“I love the new Bullitt,” a lady at the gas station calls to me as she exits her Yukon XL Denali. In the second row of her SUV I can see her young son looking on. “When we pulled up, I was telling my son that this is the new Bullitt. We had to see it.”
This was not what I was expecting to happen when I took possession of this 2019 Mustang Bullitt for my week-long evaluation. The car’s nice, but it’s not overstated or in your face, and with the exception of a few Bullitt emblems around the car, this is as subtle as a Mustang gets.
Truth be known, I figured I’d get zero public response from driving the 2019 Bullitt. The Bullitt isn’t flashy, and the Highland Green paint hides the car in plain sight (for those who’d like to hide more, Ford supposedly also offers the Bullitt in black), and the fact that there are no Mustang emblems on the car, most might mistake the Bullitt for a DIY modified version of a GT. But it isn’t, and the extra 20 ponies under the hood (courtesy of Ford chucking the stock intake manifold and throttle body in lieu of the GT350 setup) let the driver know the car is serious business. But while the 480hp and 420lb-ft of torque isn’t overwhelming on the street, it might be too much on the autocross course. But more about that later.
Steve McQueen, the person this car honors, was not just an actor, he was also a bit of a car nut. Yes, we all know him as police lieutenant Frank Bullitt in the movie Bullitt, and many of us know he assembled a considerable car collection, but it is perhaps lesser known that he was also a bona fide road racer.
McQueen was, at least briefly, a member of the Sports Car Club of America, entering a number of SCCA races from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s. He often raced a Porsche 356, but the records show he arguably found more luck behind the wheel of a Lotus. Either way, the 2019 Mustang Bullitt likely has more than double the horsepower of those two cars combined, and it’s probably easier to drive. And with an as-tested price of $51,985, this special version of the Mustang is not cheap, but it’s cheaper than if you wanted to buy the model of Porsche or Lotus that McQueen raced back in the day.
The evaluation I had planned involved a road trip from Los Angles to Las Vegas, where I would attend the SCCA National Convention, and then I’d wield the Bullitt during an SCCA Las Vegas Region autocross on the Sunday before heading home. Over the course of the week I would log nearly 800 miles plus four autocross runs. The car handled all of that and averaged a tick over 26mpg on the freeway, too. Fuel economy during the autocross? 2.7mpg.
But the journey began at the gas station, where I filled the tank with premium fuel before hitting the road. It turns out, the lady who spoke with me is married and her husband owns a green 1968 Mustang Fastback – Bullitt is apparently a bit of a family tradition for them. Yet neither her nor her husband were born when the 1968 movie Bullitt was released (nor was I). But if you can appreciate the significance of something based on its era then you’ll recognize that the movie – and the man behind the famous lead character – are classic.
I feel like this generation Mustang will also transcend time. The bodylines are a fantastic homage to the 1960s design that it takes its cues from, and the subtle touches are exactly that: subtle. The 2019 version of the Mustang is as in-your-face as the 1968 Fastback that McQueen slid, jumped and drifted throughout the movie, and the new version has absolutely sick performance to back up the looks.
The notepad I use when evaluating cars is chock full of notes from my drive. “The six-speed manual transmission’s automatic rev matching can be turned off, but only a fool would think they can match revs better,” plus “The interior feels tight like a Miata, but the gas pedal can tap big power.” I also make note of the digital gauge cluster display that visually changes depending on the car’s performance mode (“It’s awesome!”), the vacuum gauge in the center of the dash (“Why isn’t this axle temp? The diff already has a temperature sensor?”), and the optional Recaro seats (“Great in the corners, but offer no lumbar support for long road trips.”), but as an SCCA member, and probably like McQueen, the important thing was how it put down power in and out of the turns.
It turns out, the answer is very well – if you’re patient with the throttle. Which I’m not. On the autocross course, this car, which claims a 0-60 time of about four seconds, struggles to get traction in second gear. The Bullitt’s second gear is useful on the street, but on a dusty autocross parking lot circuit with quick transitions, the rear tires get too excited. Consequently, my fastest autocross runs were made in third gear of the manual-only transmission Bullitt. Third offered enough power to go fast, but unfortunately lugging the 5.0L V8 engine under 4,000 of the available 7,400rpm on the autocross course choked down too much power to drive with the throttle, allowing the car to show some of its 3,700lb curb weight. For street use, the Michelin Sport 4S tires were ample; competition-oriented tires, meanwhile, would certainly serve this Mustang well if you plan to push it to the limits on an autocross course in second gear.
That said, the Bullitt held its own during the SCCA autocross, which is impressive considering the test was conducted completely stock, even using the factory-recommended tire pressures. But with 480hp on tap and the ability to build speed in irresponsible ways in any of its six gears, perhaps this car would stretch its legs best on the open track, maybe during an SCCA Time Trials event.
Regardless, the 2019 Bullitt shined through all I asked of it. And as I clicked shut the Bullitt’s gas door and prepared to embark on the journey that eventually became this story, the lady thanked me for taking the time to speak with her, then she headed back to her SUV. And as I opened the Mustang’s car door to slide behind the wheel, I heard her say to her son, “See, I told you it was the new Bullitt.”
Indeed, the 2019 Mustang Bullitt is an eye catcher, even if it’s only for those who know what to look for. But isn’t that what makes for a classic?