Ford’s ‘Bullitt’ Mustang Is a Rock Star for a Small Group of Die-Hards
(Bloomberg) -- Next month will mark 50 years since the movie Bullitt premiered.
The 1968 thriller starred Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and Jacqueline Bisset. It also starred a dark highland green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback that McQueen drove in what for many remains the most iconic car chase in cinema history: a 10-minute-long sequence in which his character chases two hit men through the hills of San Francisco.
Ford Motor Co. still makes a version of the car in honor of the film. It’s modernized with creature comforts like air conditioning and things that make it easier and safer to drive, such as an anti-lock braking system and rev-matching that makes for more expert shifting. More powerful and faster than most of the standard Mustang GTs for sale, it also looks slightly different, with an exclusive shade of green and some of the best options you can get. (Imagine it as a package with performance and cosmetic upgrades you can add to a stock Mustang GT.) This is the third generation of Bullitt. The previous models were 2001 and 2008.
George, the attendant at my home garage in Manhattan, was fooled by the 2019 version. “Did you have an old car in a few days ago?” he asked drowsily the other night as I pulled in with a different ride. (It’s the kind of 24/7 garage where attendants sleep in shifts on a cot for late-night arrivals.) “Green?” he asked. “Kind of like an old sports car.”
You could be forgiven for thinking the car was vintage from the outside, with its fastback shape and understated style, especially in a midnight fog. But inside it has all the trappings of Ford’s modern technology and comfort (more on that later).
“It was a Mustang,” I told George. “It’s actually a new car made to seem kind of like the old one called Bullitt, a very famous car from that old Steve McQueen movie.” He didn’t know the movie and hadn’t heard of the current version of the car. In fact, as I asked other attendants and passers-by on the sidewalk, 95 percent of them didn’t recognize it as anything special. Cruising the 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt ($47,590) through neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, upstate New York, Newark, and Hoboken, N.J., caused relatively few ripples on sidewalks and crosswalks and driveways usually primed to drool over the cars I bring by.
Here’s why I asked around about whether people recognized the car: If you don’t win street cred for the association that was marketed as the reason to buy car in the first place, then it better be a darn fine car to drive. And you better love it just because.
The Mustang Bullitt is, of course, a darn fine car. It has a 5.0-liter V-8 engine that gets 480 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, and comes with a six-speed manual transmission only, complete with a vintage-style white cue ball knob on the gearshift. Because paddle shifters just don’t feel as legit as a stick shift, do they? They’d be sacrilegious in this car, anyway. McQueen would spin in his grave.
The Bullitt has the smoothest shifting of anything I’ve driven in the past year, though the aforementioned automatic rev-matching—used when the car downshifts to smooth the transition between gears and prevent shocks through the transmission—can be annoying to those who like to heel-toe on their own, without the intrusion of technology.
The combination of that big, loud engine (it comes alive in track mode) paired with the silky smooth gearbox makes the driver feel like she is directing a horse with a silver thread. The handling is much the same as the acceleration feel—you have mucho power controlled by what feels like the thinnest of input, which thrills in some tangible way I find less and less these days. After all, power without control is a mess.
Please note: You get rev-matching and a standard manual transmission in the $39,355 2019 Mustang GT as well, a car that’s nearly as powerful and just as fun to drive—so keep that in mind if you’re trying to save some cash. Or choose the even more powerful $60,000-or-so Mustang Shelby GT350, which has a 5.2-liter flat-plane crank engine that produces 526 horsepower. It’s not a standard Mustang GT, but it is a Mustang. You can channel McQueen just as well in either of those models, and most people on the highway won’t know or care about the difference, anyway.
People in the areas I drove certainly didn’t. They agreed this new third-generation Bullitt looks cool, though the general consensus was a lukewarm “Yeah, we like it.” Multiple valets at garages both uptown and downtown gave much more unprompted, enthusiastic feedback when I brought in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S Wagon earlier this week.
But back to the car. I don’t want to take anything away from how fun it is, in and of itself: The Brembo six-piston front brakes, upgraded from previous generations, have real personality. I commented to anyone who would listen on how great they felt more than I talked about the engine or the sound. It was a nice surprise.
Top speed is 163 mph, 8 mph faster than the Mustang GT.
I like the Bullitt’s interior, too, since it matches the subdued exterior. I, by nature, tend to be reserved. It’s pretty bare across the dashboard but has everything you need, including a 12-inch all-digital LCD instrument cluster and black leather-trimmed seats with green accent stitching. The Bluetooth setup is the quickest and simplest I’ve ever tried. Unfortunately, the heated leather steering wheel is marred by a big silver “BULLITT” logo pasted on the front (much like the one on the rear exterior of the car) that ruins the obligatory hand-on-wheel-plus-cool-skyline shot we all must post on Instagram or instantly dissolve. It’s like the big billboard that blocks your view of the mountains—annoying marketing.
One more thing: Don’t attempt to get into the rear “seats.” They’re more like a nice ledge and stayed belted off, seat belts employed as if for phantom children, for the duration of my drive.
The moral of this story: Yes, the Mustang Bullitt is a marketing gimmick. But it’s also an investment, and that’s not oxymoronic with the gimmick thing. These are special cars, with more power and better looks than other Mustangs, and they’ll no doubt gain in value and prestige.
Just be sure you’re buying it because you like it, not because you expect others to.
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