“All you wanna do is slide around rally, slide, rally slide…” I’ll quit butchering Wilson Pickett and get to the point. Ford gave us a Mustang EcoBoost to use as the course opening car at the Black River Stages rally this past weekend. Though it’s certainly not your average rally car, it performed admirably, did its job well, and was a favorite with fans and spectators. When even the paramedics tell you to light ’em up at the start of a stage, you know you have a winner.
There are many excellent reviews out there about the new Mustang, and the EcoBoost version in particular. I won’t try to reinvent the wheel and repeat them here. If you’re interested in specifics about the car, I recommend SubaruWRXFan’s review and in-depth tour of his own Mustang EcoBoost Premium on YouTube. I watched these myself before I got the car to get a head start on familiarizing myself with it.
The Mustang appeared a bit out of place at the rally. Though the Ford Fiesta is a popular car in RallyAmerica, Black River Stages is a NASA Rally Sport event, which caters to a more grassroots community. Other Fords included Martin Donnelly’s Focus ZX3, Gary DeMasi’s V8 Rally Ranger, and Michael Gillespie’s Escort – not the American econobox, but the European RWD Escort. But these were all fully prepared rally cars, with good ground clearance, gravel tires, and roll cages.
My Mustang had none of these. But it did have the same 2.3 EcoBoost motor that will be going into the Focus RS. That has to give it at least some rally cred. So did the independent rear suspension, new on this 2015 model. My particular car was also equipped with the Performance Package, which adds a lower final drive, stiffer front springs and rear sway bar, larger front brakes and radiator, and other performance tweaks. And though they’re not legal for a full-on rally car the optional Recaro seats would be comfortable and supportive during spirited driving.
Opening The Course
Each special stage is run by a stage crew, consisting of marshals, amateur radio operators, medical personnel (just in case), and start and finish controls along the closed section of road. Cars 000 and 00 run ahead of me, making sure that everything is in place and that marshals and spectators are in safe locations. Car 0 makes one final check of the stage immediately before the competitors run. Since everything should already be in place, we move along at a very brisk pace – not competition speed, since we don’t have stage notes or a rally car, but as fast as we safely can, and well above the road’s usual speed limit.
To help, we have a road book, listing the major turns and hazards on each stage, and a co-driver – my fiancée Elana – to read the book and keep me informed of what’s coming up and where. That way I can avoid driving off the side of a bridge, not break the car over big jumps, and get a bit more sideways when driving by spectator areas, just because. She also helps me navigate the transits on open public roads between the special stages. Elana and I have previously worked together as Sweep at the Empire State Performance Rally, and Combo Car at last year’s Black River Stages, so we know we make a good team in the car together at a rally.
We also needed some extra equipment for this job. I temporarily installed an amateur radio with a magnetic mount antenna to participate in the communications net for rally logistics. (I’ve had my ham radio license since before I discovered rally, so that’s not an issue.) I also put my amber light bar on the roof of the Mustang, also with magnetic mounts. I’d intended to run a small siren as well, but I wasn’t able to find a good way to temporarily mount the speaker in time for the rally – not that there wasn’t room under the hood, with a four cylinder motor where there’s space for a V8. The Mustang comes with two power outlets – we used to call them “cigarette lighters” – and two USB ports, but I still needed an outlet splitter to run all of the equipment, including my dash cam. But I figured out a system where I could leave the ham radio plugged into the outlet inside the large center console at all times, and turn the light bar, siren (if I’d used it), and dash cam on and off simultaneously by plugging and unplugging the splitter from the outlet on the dashboard. Our phones got charged from the USB ports, which was especially important for Elana, who used an odometer app on her phone to track our mileage and call out instructions to me at the proper time.
Finally, we needed stickers, because stickers add horsepower, as well as identify the car as an official course vehicle. Additionally, I added stickers for Right Foot Down, our friends over at Brakim Racing, and we even got a Jalopnik bump!
The Mustang has several adjustments and driving modes available. I tried them all at various times, but for running a special stage I put it into Track mode. This disables traction control, and although stability control can’t be completely turned off, the programming is very permissive of sideways action. And there is plenty of sideways action – not so much because it’s a Mustang, but because of the Pirelli P Zero tires that come as part of the Performance Package. These are excellent street performance tires, and a great match for the Mustang in normal and spirited street driving. But what makes a tire great on pavement is pretty much the opposite of what makes a tire great on gravel, and the P Zeros were way out of their element here. That’s not a criticism – they simply weren’t designed for this job. There was a short section of pavement in the middle of the Jayville stage where the tires were awesome, but everywhere else they never really felt connected to the ground they way they do on pavement. Instead they felt rather floaty and vague, which is exactly the kind of grip they didn’t have on gravel. But they were still quite predictable when flirting with their significantly reduced gravel performance limits, and as long as I remembered that I wasn’t running gravel rally tires and drove within the car’s limits, we were fine.
This meant not pushing the EcoBoost motor particularly hard. The motor could definitely take it – I took full advantage of 20psi of boost regularly on paved roads – but the extra power would only increase the range of my gravel machine guns, also known as the back tires. The standard limited slip differential helped to ensure that both tires would spray gravel behind me simultaneously, but I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the Mustang GT’s horsepower advantage here at all.
There’s been much ado about the new Mustang’s independent rear suspension, and how the Mustang can actually go around corners now. I can tell you it’s all true. It’s not a lightweight at 3,532 lbs, and you do feel the weight, but the Mustang handles it well. Even under the extreme conditions of a gravel rally stage on tires not designed for gravel, I rarely put a foot wrong. When I did, it was my own fault, not the car’s, and I had no problem correcting my small errors before they became big ones. It was very predictable, with none of the wheel hop that plagues live axle vehicles, and very little body roll. Yet it was also compliant enough to soak up most of the bumps. I did bottom out a couple of times, but not often. I was pleasantly surprised at the good ride quality, despite the performance suspension and 19″ wheels.
The upgraded brakes of the Performance Package, with four-piston calipers up front and larger rotors all around, were quite welcome on the Jerdan Falls 2 stage. This stage is very popular with spectators, and it’s a lot of fun to drive as well. Unfortunately, spectators had moved away from the designated spectator areas, and more than once we came around a corner and found them close to or even on the road. We canceled the stage as a result. It’s no fun for anyone when a stage gets canceled, but it was our job to make sure it was safe to run, and it wasn’t.
Everywhere we went throughout the rally, the Mustang drew a crowd, almost as much as the actual rally cars did. Every time I looked back, someone was checking it out. People asked me a lot of questions about the car. One of the RallyMoto riders took a quick nap in the passenger seat while we waited for a stage to start. At the beginning of another stage the entire paramedic team swarmed the car and wanted a look under the hood. And when we drove the stages, marshals and spectators alike continually waved, whooped, and hollered when they saw our green pony coming.
Does It Rally?
The short answer is yes, though with some limitations. Obviously the Mustang isn’t designed for this, unlike the upcoming Focus RS. The ground clearance is too low, and suspension travel is too short for any serious rally work in stock form. But an aftermarket suspension tuned for rally could solve both of these problems. Also, the maximum wheel size permitted by NASA Rally Sport for gravel events is 15×7, which won’t fit the new Mustang. The rules do allow downsizing the brakes to fit the smaller wheels, but the beefy calipers and rotors would have to go away, and then you’d have to worry about stopping power and heat resistance of the smaller brakes – particularly because in rally the brakes and gas are often applied simultaneously to control weight transfer. And, of course, there’s the fact that this car weighs 1000lbs more than many rally cars, which would certainly be a disadvantage.
But does it rally? Yes. Yes, it does. It worked great as a course opening car despite not being designed for this job. So did the Jeep Compass we used last year, but even though it’s less practical I’d definitely take the Mustang any day.
Huge thanks to Ford for loaning me this press car for a week, DoublePlus Racing for putting us up (and putting up with us) in their cabin for the weekend, and NASA Rally Sport for allowing us to do this!
Top photo credit: Jordan Apgar Race Photography