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Twin test: Ford Mustang vs Audi TT in £30k coupe battle

American muscle battles German polish on European soil. Paul Horrell referees

  • Driving through southern Germany, we spot the perfect place to try out the Mustang's most American feature. A newly surfaced road, so unsullied they haven't even removed the hardware that diverts traffic around it. The mulleted gents in orange dungarees load their steamroller onto a truck and head off, then we sneak past the barriers to do our thing.

    Deep in the Mustang's menus is an option called ‘line lock'. Huh? It's designed to heat up the back tyres just before a drag-strip start. I engage first, confirm line lock on the menu, stop, press the brake pedal hard, confirm again, then come off the brake. Automatically, the front brakes clamp themselves tight while the rears release.

    Pictures: Tom Salt

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  • Bang. I lift the clutch while hitting the gas. The back tyres squeal then light up. The sky goes black, the vents belch smoke into the cabin. This loud violence is juvenile and hilarious and a little scary.

    After a few seconds, I stop. Sure enough, the tyre surfaces have turned to hot toffee. The acrid-smelling pall gradually disperses through the woods, and I realise I've dug two neat contact-patch-shaped divots in this lovely new road. I hope the road builders aren't still within noseshot.

  • This is where worlds collide. We have two 2+2 coupes, both the same price, surprisingly similar real performance. Yet utterly different. They each cleave faithfully to their roots and their motherlodes. If you happen to have spent time in both Lower Michigan and Upper Bavaria, then you'll know just how diverse this test is going to be.

    Ford, of course, never pretended the Mustang was a world car, even as it makes its first real attempt at worldwide sales. From bumper to bumper, it's American. To have designed and engineered a Mustang that didn't satisfy the fanatical home crowd would have been commercial suicide. The passion American owners show towards their Mustangs is borderline pathological. Show the merest flicker of interest in a nice example, and in return you'll be treated by its owner to such a protracted nut-and-bolt guide to its spec and provenance, I swear summer turns to autumn as your eyes glaze over.

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  • So this new Mustang has kept its accent even as it's acquired a passport - it's in Europe now with LHD, and arrives in Britain this autumn with right-side steering. Over here, Ford of Europe's pitch is to folk who seek Americana but with world-class competence. You can have it with a 2.3 Ecoboost or a V8, with manual or auto, and soft or hard top. That makes eight possible combinations but almost everyone who's ordered one in Britain has gone for either a soft-top 4cyl auto or coupe V8 manual. They want the cruiser or the muscle car - always the two most significant Mustang strands. For us today, it's the muscle car, to see what it means in the European coupe landscape. Is it a direct competitor, an interesting diversion, or a hopeless irrelevance?

    In the US, no one likes to be taken for the sort of fool who'd pay over the odds. Value is an American, er, value. So here we are, bubba-bubbing down a German dual carriageway, impressed by the refined cruise. For under £34,000, we've a 5.0-litre V8 up front, a limited-slip diff in the back, big Brembo brakes inside the 19in P Zeros, a pretty sophisticated integrated infotainment system and upgraded hi-fi in the cabin. Before you ask, to be ‘world-class' meant this generation of Mustang has ditched the live rear axle in favour of proper suspension. The V8 isn't some pushrod job but a four-cam all-aluminium effort with variable timing on all four camshafts. The bonnet and front wings are aluminium.

  • An Audi TT can technically slip beneath £30k, but it never does. We've got the base 2.0 turbo manual, with front-drive. Optioned with navigation, cruise and climate control, heated seats and internet connection, all of which are on our £34k Mustang, it tips over £35k. The TT's body is composed in greater part of aluminium, and much of its suspension is lightweight too. The engine's a 4cyl, but a good one, with a turbo, direct injection, and the valves have variable timing and lift. Still, a front-drive 2.0 four is going to have a hard time against a rear-drive 5.0 V8.

    Not so much. The Audi weighs only three-quarters as much as the Mustang. Ah. The Mustang is supposed to get to 62mph in 4.8secs; the TT, in 6.0. But assuming Ford uses line lock and takes advantage of RWD traction, it's really opening out its advantage as it departs, like a 4 July firework display, from the start line. Hardly relevant in the real world. Except - welcome to my world - when creating smoke-choked photos for magazines.

  • Once you get past, say, 30mph, the margin diminishes. On real roads, the Audi takes advantage of a quicker gearshift and whacking mid-range turbo thump, and mostly doesn't fall far behind. At least not until the Mustang driver really starts using the revs, when the gap opens again. This isn't quite the stereotypical apple-pie V8. Yes, it'll rumble quietly along at 2,000rpm, but it thrives on high revs too. And it sounds terrific: a well-oiled mechanism wrapped in a naturally tuneful exhaust. It's honest music, unlike the slightly cheesy theatricality that's all the fashion on European forced-induction V8s. The Audi doesn't just over-deliver on performance for a 230bhp four; its noise is better than you'd expect too, a blend of cream and spice, their proportion varied by whether or not you have the intake resonator engaged on the sports button. The Ford's official economy and CO2 numbers are dire, but you might just hit them. The Audi's are better, but as with all small turbos, less realistic.

    A new diff (still a limited-slip one) and other tweaks have meant the European Mustang suffers less from the crude low-speed transmission snatch and whine than the first one we tested in the US. Even so, there's a want of sophistication here, and your sense of lurching ham-footedness is heightened by a brake pedal that's over-servoed at the top of its travel, a clumsy mismatch for the heavy box and clutch. At least you do feel in shifting gears that you're meshing actual cogs. The Audi's shift is less mechanical, but quicker and lighter and it's easier to be smooth.

  • To begin with, we trace quick, sweeping roads just north of the Mosel valley. The Mustang steers pretty urgently and precisely, but the wheel is too light, and you don't really feel the car loading up. The Audi's steering isn't ideal, either, as it has a sudden kick point just off centre and a trace of torque-steer too. So I don't feel like driving either of them as hard as I suspect they'd go.

    In these wide corners or the tighter ones that follow, neutral is the TT's way. It's wieldy and accurate, and corners flat and hard. It's smaller, which makes narrow roads its playground. As it takes the strain in a bend, you can tune it on the throttle, feeling everything as it takes up its very subtle changes of attitude.

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  • In the snaky valley-side roads, I'm starting to bed in with the Mustang too. Inevitably the handling is defined by the driven wheels. Sure, in tight bends you've got to be careful not to go in too fast and be kidnapped into understeer by its weight. It'll do neutral too. Of course, though, it'll poke the tail out, and pretty suddenly too, when you apply the right toe. A limited-slip diff is standard, and generally a slide will be pretty tidy. But beside the Audi the Ford's reactions and messages are less exact, making it seem too softly bushed, like you're wearing thick gloves: only when the material has compressed does the connection properly happen. Its macro moves are good, but on the micro scale they're fuzzy. European Fords don't suffer that way, and I suspect the Focus RS will be a scalpel in comparison.

    The Mustang's ride can be a bit percussive and baggy at low speeds, but most of the time it pulls a similar very clever trick to our European Fords. Give it a brisk run down a lumpy back road, like the stuff we have in Britain, and the springs really start to breathe nicely, so you can get on with the job of driving. On the same bit of road, the Audi is always stiffer and bashes you about.

  • In other ways, the Audi is vastly urbane. The control positions and actions are spot-on; the driving position, immaculately judged. I could probably fill these eight pages just talking about the brilliance of the design, execution and ergonomics of the air vents and their encapsulated climate buttons and displays. Same goes for the high-res screen that serves for the all instruments, navigation, entertainment and connections. It could have been sluggish and overloaded and bewildering, but for the most part they've made it a joy to use.

    All the same, the TT is buttoned down and serious. Immaculate manufacture, perfect quality, low CO2, all-round good behaviour. It's a superb car that manages to achieve almost as much as the Ford on less power and fuss. But it doesn't set your trousers alight in the short term. Its emotional compass is calibrated for a long relationship.

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  • The Mustang really only takes one thing seriously, and that's being a Mustang. At night it projects a horse logo onto the ground beneath the door mirror. The most lovingly-made component in the cabin is the aluminium plaque engraved MUSTANG SINCE 1964. This car was obviously born to be a V8. It's full of self-consciously cheery back-slapping blokey stuff. Line lock for a start, and various other timing and g-force apps in its ‘track' display menu. It's got an actual handbrake rather than the Audi's electric one, presumably so you can do actual handbrake turns. The interior is all bold and sweeping references to Mustang heritage, and slightly tinselly materials. Open the boot and you find cheapo carpet, messy seams, exposed screws and sharp edges. It isn't normally visible, which is why making an effort here is beyond the Mustang's purview, and it's how come the Mustang does what it does for the price it does it.

    The Audi boot-finishing team (I've no doubt whatever that such a group exists) would, of course, be horrified. And in the end, I'm drawn to the Audi's precision, both in its statics and its dynamics. But in no way does the Ford horrify me. I'm having a bit of a ball. The Mustang has a pretty loud and easygoing attitude to life, and if that's not to your taste, well, it isn't any too bothered. In Europe, it will always be an outsider, but these days it's in no way out of place.

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