Ford Mustang Bullitt has thrills galore

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Steve McQueen's movie "Bullitt" -- featuring the handsome actor coolly driving a stripped-down Ford Mustang during a nail-biting car chase in downtown San Francisco -- is 40 years old this year.

But fans need not mark the film's anniversary by munching microwave popcorn and viewing the DVD from an easy chair. They can enjoy the thrill of a Mustang Bullitt coupe that mixes fine, vintage, V-8 engine sounds and retro styling and paint color with modern safety equipment and amenities and race-inspired suspension.

In fact, the new, 2008 Mustang Bullitt has a faster 0-to-60-mph time than the movie car did -- 5 seconds vs. 7.8 seconds for McQueen's modified Mustang GT fastback.

The price for this special, 315-horsepower Mustang with naturally aspirated, 4.6-liter V-8 is just $31,075, including manufacturer's suggested retail price and destination charge.

This is only $3,310 more than a top-level, 2008 Mustang GT coupe in premium trim with 300-horsepower version of the same V-8.

But buyers who want the Bullitt may want to act quickly. Ford Motor Co. plans to build only 7,000 Bullitts for U.S. buyers for 2008. They'll start arriving in January. And judging from the reaction I got when I drove the test car, the Bullitt is a real crowd pleaser.

Numerous passers-by flashed me the thumbs-up sign while I was at the wheel, and this was even before I arrived in San Francisco to retrace McQueen's famous chase scenes -- albeit at much slower speeds and in a lot more traffic than he had.

The brawny exhaust and engine sounds were so much like the real deal in the movie that I turned off the radio, just so I could enjoy every rumble. And you know what? I wound up leaving the radio off for days.

Like earlier, special edition Mustang Bullitts, the look is classic, retro and a bit sinister.

All 2008 Bullitts bear either black paint (for non-purists) or a Dark Highland Green paint job that's a no-nonsense green designed to mimic the color of McQueen's Bullitt. It's especially distinctive today because green isn't a popular car color; grays, silvers, whites and beiges dominate.

With the all-black mesh grille up front, dark-gray, 18-inch wheels and big "Bullitt" lettering on the sheet metal, the Bullitt resonates as a serious sports car even when it's parked.

But turn the key, and the burbling, deep rumble of the V-8 comes to life -- and pedestrians snap their heads to see where the sound is coming from.

Power came on the second the gas pedal was touched and kept on coming on long highway runs.

Torque peaks at 325 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm, and yes, the Bullitt is a gas gulper, especially since it seats only four people. The federal government's mileage rating is 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway. Some sport utility vehicles do better than this.

The Bullitt comes with only one transmission -- a manual. What else would McQueen, who was an accomplished racer as well as actor, have in his car?

This Tremec tranny is one of the most enjoyable I've experienced, with stout, sturdy throws of the gear shift lever that feel just right.

Sheepishly, I found myself looking a couple times for a sixth gear. They're typical in many cars today to help boost fuel economy on highway runs. But Ford officials, thankfully, stuck with five gears in a nod to the era in which the Bullitt was born. McQueen's car actually only had four gears.

Steering is accurate, but not overdone on precision, so a driver doesn't feel the rear-drive Bullitt is twitchy or needs constant attention.

The suspension is reworked substantially from that in "regular" Mustang GTs. In fact, Ford engineers took out the GT shock absorbers and struts and put in new ones that allowed for more careful sport tuning.

They also added a strut tower brace under the hood that improves the car's torsional rigidity for better handling and control.

As you might expect, the ride isn't sedate, soft and cushioned. Driver and passengers readily feel road bumps, though certainly not in as harsh a way as McQueen no doubt experienced them in his 1968 Bullitt.

Actually, I was impressed by how realistically Ford engineers provided a 1968 ride experience but with today's improved handling and control. It's very nicely done.

The dashboard and seats -- all black per the original Bullitt -- have some retro flavor. For example, lettering and wording in the gauges have an old-style look. But the front bucket seats in the Bullitt are modern and supportive for long drives.

Note that if you're short in stature, you may strain a bit to see up and over the passenger side of the dashboard.

The two back-seat passengers feel more constrained, with side windows that don't open. Also, the built-in head restraints in the Bullitt's back seat seemed low. My neck bent backward a substantial amount before my head came to rest back there.

Be sure to watch when opening the doors of the Bullitt in parking lots. These are lengthy coupe doors and can easily bang into adjacent cars.

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the low front end of the Bullitt test car never scraped on driveway entrances.

Trunk space is unchanged from that in other Mustangs and measures 13.1 cubic feet.

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