2012 Sneak Preview: American Cars

2012 Sneak Preview: American Cars

Ford Mustang

It might not look exactly like this, but it'll be a very big deal.

It was April 1964 when the Ford Mustang burst onto the scene with its debut at the World's Fair in New York. The Mustang's introduction was the most successful new-car debut ever, as the car went on to sell an almost inconceivable one million copies in just eighteen months. (That's about ten times the sales rate of the current 'Stang and twice that of the Toyota Camry, today's best-selling car.) The fiftieth anniversary of that momentous date is soon approaching, and don't think that Ford hasn't noticed. So April 2014 is a very good bet for when we'll see the next generation of Ford's long-lived pony car. But what will that next generation bring?

Insiders expect two major mechanical changes: an independent rear suspension and EcoBoost engines. The independent rear suspension--seen on the Mustang Cobra a decade ago but not available at all on the current car -- is long overdue. The changes to the engine lineup are a little dicier. We expect that the base V-6 will be replaced by a turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder, which probably won't be a tough sell given the smaller engine's fuel economy and weight benefits. The riskier move is having the EcoBoost V-6 step in for the base V-8 -- the sound of the V-8 engine is, for many people, inseparable from the Mustang experience, and indeed Ford has gone to great lengths through the years to preserve and continually improve the sound. Ford CEO Alan Mulally points out how well F-150 customers (who were also feared to be ardent traditionalists) have accepted the change to a V-6, so Mustang buyers might, too. No matter what, we still expect a V-8 under the hood of the highest-performance Mustangs, including the myriad special editions that Ford spins out so adeptly.

When it comes to balancing heritage and modernity, the even more difficult task might be finessing the exterior design. Ford went full-on retro for the highly successful 2005 redo and has evolved it since. Expect that process to continue with the new car, which will get a dose of the company's latest "Kinetic 2.0" design language. Ford executive director of global product programs (and one-time Mustang chief engineer) Hau Thai-Tang confirmed that the new styling -- which appears first on the 2013 Fusion -- is supposed to be "a family look," adding, "It's going to move the Mustang forward." The challenge will be doing that while keeping enough of the fifty-year-old DNA to ensure that the new model looks like a Mustang. The illustration below attempts to fuse the new design language, previewed by the Ford Evos concept and the forthcoming Fusion sedan, with some of the Mustang's retro cues. It's a flat-out guess, but our Sneak Preview issue wouldn't be complete without at least one pie-in-the-sky styling exercise.

What: An all-new 'Stang ready for global sales.
When: April 2014
Wow: Independent rear suspension.
Speculation Meter: More Fact Than Fiction


Ford Focus ST

The game of hot hatches has been dominated by three German letters for decades: GTI. Ford says all you really need are two: ST. When we asked Jost Capito, Ford's director of global performance vehicles, if the forthcoming Focus ST will be better than the benchmark Volkswagen in every way, he laughed for a second, regained his composure, and said, without a glimpse of humor in his eyes, "yes." Them's fightin' words.

We've long considered the GTI to be one of the best bargains in automobiledom -- you can't beat the mixture of performance, refinement, looks, and price. The Focus ST might indeed finally challenge the GTI, and a ride in the passenger seat around a test track in Lommel, Belgium, reinforced the possibility.

With Capito at the wheel, the ST demonstrated incredibly neutral chassis balance, a complete indifference to midcorner bumps, and far better body control than you'd expect from an upright hatchback. It also showed off a prodigious ability to put power down. We watched Capito fight the steering wheel visibly as the words "zero torque steer" exited through his well-polished PR smile, but hey -- this was a preproduction car, and its torque-steer-compensation software tuning had not yet been finalized.

What is final, though, is that the Focus ST will have a 247-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, front-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual transmission to keep away the poseurs. The version we get in America won't be watered down one bit. "Of course, the Focus ST has to be good at daily transportation, but the primary goal here is performance. Regular car buyers have different tastes around the world, but car guys here are car guys there--they all want the same thing." It only took how long to figure that out?

What: An American GTI challenger from Ford of Germany.
When: Later this year.
Wow: A stick-shift hot hatch? Welcome back, 1980s!
Speculation Meter: You Can Bank On It


SRT Viper

The unlikely resurrection of an American icon.

Imagine how unlikely a new Viper was only three years ago, when Chrysler faced liquidation. If the company survived, bread-and-butter products like family sedans, crossovers, and pickup trucks would, naturally, have to command the bulk of product-development dollars. How could there possibly be interest in something as indulgent as a low-volume, expensive, high-performance sports car?

"We had to do a lot of soul searching," admits Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's design star and now head of the SRT brand. "[After the bankruptcy and acquisition by Fiat] we had the privilege -- not the right -- to develop a new Viper. This car was born when we were righting the house." SRT design chief Mark Trostle also has memories of that dark period: "The summer of 2009," he recalls, "Ralph told me to rally the troops. [Working on a new Viper] was a great way to help morale among our designers." Trostle's team, mostly working after-hours, did six scale models on the down-low, as there was no guarantee -- indeed, it was doubtful -- that a new Viper would be green-lighted. By June 2010, with Chrysler barely off life support, Gilles presented the Viper to Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and his management team. In the Chrysler design dome, Marchionne walked over to a Viper foam model, ran his hands along it, and declared it to be the most beautiful car he'd ever seen. "Ten minutes later," says Gilles, "the program was approved."

The 2013 SRT Viper you see here is not an all-new car, although from what we've seen so far, it is a remarkable on-the-cheap remake. The Viper is virtually identical to its predecessor in length, width, and height, but its front track is one inch wider. The windshield carries over, but all other windows and body panels are new. The 8.4-liter V-10 returns, sending about 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque through a reworked six-speed manual gearbox. The V-10 boasts new forged pistons and a new aluminum flywheel, and it's spanned by a striking aluminum crossbrace that Gilles has nicknamed "Spidey." All body panels are made of aluminum, plastic composite, or carbon fiber, and Gilles promises that "every scoop, duct, and gill is functional."

The new Viper's big catchword is "refinement." The old car had virtually no soundproofing, whereas this one has sixteen pounds of insulating materials. The cabin, thankfully, bears no resemblance to the cut-rate, kit-car environment of the previous Viper and features an 8.4-inch center-stack touch screen and a 7.0-inch cluster screen in front of the driver that will display track telemetry and other information. The Fiat alliance paved the way for lightweight, elegant, and supportive seats from Sabelt, the same supplier that Ferrari uses. The luxurious GTS model pictured here is aimed at snaring Porsche and Lamborghini owners who in the past rightly dismissed the Viper as being too crude.

Whether the SRT Viper (it no longer gets a Dodge badge) will be able to capture buyers who usually turn to Europe for their sports cars is an open question. What's not up for debate is that the new Viper is going into production late this year at a reworked factory in the heart of Detroit and it looks spectacular inside and out. And it's a minor miracle that it even exists.

What: All-American V-10 muscle, still made in Detroit.
When: Early 2013.
Wow: Unmistakably a Viper, but now with elegance and, gasp, refinement.
Speculation Meter: You Can Bank On It


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