The best Mustang ever. By Tom Wilson • Photos by Guy Spangenberg December 2004 This car is going to give the Mustang a good name, and what a move that is. Long the bastion of youthful exuberance, America's pony car has just smoked the tires 25 years forward to arrive as a fully developed, mainstream automobile, a car appealing to far more than image-crazed youth. Such are the rewards for starting with a completely clear computer screen, a first for any Mustang. But, as has always been the Mustang's trick, the new car still cries the siren's call to its core youth audience as both the quintessential muscle car and, if nothing else, the coolest thing to be seen in. So give Ford credit. While improving such fundamentals as wheelbase, weight distribution and interior space, plus boldly exercising its design talents, Ford has not only preserved, but actually distilled the potent Mustang essence-V-8, rear drive, durable, affordable, sporting-into this latest car. The new Mustang is all of that, and adds the chassis and handling prowess Mustangs have so long lacked, plus some unexpected civility. It truly is the first fully rounded Mustang. Polite or not, so strong is the new car's character that "Mustang" script appears nowhere, thanks to styling drawing heavily from the Mustang's first generation. While tempting to label the look as retro, once you see this car cruising Main you'll agree this is simply what a Mustang looks like. It certainly won't be mistaken for anything else. As before, the Mustang offerings begin with a V-6 engine, now coupled to either a 5-speed Tremec T-5 manual or 5R55S automatic transmission. Starting at a friendly $19,410, the V-6 car offers 210 bhp and 240 lb.-ft. of torque, enough to sate the 60 to 70 percent of Mustang buyers looking for a sporty runabout. Considering the 4.0-liter sohc 60-degree V-6 is silk sheets smoother than the flannel 3.8 pushrod V-6 it replaces and is 7 bhp and 10 lb.-ft. of torque stronger, the 6-cylinder ought to continue its sales-leading ways. Plus, when optioned with a power driver's seat, Shaker 500 audio and the upgrade 16-in. "spinner" wheels, the V-6 still comes in under $20,000 with a $19,995 sticker. But it's a V-8 that makes the enthusiasts' Mustang, and that means the GT. Using the aluminum block originally found in the 1996-2002 Mustang Cobras, the 3-valve cylinder heads from the F-150 pickup, a new composite intake manifold, unique sweeping cast-iron semi-header exhaust manifolds, an electronically controlled throttle and variable valve timing, the 4.6-liter V-8 sports 300 bhp and 315 lb.-ft. of torque. The GTs employ the Tremec 3650 5-speed manual or 5R55S automatic transmissions, but whereas the V-6 cars use 3.31 rear axle gears, GTs are aided by 3.55 cogs. Most important, an all-new chassis and suspension provide much-needed rigidity and a vast improvement in suspension tuning sophistication. Full-length "frame connectors" and other details make the new body 49 percent stiffer in bending and 31 percent stiffer in torsion. The suspension remains MacPherson struts in front and an 8.8-in. live axle in back, but there are no carryover parts, and the 6-in. wheelbase increase was achieved by moving the front wheels forward. Huge improvements in weight distribution were thus realized. Gone is the Mustang's worst feature, a confused 4-link rear suspension; its replacement is a free-moving 3-link with Panhard rod while the front MacPherson-strut design boasts 7 1/2 degrees of caster. Fluid-filled isolator bushings in the front lower control arms, and slightly larger disc brakes are other notable improvements. Approaching the new Mustang, we found its upright profile substantial, a feeling accentuated by the high cowl and low roof lines. More so than previous Mustangs, this one presents a sense of density and puissance. And yes, its family heritage is palpable. The interior, specifically the instrument panel, stretches the boundaries of function and form. The deeply hooded tach and speedometer are trimmed with 1967-era chrome bezels with the minor instruments crowded between. This leaves the remainder of the panel free for excellent-functioning round vents plus aluminum trim detailing via the optional interior upgrade package. The steering wheel feels just slightly large in diameter, but its commendably small airbag allows a wonderfully smallish center pad, all the better for peering into the speedo and tach wishing wells. The seats are workmanlike, meaning they are far ahead of previous Mustang practice, and while we'd enjoy slightly more side bolstering when cornering, the joy of seats that go back far enough to (just) accommodate humans with legs is unadulterated deliverance. Overall, given somewhat higher window sills and a pronounced center console, the new Mustang cockpit leans slightly to feeling enclosed, but is far from claustrophobic and gives better sightlines than the smallish quarter windows would suggest. As if to complement the Mustang's newfound handling, Ford interior designers have been admitted to the heel-and-toe brotherhood after 25 years, and a dead pedal has been worked into the left toe board. The manual's shifter is nearly stubby thanks to the taller center console, and a remote mechanism between transmission and shifter has de-orangutaned the lever with a welcome move rearward. Mustangs are honest machines, so there's no start button to fire up the beast. A perfectly toned and volumed guttural idle emits from the exhaust, and with modest clutch effort you're off to discover how shockingly good the new Mustang dynamics are. Like the Chinese, we were expecting a Great Leap Forward, but we weren't expecting the positively sublime steering, nearly absent understeer, excellent control harmony, the hair-quicker-than-expected turn-in, suppleness over heaves and bumps coupled with a plushly firm ride that doesn't jiggle on the freeway or hammer in the rough. My, but a well-suspended live axle is a thing of wonder; anvil tough, devoid of sleight-of-hand toe changes and cheap to boot. Giddy-up is good, but mitigated by a substantial 3500-lb.-plus curb weight, never mind the aluminum hood. The 3-valve V-8 approximates the older naturally aspirated Cobra's 4-valve top-end rush with a definitely stronger low- and midrange. The variable valve timing shifts around 3000 rpm, but is imperceptible, so the effect is simply more power across the tach. Response for the first few hundred rpm off idle is soft, the result of only 281 cubic inches, two tons of all-up weight and what must be conservative engine management. And, while we're griping, electronic throttles are the work of the financial devil, although we'll admit the Mustang's is the best yet. Tuners will have a field day providing crisper off-idle and snap-throttle operations via computer reflashes and 3.73 gear sets. The burnout crowd will not see any progress in losing the throttle cable, either. For the rest of us, the smooth 3-valve makes more power, fewer emissions, gets the same mileage and lives on 87-octane gasoline. As a cruiser or commuter, the Mustang is ready-made. Wind noise is calm with the windows down, and powering the side glass up cuts off the outside world with an unexpected, Lincoln-like quiet. The thundering in-dash, 6-CD Shaker 500 audio is powerfully balanced and can hammer out the hardest rock; the Shaker 1000 is for guys with baggy pants who don't understand that the right rear corner of the enlarged trunk is where the nitrous bottle goes, not an amplifier. Best of all, the base GT Deluxe includes standard traction control and ABS for $24,370, which is on a par with the previous GT when you recall the electronic nannies were optional. Absolutely loaded, the GT Premium tops out at $30,115, and a very complete 5-speed GT is about $29,000. Isn't that great pricing for a V-8, rear-drive, durable, affordable, sporting machine?