First Drive: 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

As I sit writing this, I can still hear them. Not figuratively, not “in my mind’s ear” hear them. I can literally hear them: a brace of Dark Highland Green (and one or two Shadow Black) 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitts, active-valve performance exhausts blaring as they make their way through the hills and valleys in and around Golden Gate State Park in Northern San Francisco, CA.

You can’t very well star in your own version of the Bullitt car chase if you’re not banging home your own gears, right? Right.

That exhaust – which also gets a “quiet mode” – is a big part of the Bullitt experience; Ford wants this particular halo ’Stang to make an impression. It doesn’t stop at those quad blacked-out exhaust tips either, and not only because they’re hidden from view in profile by an extended rear valance.

“What was key to us, is we wanted a combination of interior/exterior, engine/powertrain, and chassis to really create a personality to the car,” says Carl Widmann, Chief Program Engineer for Mustang. “We really wanted to give it that sense and look that it was a character.” Indeed, when you’re based on one of the stars of possibly the most well-known car chase ever – the 1968 Mustang fastback from Bullitt – you’d better been very aware of that “character” thing.

When it comes to the exterior, people will have no problem identifying the Bullitt as such. There’s the overt stuff like the colour choices (Dark Highland Green and Shadow Black being your only choices) and red Brembo brake calipers with larger rotors, but now that we’ve seen it out from under auto show lights and in the wild, it’s the details that really give the Bullitt its presence.

The model-exclusive chrome stripping around the side windows, grille, and wheel rims, for example. Or the new lower front valance and emblem-delete grille. The word “Bullitt”, meanwhile, appears just once on the outside of the car: on the trunk lid’s faux gas cap.

Inside, there are a few extra Bullitt logos (on the dash in front of the passenger, wheel, and kickplates), as well as black leather with contrasting green stitching as your only choice. And of course, there’s that shifter – cue ball, it’s called, and since it wouldn’t look right atop an automatic shift lever, an automatic transmission ain’t an option – just a six-speed manual with rev-matching. You can turn it off, but I rather like it. Huzzah for that.

Will Bullitt buyers miss the chance to select the 10-speed auto available on other ’Stangs? Doubt it. You can’t very well star in your own version of the Bullitt car chase if you’re not banging home your own gears, right? Right.

A 12-inch modifiable gauge cluster, blind spot warning system, B&O Play audio as well as Sync 3 infotainment are all standard. Options? A grand total of one: $1,800 gets you Recaro racing seats – with green “Recaro” badges! I sampled cars equipped with both seat types, and while the manual-adjust Recaros are nice and supportive, I think I’d just as soon save the $1,800 and keep the standard power seats.

Of course, all of this can be seen before you start it up. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

Dip the clutch, depress the start/stop button and the engine starts with a grunt as the Shelby GT350-sourced intake manifold goes to work; the Bullitt also gets a larger 87 mm throttle body, as well as open-air induction. Horsepower is rated at 480 hp in the Bullitt, a 20 hp jump over the GT. Torque remains the same at 420 lb-ft, but thanks to new engine tuning, the horsepower curve rises all the way to redline, more torque arrives sooner and power delivery is less peaky.

“We knew the Bullitt needed the engine to go with it,” says Widmann. “If we wouldn’t have done the Bullitt, we wouldn’t have done the engine. We needed the engine to create the character.”

You’ve also gotta love the exhaust’s report. Thanks to that open airbox, there’s no longer the need to port sound into the cabin and what you do get is more all-encompassing.

At the outset of our drive, we could either go right or left; the drive routes we’d been provided said go left, but we noticed a tunnel to the right. Unless that tunnel bored its way to the centre of the earth, we could probably afford the quick detour. After all, there’s no better way to really experience a car’s exhaust note. Needless to say, we took the tunnel, and proceeded to be flabbergasted by an exhaust note so rich and beastly that I literally felt it in my chest.

It’s hard to get much more surreal in a car than to go through a tunnel at almost full-chat, windows down – there’s really nothing else going on in the world at that point, and we’d have done it again and again, if we’d had the time.

However, there were masses of bendy, twisty, gnarly roads surrounding us that required some attention as well. After all, the Bullitt starts life as a Mustang GT with the Performance Package, meaning the standard fitment of those brakes, performance suspension, and magnetic dampers. Which, in turn, means this is a car that should handle just as much as it scoots.

Through the undulating, steeply cambered and sometimes rough twists and turns of Highways 35 and 84 through the Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, the Bullitt was a willing and able companion, as the quick turn-in helps hide the fact that there’s a long hood and a lot of car in front of you. It doesn’t have quite the nimbleness of, say, a BMW M4, but for a rear-wheel-drive pony car with a big V8 up front, it ain’t half bad. Especially if you’ve set the steering to Sport mode, or the pre-set driving mode to Track mode which stiffens the steering further still.

I’ve driven many Mustangs over the years, and they’ve always expressed that little bit of cowl shake or chassis flex that is about two parts charming and one-part annoying; we see very little of that here. That, of course, isn’t a Bullitt thing; it’s a current Mustang thing, and Widman admits that this Bullitt has the advantage of a better base platform than the previous 2008 model.

As we transitioned to the city streets that made its name, the Bullitt was given a chance to showcase its day-to-day chops. Bounding down ultra-steep Taylor St. – the street on which one of the most famous scenes from the chase was shot – the Bullitt was surprising in its ability to reduce the effects of the various dips and lumps that I thought would surely rattle its cage. The return provided by the magnetic dampers literally has to be felt to be believed, as they constantly read the road below and change their rates depending on what’s required. The steering remains a little heavy even in Normal mode, but as a specialized version of an already pretty special car, I think it’s fair for it to request that kind of commitment from its driver. It’s also a price I’d happily pay if that’s what it takes for it to feel as good as it does on more open, flowing roads.

While worthy of discussion and impressive, all that’s somewhat secondary to what the powertrain offers, the image it presents and how it makes you feel behind the wheel. Short of the tech offerings and the “quiet” exhaust setting, no quarter has been given, here, in an effort to try and “civilize” the Bullitt. There have been many great car chases through the years, but rarely has a manufacturer had the gall to centre a car around a car chase (and a man, in Steve McQueen) the way Ford has with the three Mustang Bullitt editions, and I have a hard time thinking of a rarer thing in the mass-market automotive world today.

As I drove down Taylor – yet again – and struck my best McQueen pose (look over your left shoulder as you back up, because you’ve missed the turn you were scripted/directed to take), I had an almost indescribable feeling of being transported to another era. It was 6 AM, any other cars on the early morning streets of foggy San Fran were parked, and I was there, driving a re-imagined movie car, on set, 50 years later. Not figuratively there. Not in my mind’s eye there. Literally, there.

Pricing: 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

Mustang Bullitt: $57,525
Mustang Bullitt w/Recaro seats: $59,325

Character traits. 8/6/2018 12:01:00 AM