This is just the second year for Road&Track's Performance Car of the Year, but the broad and largely subjective range of criteria used to crown our prom queen of performance cars has already led to a level of squabbling and outright manipulative behavior among our staff that would have shocked Machiavelli himself. That's the Italian Machiavelli, the author of The Prince. As opposed to Makavelli, also known as Tupac Shakur. Which is perhaps a more appropriate analogy, because when the process of casting the ballots for this year's PCOTY began, it quickly devolved into the same kind of drama and contention that marked the infamous beef between 2Pac and Biggie Smalls.
This time, however, it wasn't West Coast vs. East Coast, but rather America vs. Germany. In one corner, you had the 991-generation Porsche GT3. A master of all trades from the superslab to the Motown Mile, Porsche's newest trackday tool had even its strongest detractors reluctantly admitting that it had the right stuff to take the PCOTY laurels. It's hard to argue against a car that runs neck-and-neck with the far more focused Ferrari 458 Speciale around our airport course yet crawls through Michigan traffic like a Coupe de Ville? It isn't even that expensive, at least not when compared to other cars that offer a similar level of capability.
Still, even in the face of such undoubted competence, there were whispers that the GT3 lacked a certain… something. A certain charm, a certain tossability, a certain joie de backroad. Okay, they weren't whispers. They were shouts, delivered across a folding lunch table set up in a hangar of the Detroit City Airport. And the shouting was mostly in favor of the new-for-2015 Mustang GT 5.0.
It's true that the big ponycar can't stay within telescope distance of the Porsche around a track or down a twisty road. But PCOTY isn't about the numbers. It's about the ability of a car to involve you in the driving process, to make you a companion and ally in a compelling adventure—and in that respect, very few cars on the market today can touch the new Mustang.
To begin with, it's got that engine. If your blood doesn't heat up when you hear Ford's Coyote five-liter, then you're either dead or a member of a Subaru enthusiast's forum. This is what the American V8 was always meant to be. Has there ever been an engine this thrilling, this deeply stirring, in an affordable production car? Hell no.
But last year's Mustang had it too, so that can't be the reason why the 2015 GT resonated so strongly among our seasoned crew. No, it's more than just the engine. It's also more than the new silhouette, although that too is a triumph, combining retro and modern with a deftness that its bloated, occasionally cartoonish competitors can't approach. On the surface, the Mustang is supremely desirable, and if you never did anything with it besides drive it back and forth to work you'd be completely and totally happy with it.
Want to be even happier? Put the Mustang on a fast back road, such as the ones we used to separate the wheat from the chaff this year at PCOTY, and it comes alive like Peter Frampton clutching a triple-pickup Les Paul. All of a sudden the pony shrinks around you and it becomes possible to hustle it like it was an E36 BMW. The feedback through the steering, brakes, and shifter is just right, a testament to Ford's willingness to steadily refine this platform and its component parts over the course of a decade. It could use more brakes, but that's par for the course in a sub-$50,000 performance car. For a quick blast, however, they're enough and you can trust the status reports you receive from the middle pedal.
In the context of a challenging two-lane, the Coyote motor's wide rev range and low inertia becomes electrifying, allowing you to hold it against the 7000-rpm redline all the way to the next corner. Meanwhile the chassis is working with you in a way that you'd expect from an Euro sports sedan, allowing the rear to slide and the weight to shift but never letting things get too out of hand. Want to kick the tail out around a hairpin? The engine can do it and the chassis can catch it. Want to hit a complex series of off-camber turns and zero-gravity hills? No car of this sheer size and bulk has ever been this confidence-inspiring.
Suddenly, the Mustang can do things it could never do before. Yet the core competencies of the brand and the platform remain stronger than ever. It can still haul ass in a straight line, it can still turn heads at a cruise-in, it can still serve as a trustworthy companion across the Interstates. None of that's changed. The changes are all in the things the Mustang didn't like to do: handle narrow roads, fast roads, sharp hairpins, broken pavement.
In other words, Happy learned to putt.
The result is the best ponycar in history and a real challenge to the established German performance sedans. Think of it as a bigger, brasher, bolder E92 M3 and you'll be on the right track. Should it have been PCOTY? Plenty of our staffers thought so. After all, the new GT3 is great, but how much greater is it than the old one? Put this 2015 Mustang GT on the PCOTY loop with the old model, though, and you'd see a Grand Canyon separating the two.
When the votes were tallied, the Porsche had it hands down. But at the end of that day, as we packed up our gear and prepared to leave the airport, there was a sprint for the Mustang's door handle. Yes, the 911 GT3 is our PCOTY, and it richly deserves the honor. But there's always a minority report.