick Dempsey, the Greys Anatomy heartthrob who traded Hollywood for pit lane to become a (fairly decent) race driver. Sometimes an old dog can learn a new trick.

And so it is with the Mustang R-Spec.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

Ford has taken us to The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia so we can validate the R-Spec’s claim of track-readiness, and we’re expecting it to mesh well with the flowing nature of the circuit’s International configuration – the same as that used by Supercars. With higher speeds stuffing more air through its gills and lower ambient temps, we’re hoping the heat-related issues we experienced on road and strip don’t revisit us too.

They’ve got a few other Mustangs for us to drive as well, with the turbo four-pot Mustang High Performance and the Mustang GT present in pit lane next to the two R-Specs. We won’t cover them here, but they definitely provided a useful frame of reference.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

Leaving pit lane and leaning into the R-Spec’s accelerator delivers the performance that most prospective buyers will have on their mind – that addictive and surge of straight-line thrust. First impression? Even at full tilt it feels surprisingly undramatic. The fact it’s force-fed is hard to pick thanks to the very hushed Eaton supercharger and the linearity of its power delivery, but the effect it has on acceleration is plainly obvious. There’s a significant differential between the R-Spec and the 5.0-litre GT we just hopped out of.

Big torque is available virtually everywhere in the rev range courtesy of that supercharger’s 12PSI of boost pressure, endowing the already-flexible Coyote with a loftier level of muscularity. Bar The Bend’s deceptively tight second-last corner that demands the selection of second gear, we could easily confine ourselves to just third and fourth around the entirety of the 4.9-kilometre track. Does it feel like 520kW? Not really. Is it slow? Hell no.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

Second impression: this is a much tauter car dynamically than the vanilla V8. The lower ride, stiffer springs, re-calibrated Magneride dampers and beefier swaybars all add up to a Mustang that properly handles, with none of the pitch, roll and ponderous nature of the GT. There’s also a greater sense of communication from the steering - a definite plus when you’re trying to figure out where the threshold of front-end grip lies on a 1.8-tonne super-coupe. It’s adept and agile, and utterly at home on the circuit.

That said, it would be faster still with more track-suitable rubber than the stock Michelin Pilot Sport 4S. With the same ‘footprint’ as the GT the only difference is less sidewall flex thanks to those inch-wider wheels, but even that isn’t enough to give you enough grip to deploy all 500+kW and 830Nm as you depart an apex, particularly if the radius is a tight one. There’s a lot of inertia to manage here, and you’re forever reminded of that from the driver’s seat.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

The good news is light mods like grippier tyres and brake pads won’t harm the R-Spec’s five-year warranty, nor will the mere act of driving it hard on a race track. Track day fiends take note.

Even in track mode I can still tell that there’s a layer of electronic interference between pedal and throttle body that’s reining back the power to keep things from getting silly in corners, but it’s reasonably subtle. It’s tempting to deactivate stability control entirely and explore the limits further, but not only is this not my car, it wears “001” on its build plate and I’d hate to be the numpty that stuffs it into the wall midway through a Ken Block impersonation.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

By the braking zone at the end of the front straight we’re somewhere around 230km/h and hitting the middle pedal hard. The R-Spec’s Brembo hardware is no different to what you get on a Mustang GT – not even a change of pad compound or fluid formulation – but they’re hugely effective in slowing down this fat pony. What’s more, there’s even greater stability under braking in the R-Spec. While the GT’s snout hunts left and right as weight transfers to its front wheels under heavy decel, the higher springrates of the R-Spec banish that behaviour and replace it with rock-steady braking.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

Brake fade never showed up. Nor did heat-related power issues. The fact the regular ol’ GT sounds better thundering down The Bend’s straight might irk some people, and from the R-Spec’s driver’s seat that supercharger is just too subtle. It’s a little more vocal from outside, but we’d like to hear more whine overall. 

The shaping of the Recaro’s fixed headrest isn’t quite so compatible with a helmet either and pushes your head forward unless you recline the backrest a smidge, but that’s a very track-specific complaint.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

Yet as a track-tuned mutation of the standard Mustang GT, the R-Spec never feels like a parts catalogue special. Genuine effort has gone into integrating every part in a holistic way and the result is a sports car that doesn’t fixate on one aspect of performance, but all of them in equal measure. The R-Spec is a proper blast on a race track, and one that can be fairly considered against price rivals like the BMW M2 and Toyota Supra GTS, not to mention hyper-hatch performers like Audi’s RS3 and Benz’s A45.

It’s arguably far more special than all of them, and it ain’t no show pony. The R-Spec's track credentials are legit.

Ford Mustang R-Spec track test

2020 Ford Mustang R-Spec Specs
BODY: 2-door, 4-seat coupe
DRIVE: rear-wheel
ENGINE: 5038cc V8, DOHC, 32v, supercharger
BORE/STROKE: 93.0 x 92.7mm
COMPRESSION: 12.0:1
POWER: 522kW (est)
TORQUE: 827Nm (est)
WEIGHT: 1779kg
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 289kW/tonne (est)
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION: struts, coils, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coils, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
L/W/h: 4789/1916/1357mm
WHEELBASE: 2720mm
TRACKS: 1582/1640mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
BRAKES: 380mm ventilated discs, 6-piston calipers (f); 330mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 19.0 x 9.5-inch (f); 19.0 x 10.0-inch (r)
TYRES: 255/40 R19 (f); 275/40 R19 (r), Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S
PRICE: $99,980

The Strip

Ford Mustang R-Spec
0-10km/h 0.30sec
0-20km/h 0.76sec
0-30km/h 1.25sec
0-40km/h 1.70sec
0-50km/h 2.20sec
0-60km/h 2.71sec
0-70km/h 3.16sec
0-80km/h 3.99sec
0-90km/h 4.49sec
0-100km/h 4.96sec
0-110km/h 5.50sec
0-120km/h 6.13sec
0-130km/h 7.18sec
0-140km/h 7.97sec
0-150km/h 8.73sec
0-160km/h 9.51sec
0-170km/h 10.43sec
0-180km/h 11.56sec
0-400m 12.78sec @ 189.47km/h
80-120km/h
2.05sec

Heathcote, dry.
Driver: Louis Cordony 
*Manufacturer’s claim 
Official timing supplier: www.vboxaustralia.com.au

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