Project E90 M3: Head to Head with 2016 Mustang GT

by Billy Johnson


Packing more than 50whp over stock, our Project E90 M3 took to the track at Palm Beach International Raceway (ROAD COURSE) to see how it stacks up against a 2016 Ford Mustang GT.   Both cars have similar power, weight, and are equipped with similarly sized Continental ExtremeContact DW tires.  How will our modified 8 year old sport sedan benchmark compare to a modern “pony car” that’s transitioned away from its roots to become a corner carver? Read on to find out.

If you’re familiar with Project E90 M3, then you’ve read about the modifications we’ve done to bump the power output from the factory rated 414bhp (which produced a lackluster 337whp) to over 465bhp (>380whp) through an ECU tune, test pipes, and K&N air filters.  But as time marches on, so does development and progress.  Especially for the Blue Oval brand who over the last 10 years has stepped up their game significantly.


E90 M3 Mustang GT sideThe challenger is a bone stock 2016 Ford Mustang GT “California Special” with the upgraded Sync 3 infotainment system and Shaker speakers.  The sleek profile of the S550 Mustang has a somewhat Aston Martin-like greenhouse which gives the car a very sporty stance.  The only modification to the Mustang is a set of Performance Package wheels and Continental DW tires.

Ford actually benchmarked the E92 M3 for their highest track-capable variant of the S197 chassis, the Boss 302 Mustang.  It's arguably the best handling car with a solid axle to ever roll of a dealership lot.  As the class leader for over 30 years, the M3 deserves to be a benchmark due to its world-class handling, motorsport heritage, superb handling and pure driving experience.  While you can argue over the direction that BMW’s M division has taken their products over each generation, as car guys it’s hard to dislike any M3. For the Ford brand to make a car turn a faster lap time than an M3 is a big statement.  Having raced both an E92 M3 and BOSS 302R in the IMSA Continental Tire Series -against each other over the years, I have an appreciation for both makes and they are both very capable machines.

Fast forward to 2015 and the introduction of the S550 Mustang with a (good) independent rear suspension.  The S550 was a significant departure away from the solid axle layout that the Mustang had for 50 years, and they took some notes from the BMW handbook with the use of dual ball joint front lower control arms, which are used on the E9X M3, and an integral link independent rear suspension whose design has been used on BMW 5 and 7 series since the 90’s.  You can read more about the car in my Review of the 2015 Mustang GT.


E90 M3 vs Mustang GT frontBattle of the V8s.  Revving to 7,000rpm and cranking out 435hp from 5.0L, the Mustang doesn’t quite have the efficiency of the BMW which now makes over 465hp (414hp stock) from a 4.0L and winds out to 8,300rpm.  From a frontal view, the Mustang is slightly lower, but a few inches wider, giving the car a larger drag-inducing frontal area than the narrower M3.

With the greatly increased performance of the IRS rear suspension and a more refined chassis, Ford touted their base Mustang GT with the optional Performance Package as outperforming a BOSS 302 on track, and thus outperforming an E92 M3.  While there is something to be said for comparing cars as they are fresh off the showroom floor, especially when performance cars these days are often developed with bespoke tires, there will always be disputes over what tire or what chassis is better.  No excuses can be made when you compare two cars with the same tire.

But Project E90 M3 isn’t the carbon-fiber roofed M3 benchmark that Ford used.  With an additional 2 doors, a cold weather and electronics package with navigation, a steel roof and a heavy sunroof, our M3 isn’t the most pure track variant and is optioned out as one of the heaviest.  On the flip side, our challenging 2016 Mustang GT isn’t a Performance Package, but rather a California Special with the large Sync 3 infotainment system.  What’s “special” about this California Special? Well, not much in terms of performance.  The CS package includes Alcantara seats and a lot of cosmetic differences from black stripes on the hood and side to blacked out hood vents, rear wing, and bespoke rear deck lid panel with a faux throwback gas cap.


E90 M3 Mustang GT rearAt 64.9”, the S550 Mustang’s rear track width was widened 2 inches over the front, which is the same width as the previous S197 Mustang.  This increased the overall width to 75.4”, just half an inch narrower than the original Viper!  By comparison the M3 is 71.7 inches wide with a 60.6” track width.  Track width is significant for reducing weight transfer and increasing mechanical grip.

When it comes to performance, the California Special isn’t any different than a base Mustang GT, from the standard 4 piston calipers and 13.9” rotors to the 3.31 final drive and weak “Traction-Lok” limited slip differential, the CS does not have the larger 6-piston calipers with 15” rotors, larger radiator, stiffer front springs, swaybar, dampers, K-brace, and Torsen diff with a 3.73 final drive that comes with the Performance Package.  However, this Mustang is equipped with the Performance Package wheels which increase the rear tires width from 255 to 275.

While both the M3 and Mustang are not ‘stripper’ models that are spec’d for ultimate performance, they represent variants that are more common with features people would like to live with on a daily basis.  Both cars are also equipped with the same Continental ExtremeContact DW, which is one of our favorite Extreme High Performance tires due to their dry handling, wet grip, hydroplaning resistance, quiet and comfortable ride, and excellent tire life.


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Tuesday, February 21, 2017 3:13 AM
What's with the difference in the TPS traces? Why is one opening to 89% and the other to 74%?
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 6:24 AM
@ginsu - It's the difference in scaling between each manufacturer. The BMW's 74% & Ford's 89% are both 100% throttle values.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 9:54 AM
The CS Mustang is more of a showboat than a track car and its weight reflects all the extraneous junk, er, options, in it. I have a 16 base PP with Recaros and zero other options, lighter than the CS on the order of 150 lbs and with better suspension and brakes. That would be more suitable to go up against a modded M3. I was surprised that lardy CS was able to do a better lap than the M3. Kind of an apples/oranges comparison here though with neither package really being optimum for the job. Interesting read though, even the PP that comes with some better bushings still has too much compliance, but it also has that phenomenally comfortable ride quality previously unknown in a Mustang.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 9:59 AM
@Hap - The Recaros are indeed much lighter than the Heated AND Cooled seats of the CS. Have you weighed your car with a full tank of gas? I'd be surprised if it was a sub 3,700lb car.

It is apples:apples since BOTH cars are not spec'd for ultimate track performance - like it's said in the article.
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 11:12 AM
It is amazing that the Mustang is so heavy. That's approaching fat pig GT-R territory.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 2:06 PM
isn't the fat big GT-R 3800lb? putting the Mustang already in there, not just approaching
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 4:38 PM
Closer to 4000 lbs.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 9:00 PM
Love both cars, just wish they were sub 3200 lbs.
Also, I've daily driven the Conti DW's for a long time and been very happy with them, especially for the price. They also make a decent backup rain tire for the track.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017 9:14 PM
The Mustang's weight is no surprise to me, that M3 on the other hand grew pretty porky when I wasn't looking. No wonder the 2 series is the new 3 series. I'm sure they're not super light either though.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 5:14 AM
Unfortunately due to 'feature creep' and the demand for more items as 'standard equipment', and especially the mandate for increasingly safer cars with better crash test performances, airbags, etc... it's extremely difficult to make to make affordable light weight cars.

Thankfully manufacturers are increasing the size of the brakes, but this and corresponding larger wheels (18-19's are now considered 'standard' when 20 years ago they were 16-17s) and that means weight.

Cars 5-10 years ago will not pass current crash standards, and the increasing number of mandatory airbags add weight, so even if you don't care for powered heated/cooled seats, sun roofs, etc... cars are going to weigh more than they once did. Modern cars that on the lighter side are often 'tinny' with less sound insulation and often harsher-riding simpler suspension layouts. Hopefully the advancements of composite production will make lighter cars more affordable.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 8:03 AM
Fortunately we have the GT86/BRZ as an example of a light, fun coupe, but I'd really like to see Ford make something similar to them, maybe a RWD Cougar at 2800lbs with the Focus ST and RS motors available in it, or even a
Thursday, February 23, 2017 8:51 AM
It is an example, but it's also considered "tinny" and is well known for its poor, rough ride quality due to its cheap, simple, and light suspension. By contrast, an EcoBoost Mustang is much faster in a straight line, far more comfortable and 'refined', and pretty capable on a road course. If you put 275-295 square tires on it, they are quite competent for sustained track use.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 9:25 AM
Your point was that cars have to be heavy, but they don't. As we can see, the BRZ passes all tests. It's lighter than the Mustang for a number of factors; its dimensions are smaller, it has less noise suppression, it's a newer design with more focus on lightweighting, and a smaller engine. It's also sold as more of a sporty, fun car, where the Mustang is a big American muscle car. The Mustang's heavier weight and less direct/more isolated suspension gives it a softer, more comfortable ride, at the loss of feel and agile handling.
Remember, the lighter a car is, the lighter all of its components can be so lightweighting is a bit of an exponential gain. ie. lighter brakes, suspension etc.
I wouldn't call the BRZ's suspension poor, it's just more direct and communicative.
Basically put the Mustang's 2.3L ecoboost in the BRZ (or sell a turbo BRZ STI) and we'd have the perfect small sports car that would smoke the Mustang.
Light cars can also be more comfortable that big cars, as they can allow more suspension compliance and still have good handling. ie. the softly sprung Miata.
Like you, I do hope that composite become more mainstream, allows all cars to shed a lot of weight, which increase fun and mpg.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 9:58 AM
How well is the BRZ selling? The suspension is inferior in terms of performance, ride quality, compliance, etc... It's not more 'direct and communicative', it's actually quite compromised. It's extremely difficult to improve the ride quality despite high end dampers and even geometry changes. These shortcomings greatly hurt sales. The MX5 is by far the best example of a lightweight car, but it does not have rear seats or the luggage capability of the other examples.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 10:22 AM
People aren't buying the BRZ/FRS because of the suspension, it's the lack of power. If it had 250hp+ and some torque I'd be driving it right now.
BRZ's poor ride quality isn't because it's light, it's because it's cheap and compromised. Miata is light and comfy. The Alfa 124 has a bit more power/torque but it's hideous.
My point is that I'm pretty sure most track junkies here would prefer a 3000lb Mustang over the 3800lb Mustang. Weight is the main reason holding me back from getting a Mustang for street/track use.
Sadly my options are fat and powerful or light and anemic. I could get a BRZ and supercharge it, or a Miata and v8 swap it. Alfa 124 is nice but hideous, plus I don't really fit in Miatas well.
BMW M235 is an option, but a little heavy.
I've considered an old Honda S2000. Also a Ford Fiesta ST with a tune but RWD > FWD.
Maybe I'll get a Mustang and so some lightweighting, but I haven't seen good examples of easy weight loss.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 4:57 PM
The problem with 'lightweighting' (I know that's not a word) is that the heavy stuff is all the safety stuff.

You really do have to compromise your safety for performance. For some people that's not a problem, but if you're going to go high-speed with any degree of confidence you need some safety.
Thursday, February 23, 2017 6:09 PM
It's a commonly used term in the auto industry that's good enough for Forbes and NIST :)

I agree that much of the added weight these days is safety related, and I'm thankful that cars are safer.
That said, BRZ and Mustang performed just as well in IIHS tests.
Friday, February 24, 2017 8:01 AM
Agreed on the BRZ's poor ride quality because its cheap and compromised suspension layout. That was my point. I agree a Miata is light, comfortable and well-designed. It's an extremely impressive car and design/engineering feat, however making it larger and adding rear seats would make it more expensive to produce. Mazda's RX8 was more in line with a BRZ/Mustang and was priced similarly to an Ecoboost Mustang.

You're never going to see a 3,000lb Mustang. The platform needs to be affordable, comfortable, and flexible to be able to handle a 300hp V6 on up to a 662hp supercharged V8 (in the S197). A BRZ or Miata's chassis is very narrowly focused and could not handle that kind of power and torque.

Hopefully the next generation car will lose a couple hundred pounds like the Camaro did.
Friday, February 24, 2017 11:33 AM
Good point about the Mustang needing to support hug HP numbers.
RX8 is a great example. Usable car that was 3000lbs. Only thing that kept me from buying one was the unreliable engine, especially in colder climates. Also the styling was bit meh to me.
Drop the 2.3L ecoboost in there and you'd have a winner. I love the wankel engines but I wish they could just make them work well.
Monday, February 27, 2017 10:44 AM
The 2.3 Ecoboost would likely see it weigh at least 100lbs more, let alone a 5.0L V8. To handle the higher torque requires larger transmission and differentials, which = more weight.
Sunday, May 14, 2017 4:23 PM
A little late to the party but I happen to be cross shopping these two vehicles this weekend after someone decided that stop signs didn't apply to them. Considering they are nearly the exact same price on the used market (2011 M3 vs 2016 GT) it is extrmely difficult to choose between them. I love the refinement and feel of the BMW but the potential costs of a 60k mi car worry me. On the other hand, you can get a 2016 with less than 10k miles that will likely have no problems for a long time and even then cheaply repaired in the garage.
Neither owners forums are any help as the BMW groups are in denial that a mustang is faster on the track where as the mustang owners all claim you should rip all the fancy stuff out of your new car to make it faster.
Either way, great article. Any Parton shots on which you would purchase today for $30k?
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