Driving subsequent generations of any particular vehicle is always an interesting experience. You get to experience and feel for yourself the work an automaker did to improve upon the prior model, and at the same time you have a chance to evaluate the more modern example to see if their efforts were successful. I’ve had the lucky first-hand opportunity to drive quite a few of these sequential generations, among them the Chevrolet Camaro SS, Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Mustang GT, Subaru WRX and Outback and Legacy, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lexus RX, Lexus LS, and so on.
Of them all, aside from the Wrangler, the Mustang has made the biggest forward leap in its changeover from one generation to the next. Ford’s ponycar made massive progress in in going from later year 5.0L-powered S197 chassis to the S550 that followed, and in some ways still managed to keep them extremely similar.
That said, the 2011-2014 ‘Stang has a good arsenal of merits: rear-drive, six-speed stick, classic good looks, and more power than most people would know what to do with. But now that it’s out of production we can examine the S197 from afar, and ask the critical reflective question: was the S197 any good towards the end of its run? And when compared to its newer counterpart, how does it stack up? Eager to find out for myself, and equally curious to see if the S197 is a car worth pursuing to replace my WRX, I found a local 2012 example to find out.
Read on to see how it fares, and how it compares.
As was mentioned in my recent Mustang vs Camaro piece, I’m in the market for a new means of transportation. Something fun and exciting and (probably) rear-wheel-drive and (also probably) powered by a big V8. Well, that’s the plan at least. I’m not dead-set on buying a muscle/sports/pony/hoon’s car just yet, being that comfort and lumbar support have taken a priority in shockingly quick fashion thanks to my still-recent back surgery, but the Mustang has piqued my interest in a way I wasn’t expecting it to. Given my budget, there’s two cars that have struck a chord with my intended purposes for comfort and fun and finances, and somehow both are Mustangs. There’s others too, but the S197 Mustang GT and S550 Mustang GT are both unquestionably interesting cars, and very different at that. In an effort to narrow down my choices I found a local 2012 Mustang GT to drive and went for a test-spin. You can read my impressions of the current-body S550 in the link above, but how does it compare to the Mustang it replaced? And how is the S197 when observed on its own?
On the outside
I wasn’t initially sold on the 2010 refresh of the S197 body, the car somehow came into its own and grew on me over time. Long hood, short deck, big round grille-mounted lights (of course, not on this particular car…), and the proportions that evoke images of burnouts; the fifth gen Mustang is an attractive car, albeit somewhat dated, but totally holding its own today. hat’s saying a lot, especially considering it’s over a decade since the initial release of the body-code and over a half decade since the debut of the heavily face-lifted model. The one subtle visual differentiator that turns out to make all the difference between S197 chassis-code cars lies in the emblem affixed between the doors and the front wheel-wells, either in “GT” guise up to 2010 or, crucially, reading “5.0” from 2012 onward.
And that 5.0L-bearing beauty is the one we’re talking about here, specifically a bright-red, low-mile 2012 GT California Special with an SLP exhaust. Black accent decals and a small wing are the only identifiers of the “special package,” which isn’t too special at all, but the car as a whole gives off a very Mustang vibe. The small details and knowledge of the current S550 cause the S197 to look a little dated in 2017 but, that said, the 2012 car’s body makes you want to rev it up, dump the clutch, and hang on.
How’s it stack up versus the S550? I won’t delve too much into this since design language is so subjective, but they both have their pros and cons. The S197 is a attractive through and through, but the S550 is fluid and sculpted in a way the older car simply isn’t. Me? I like them both, for different reasons. People will surely disagree.
On the inside
If there’s one aspect that makes you realize this car isn’t current, that’s the interior. Not that it feels old per se, but the lack of any infotainment whatsoever in conjunction with a center stack that gives off the sense it was designed in the mid-2000s (the general shape of which actually was) lets you know this isn’t as modern as modern gets. Touch points reminiscent of years less critical of material quality also show their face, and the steering wheel is noticeably too large– not just for a sports-focused car, but for any car this size. The seats are soft and couch-like but keep in mind that you sit on them rather than in them, which is good news for long-drive comfort but bad for holding you in place when driving in a spirited manner around anything resembling a corner. Recaros were optional but not present here. All in all, the S197’s interior is a comfortable place to sit with enough room to not get cramped, and boasting a forward view of the road that allows you to see more than any contemporary Camaro could ever wish to.
One more gripe: maybe it was just this specific example, but the clutch pedal sat well above the height of the brake and gas, making it so awkwardly high that it would prove semi-annoying in even light traffic. Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it struck me as odd and less than ideal for a race track. I’m sure you can adjust the height somehow, but this is just a simple observation from my time in the driver’s seat of this particular car.
Compared to the S550’s interior…well, it isn’t a comparison at all. The current generation surpasses its predecessor in every conceivable way, short of (at least in the version I drove, which was still a non-Recaro model) having softer, shallower seats….which could actually be a negative or a positive depending on how you look at it. Visibility in today’s car also isn’t quite as good, but when it comes to infotainment, material quality, general ergonomics, and so on, the S550’s cabin slaughters that of the S197.
On the move
With the amount of power generated by the 5.0L V8, the Mustang accelerates exactly as you had hoped it would. It’s by no means brutal or violent, but slamming your right foot into the accelerator rewards you with a huge forward lurch from the car as it hunches back on its rear tires, met with the matching growl and roar from the SLP pipes. There’s more power than most drivers would be able to handle with ease but it’s totally manageable and, once you dive higher into the meaty part of the powerband, the motor becomes a glorious screamer begging you to keep prodding it until you run out of gusto or it runs out of steam. The shifter is notchy but has a direct, closely-spaced feel to it that’s actually enjoyable to slot from gear to gear.
You only really notice the live rear axle when the car crosses an imperfection, a pothole, or any moderately shitty road surface. On flat tarmac it’s nice and smooth, enough so that you wouldn’t notice its ancient roots under the more basic of circumstances. Hit that joint or frost heave just right though and the rear end hops about in a way that causes concern and momentary fright the first few times you feel it, but it’s ultimately something you could get used to over time– especially with a good suspension setup. It might be old tech but it still holds its own so long as you’re not all-out hammering it when the road goes rough. You definitely have to pay attention and use your brain a bit.
It’s only when you compare the S197 to its successor that you truly notice its shortcomings. The newest version of the 5.0L realizes its potential even further, having benefited from the slight changes made to the Boss 302’s motor among other tweaks, and the gearbox is even tighter and more direct. And then there’s the rear suspension: anyone who has even ridden shotgun in both cars knows just how massively the new car benefits from IRS in its plushness, road-holding ability, and capability in terms of not losing its composure over imperfections. The S197 might be fine, but the S550 is a great chassis that outshines that of the car before it in every way.
One way in which the earlier car beats the later one is in perceived size. While the newer Mustang feels wide, long, and bigger than it actually is, the old one feels much smaller. It might just be relativity, but the S197 was easier for me to place where I wanted it, easier to see where I was going out of, and more nimble at that. It also drives more American, more old-school, and less like a car that wants you to notice its European influence or flair. You want traditional muscle? The 2012 S197 Mustang GT drives like a muscle car. It’s special in a way that is only fully realized by experiencing oneself. So while the S550 might be a better sports car that can still do the muscle part with the best of them, the S197 is more of a…[wait for it!]…one-trick pony.
On price and value
Used car prices are funny these days, and especially those of the supposedly ever sought-after Mustang GT. Used S197s in good condition can be had in high teens, let’s call it $16-20,000. In that range they’re a really good value, especially given the seemingly unlimited aftermarket and the utterly fantastic five-liter up front. It’s a no-bullshit car, designed to induce smiling, and that’s all there is to it. The S550 is another story: used base-trim 2015s are already dipping into the in mid-to-low $20K-range, making one in decent condition an absolutely massive amount of car for the money. And If you fancy yourself a dealership-new model, a quick scan of Autotrader reveals that brand new base S550 GTs can be had for $25.5-27K. Want to talk about a deal? That’s a goddamn deal right there. Meanwhile, 2015-2016 GT Premiums are already falling into the high $20Ks, and will soon be right around the price of those below-MSRP new base GTs. All of this raises a fair predicament: is the S550 worth the extra money, and if so, which is the best bang for your buck?
This may seem as obvious as it gets, but it all comes down to what options you want or need. Dying for navigation and heated and ventilated seats? Get a used S550 GT Premium and call it a day. [Real quick though, let’s take a second to appreciate that sentence. Cooled seats. In a Mustang. How great is that?] Don’t care about the stuff that doesn’t contribute to performance, but want IRS? A used base GT, or one with no option except for the Performance Pack, would suit you nicely, but a new one isn’t that much more costly if you do your research. Not into the new body or chassis and you’re looking for a simple muscle machine that has more options for aftermarket modifications than just about anything else out there? Find a clean, well-taken-care-of S197, throw some money into sorting out the rear end, and call it a day.
Any way you slice it, the S197 and S550 have turned into genuine performance bargains. No, they won’t perform as well as a C5Z or C6 Corvette which can be had for the same money, but they’re great values in their own right and are a lot of fun, a lot of vehicle, and a lot of potential, all wrapped up into two classic American coupes. Or convertibles, if that tickles your fancy.
On my other general impressions and the bottom line
I genuinely enjoyed my time behind the wheel of the S197 Mustang GT. The California Special additions are a bunch of nonsense, but the free-flowing exhaust made every gearchange and every moment going from on-to-off throttle, or vice versa, an absolute pleasure. Ford’s engineers did really well with this car despite the relatively ancient rear-end mechanicals the accountants left them to work with, and ultimately it’s a fun car to hoon and a comfortable place to do so from. Relative to today’s Mustang, the S197 exhibits near-beauty in simplicity. The lack of interior tech, the old-ass rear-end, and the generally more lofty, floaty nature compared to the S550 makes it more reminiscent of cars of yore than of something looking to the future.
Where it falls flat on its face is in not feeling like “the complete package.” Whereas the early (2005-2009) S197s are attractive cars with a mediocre powertrain mated to their mediocre material and build qualities, the powerhouse of the 5.0L in the newer S197s wholly overshadows anything you can, or want to, say about the rest of the car. You quickly realize that for the refresh of the late-year S197 generation, Ford was focusing on catching up to GM in the power department…and not much else. All that said, the 2012 Mustang GT is something you’d be happy road-tripping, daily-driving, or abusing at any track that isn’t Sebring. It’s held up quite well given its design roots, but as a whole the S197 Mustang GT is a real treat of a car that I’m sure will make the second, third, fourth, fifth, and as many owners as it can handle happy to be the driver and/or owner of said car. It’s a blast.
Conversely, the current-gen Mustang is a futuristic spaceship. Not a proverbial rocketship, as it doesn’t really feel any faster, but the tech-heavy interior matched with the sleek body and (finally) modern rear suspension components make it feel worlds newer than the S197 it replaced. Is it more fun? Hard to say. I’ll put them on roughly the same level for “smile quotient,” seeing as the S197 is more juvenile fun while the S550 is more mature, more refined, but still capable of slamming you back in your seat with significant force. It without question handles better, and inside the S550 you notice a difference of a caliber similar to that of the contrast between a live-axle and IRS. The cabin is a much, much better place to soak up the miles, but taken as a whole the new car is quite a large margin better in every way. In comparison to the S197, the S550 feels complete. It’s the full package, well-rounded in every regard, and it doesn’t feel like there were any compromises when Ford build designed it aside from maybe a *few* minor interior design elements. As a whole, the S550 is fucking fantastic, simple as that. Well done, Ford. I’m eager to see how the 2018 Mustang compares.
So, what are my final take-aways? Any way you slice it, the 2011-2017 Mustang pie is one you want not to experience only once, but that has you coming back for more and more. Both generations of ‘Stang are absolute riots, with the S550 surpassing its older sibling in every way– some measurable, some not. But the S197 still has a charm to it, a badass, standoff-ish, “don’t mess with me” attitude that makes it a car that has aged well despite itself. It might be ever-so-slightly more fun pie if you’re eating just a nice big single slice, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily the pie you want to be eating for years and years. To that avail, and this may come as zero surprise whatsoever, the S550-chassis Mustang is the better car. The one I, and you, would likely want to live with, anyway.
Oh, and what has this led me to pursue for my WRX replacement? Not sure. Actually, driving the S197 Mustang only made my decision harder. Not that I’m ready to make a decision just yet, as I have a plethora of cars that are still on the “To Test Drive” list, but I’ll be damned…the Mustangs sure are a shitload of fun. They might just have me hooked.