One of the things I love most about the Ford Mustang is that it is designed by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts. Each Mustang I have driven has a unique spice but retains the distinct flavor and feel that makes it a Mustang.
Among the nine different editions of the 2020 Mustang line up are a few passion projects turned production vehicles. I had the opportunity to drive one of those passion projects; the 2020 Mustang EcoBoost outfitted with the 2.3L High-Performance Package and the 2020 EcoBoost High-Performance Package with the Handling Package.
Behind the wheel, the HPP Mustang feels precise, sharp, and agile. When combined with the optional Handling Package, the HPP is a whole other level of performance and makes it one of the purest-handling Mustangs I have ever driven.
What sets the High-Performance Package apart from the base EcoBoost Mustang is its engine. The inspiration came from a Dearborn skunkworks project that saw Ford engineers drop the four-banger from a Focus RS test mule into a Mustang chassis.
The production engine for the HPP is a derivative of the Focus RS, not a direct transplant, and it is the first EcoBoost engine exclusive to the Mustang platform. Its 330 horsepower neatly splits the difference between the 310-hp Mustang EcoBoost and 350-hp Focus RS.
The HPP engine utilizes the same die-cast alloy block and high-performance cylinder head as the Focus RS, but the engine is mounted longitudinally due to the Mustang’s rear-wheel-drive platform.
Ford also gave the HPP engine a 5-percent larger 63-millimeter twin-scroll turbo compressor and a larger radiator. The engine is calibrated to run both Ford’s 10-speed SelectShift automatic and 6-speed Getrag manual transmission.
The result is a high-revving marvel that delivers power up to the 6,500 rpm redline and delivers 90 percent of its peak torque between 2,500 and 5,300 rpm. Those figures translate to more usable power with a torque curve that is 40 percent wider than the base EcoBoost engine.
It is essential to note the HPP isn’t exactly your track monster EcoBoost on roids. It was developed for spirited driving on mountain and coastal roads and intended for those who understand the difference between attainable street performance and brute force.
That said, the car truly excels when it’s driven as intended. I found myself almost getting bored while driving the “straight-line” portions of the PCH in Northern California, and it had me lusting for more twists and turns.
In a lot of ways, driving the HPP reminded me of driving the S197 V6 but without the lazy acceleration. Its various Sport Modes further elevate the driving experience and make it far more engaging and thrilling.
One thing I found a bit frustrating was that each time I stopped and got out of the car without turning it off, Sport mode was disabled.
Gurgling pops and burps are withheld until you get near the redline, though I would have enjoyed them at any RPM. I was disappointed with how quiet the turbo is, half the fun of a turbo car is the wastegate sounds and turbo spool. Purists will always be disappointed with the sound because it’s not a V8, and let’s be real; it will never sound like a V8 no matter how much work goes into it.
The HPP does sound significantly better than the base EcoBoost, but it would be nice to see Ford embrace the turbo sounds a bit more, rather than try to hide them or attempt to emulate the rumble of a V8.
In addition to the upgraded engine, the HPP also received an alloy strut tower brace to stiffen up the front, along with a 32-millimeter front sway bar and a 21.7-millimeter rear sway bar to improve the steering precision.
Additionally, the car comes with the larger four-piston fixed calipers with 13.9-inch front rotors from the Mustang GT, a 3.55:1 limited-slip rear axle, and it gets package-specific 19×9-inch machined-face aluminum wheels and 255/40R summer tires.
Aiding performance is a large black front splitter and belly pan, plus brake cooling ramps from the Mustang GT Performance Package that work to reduce front-end lift and improve brake cooling.
The HPP equipped with the Handling package takes those upgrades a little further with the addition of semi-metallic brake pads, specially calibrated MagneRide dampers, and a TORSEN 3.55:1 limited-slip rear axle. The wheels also increase to a slightly wider 19×9.5-inch aluminum wheel with 265/40R Pirelli P Zero Corsa4 summer tires and it gets a larger 24-millimeter solid rear sway bar.
While these modifications may seem subtle, they transform the HPP into a much more capable ride that commands your attention.
With the Handling package, the car turns into corners more directly and offers better feedback. The front-end grip seems nearly limitless, and the car dares you to push harder and harder in an attempt to break the tires loose. Understeer around corners becomes a distant memory, and it maintains a remarkably civil ride without any trace of nervousness when pushed.
The car is exceptionally well balanced with its 53/47 weight distribution, which allows it to be fun to drive with a slight touch of a go-kart feel. The steering is perfect as it’s heavy enough to make you feel in control and like you’re connected and driving, but it remains light enough to feel playful.
I felt gobs of power routed to the rear wheels, and where the standard Mustang HPP almost feels too soft for the torquey new engine, the Handling pack tightens things up to near perfection but retains a very mechanical feel that seems to lack driver aids such as traction control and ABS. It lets you slip a little more when you want to and manages to be an incredibly forgiving car to drive.
According to Ford, the HPP hits 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds – just over half a second shy of the Mustang GT (3.9 seconds), and the HPP is quicker around a short course then the 2012-’13 Boss 302. For some context, the S197 Boss 302 is a “holy grail” type of car and is highly regarded by the Mustang community to be one of the best Mustangs ever created, especially up to that point in time. After driving the HPP, I can totally see how it holds its own and is capable of outperforming the Boss 302 and how it’s potentially lethal on an autocross course.
As a long-time V6 Mustang owner, I have always disagreed with the stigma that comes with being the cheaper, more fuel-efficient variant of the Mustang: that it can’t perform. To me, what makes the HPP so unique is that it proves it doesn’t automatically suck because it’s not a V8. It serves as an attainable performance car that makes driving fun and asks you to always go further.
Photography by Nicole Ellan James.