There are a couple of reasons to be suspicious of the Ford Mustang Bullitt, the 2018 special edition that marked the 50th anniversary of the Steve McQueen film of the same name. For one thing the car is covered in ‘Bullitt’ badges, which perhaps makes it more cheesy pastiche than tasteful recreation since the 1968 Mustang GT Fastback McQueen drove in the film didn’t have a single such badge anywhere on it. And despite its much admired Mustang-versus-Charger car chase through the roller coaster streets of San Francisco, the film is actually pretty terrible. What’s more, McQueen was reportedly a complete arse and not afraid to strike a woman, according to his first wife’s memoir.
So as a paean to a man and a movie, the Mustang Bullitt is a little bit smelly. That’s a pity because as a car it’s actually rather wonderful and it reinforces something I’m beginning to believe is true about modern performance cars, which is that North American ones are more fun than their European counterparts. Not technically better or more capable, but easily more enjoyable.
Apart from all those badges (only one on the outside, in fairness, but many more within the cabin) the throwback Mustang also gets specific 19-inch wheels, optional Dark Highland Green paintwork that’s similar to the finish on McQueen’s car and no pony emblem in the front grille, which makes the Mustang’s face look very mean. The 5-litre naturally-aspirated V8 remains but with the induction system from the Shelby GT350 and a sports exhaust as standard equipment, plus a fraction more power than the Mustang GT (up from 450hp to 459). Costing a little over £48,000, which is some £5000 more than the GT, the Bullitt is no longer the tantalising bargain American muscle cars have tended to be.
The final, most important part of the Bullitt makeover is the GT Performance Package, which includes bigger Brembo brakes and a completely reworked chassis with stiffer springs and a lower ride height, retuned dampers and tauter anti-roll bars. You can sit inside the Mustang’s roomy cabin and sneer at cheap leather and scratchy plastics, but the chunky Recaro seats are comfortable and supportive, the seating position is very good, the infotainment a little clunky in its graphics but faultless in its operation, while the fully digital instrument display works very well indeed. The white cue ball gear knob is maybe the subtlest and most agreeable nod to McQueen’s car.
When you fire the big V8 it erupts noisily into life and rumbles and burbles beneath the bonnet like it’s trying to get out. Rev it all the way out in any of the first three gears the entire car fizzes with energy, feeling like it might rattle itself to pieces. The manual gearshift is just right and the soundtrack is thunderous, particularly in any of the sportier modes with the exhaust at full song, bellowing in a way no six-pot or turbo motor ever can. The Mustang has a driving mode labelled ‘Drag Strip’, which made me smile every time I cycled past it, and with the traction control disabled you’ve got burnouts on tap.
Extremely good fun, all of it - and all delivered with a sense of humour no Porsche 911 or Audi R8 would ever recognise - but it’s nothing new. Those things have been central to the muscle car proposition for 60 years. What’s beginning to change is the precision and sophistication with which the best muscle cars address a stretch of tarmac. All that juvenile stuff about noisy exhausts and smoky burnouts is only the tip of the iceberg with these cars, because when you dig deeper you realise how rewarding they have become to drive.
Despite the multi-link rear suspension that finally saw the rudimentary live axle depart the Mustang’s stern a few years ago, the Bullitt still feels distinctly like a muscle car on the road. Wide and long, heavy, and with lots of movement in the body as the road rises and falls. If a 911 ever behaved like that you’d think its dampers had been nicked. But with the Mustang’s £1,600 MagneRide adaptive dampers in their firmer mode and a little more meat in the steering, the car seems to shrink in weight and dimension, responding much more like a sports car. In fact the steering is a real highlight. It perhaps lacks some of the textured feedback you get from only the very best electric systems, but it’s so long on precision and so intuitive in its rate of response at the front axle that you guide the Mustang along the road almost on instinct. You position the car with confidence, so even on a narrow road it feels far smaller than it really is.
There’s good body control over a three-dimensional surface but not so much that the car feels aloof, plus massive traction that can of course be overcome quite readily if you prefer, and strong turn-in grip and real stability at higher speeds, too. That revised chassis has prevented the Mustang from feeling wallowy and out-of-control when you really push it hard, so although you still tend to stroke it along a winding B-road rather than hammer it the way you would a smaller European sports car, you can now get lost in the process of linking corners and not merely hold on, white-knuckled, hoping the car sticks, as was the way before.
Taken to their extremes - for instance the GT350 I drove a couple of years ago at Thruxton and the Camaro Z/28 I tested this summer in South Wales - modern muscle cars can be even more adept when hustled than the Bullitt. Both are imperfect but also unbelievably good to drive, at least in their way and in the right setting. And soundtracked by an end-of-the-world score that’s been legislated to oblivion among European performance cars, with the added engagement of a manual transmission in each case.
For the longest time, cars like the Mustang appealed only on a base level, being fun in a childish way for the first half-day until the amusement of noise and burnouts ebbed away. After that point you’d have swapped into something German, British or Italian in a heartbeat. But now that cars like the Bullitt and the far more hardcore GT350 and Z/28 actually steer, handle and stop as well as they go - and all with monstrous unassisted V8s and gearboxes that keep the driver working - I’m beginning to think the balance of power has shifted from our side of the Atlantic to theirs.