Along with cheap cigars, foul beer, and loose women, Mustang GTs are a vital part of our red, white, and blue heritage. Like Monday Night Football and Friday night carousing, the feisty Fords merit protection by constitutional amendment.
Alas, America's pet pony has been grazing rocky pastures of late. Distracted by tipping Explorers and peeling Firestones, chairman Bill shared fond Mustang recollections and teased with retro-future fantasies while denying us a fresh one. Engineers twiddled for years deciding what a twenty-first-century Mustang should be. Cobwebs permeated SVT quarters. We began wondering if a resurrected Camaro might beat a new Mustang to the corral.
So it is with relief that we announce the arrival of a filly in Ford's stable. We've driven the new Mustang and clocked its gait. Patience has been rewarded.
Ford product guru Phil Martens concluded that there are a whole lot more customers interested in $20,000 Mustangs with six cylinders and sex appeal than there are fat-wallet folks craving $35,000 Cobras. So camshafts, valves, and sophisticated suspension systems went out the window (for now). Martens stressed the three Fs that have historically defined Mustangs-fast, fun, and afFordable-before sending his engineers galloping.
Mustang chief engineer Hau Thai-Tang wielded the crop. You may have guessed he isn't a Dearborn native. About the time the evil II affix and Pinto beans soiled the good Mustang name, nine-year-old Thai-Tang was evacuated from Saigon by military transport. What he knew of Mustangs then came from car magazine clippings. What the bright ex-Ford Racing engineer knows now is how to make them quick and agile using a modest bill of materials.
The fundamental features of the new Mustang versus the outgoing model are slightly larger dimensions, more base and optional power, and a chassis that acts a lot smarter than it looks. The front axle is an unpretentious strut design, and the back end rolls on a rustic rigid axle, but don't be fooled by the blueprints. What you don't see is a soul spiked with spunk.
The first hint that this may be the best Mustang ever is its shape. Chief designer Larry Erickson (who, in a previous life, penned Billy Gibbons's zoomy CadZilla) mashed the nose down low, slid the front wheels forward, and jacked the rump up high. While homage is obviously paid to 1969-70 ancestors, this Mustang is clean, modern sculpture chiseled down to an instantly identifiable profile. The sight of the GT edition's driving lamps growing in your rearview mirror screams "Outta the way!" more stridently than any Peterbilt horn.
Erickson and Thai-Tang were on the same page when it came to stretching the wheelbase from 101.3 to 107.1 inches. Stepping the wheels ahead enhances traction, steering sensitivity, legroom, and visual attitude all at once. But Thai-Tang didn't let it go at that. Stuck with a strut front suspension by cost constraints, he engineered a good one. Moving the coil spring off the lower arm to the traditional ring-around-the-strut location tightened the turning circle, trimmed unsprung weight, and reduced bending-induced friction. Thai-Tang's team also increased the diameter of the front dampers, improved the antiroll bar's efficiency, and devised a means of dialing in ride and handling without the usual compromises. A firm bushing aligned with lateral loads works harmoniously with a softer, fluid-filled bushing tuned to take the sting out of bad pavement. The rack-and-pinion steering gear is laced with stiffening ribs and bolted directly to a stout crossmember to sharpen road feel.
Applying similar logic to the rear axle, Thai-Tang ditched the old "missing link" suspension, replacing it with three stiff, light, and widely spaced trailing links abetted by a Panhard rod substantial enough for Nextel Cup duty. The antiroll bar is supported by the body instead of the trailing links, coil springs have been relocated to the axle, and dampers now snuggle up affectionately to the rear wheels.
The new unibody, which contains no hidden Fairmont metal and only one piece from the Lincoln LS, is 31 percent stiffer in torsion and 50 percent more resistant to bending forces. That's good, because there's a party raging under the hood.
If you've been bad and you're stuck in the six-cylinder lane, take solace in a base price below $20,000 and a 202-horsepower, 4.0-liter engine with roots back to Ford's original 60-degree iron-block "Cologne" V-6. Those who qualify for the GT edition, which is expected to start at about $25,000, get the latest version of Ford's long-running modular V-8. This one mates the nearly equal bore and stroke 4.6-liter aluminum block (living here placidly since 1996) to a set of aluminum heads pirated from the truck side of the house. Since these SOHC three-valve-per-cylinder heads were engineered to feed 5.4 liters, no alterations were necessary to persuade them to handle the fluids ingested and exhausted by the Mustang's smaller pistons. Thanks to variable valve timing, special spark plugs tapered to fit in the minimal space left between the three valves, and a dual-mode intake manifold, the 2005 V-8 revs to 6000 rpm (with a 250-rpm reserve before fuel delivery ceases) and pumps out 300 horsepower at the redline. The lively torque curve reaches its 320-pound-foot crescendo at 4500 rpm.
Key this V-8 to life, and you'd swear flaming bowling balls were rumbling down the exhaust pipes. The boom is big and barely restrained. This is one V-8 that doesn't mince or mumble.
For the first driving leg from Ann Arbor to GingerMan Raceway, rented by Ford for press indulgence, we drew a GT equipped with an automatic transmission. We were initially bummed by our fate, but frustration morphed to fulfillment within fifteen miles. With five ratios to offer, the slushbox does a remarkable job keeping the new V-8 happy at its work. When you nail the throttle, a lower gear is yours without hesitation. If you keep the gas pedal buried, the revs drop only a few hundred rpm below peak torque after each upshift. This is an automatic with masterful moves.
Our hosts offered us precisely two laps at GingerMan, which was just enough to erase any residual live-axle reservations. Exiting the tight third turn, the tail was perfectly behaved and quite capable of handling a full right boot's worth of power. There's ample damping when you need it and sufficient roll stiffness to keep the body on an even keel. During the drive to terminal understeer, the steering wheel keeps you well advised of the grip left in reserve. Mission accomplished for the F for fun.
The second opportunity to study the behavior of both axles and everything in between came later in the day when we gathered a few performance statistics. Thai-Tang's engineering team is well aware of those who melt rear tires off Mustangs one quarter-mile at a time. To give such abusers (you know who you are!) the opportunity to think twice before instinctively switching off traction control, that system was given four, instead of the usual two, channels of wheel-speed information and programming to accommodate smoky burnouts.
As long as the car is running straight and true on a dry surface, enough tire slippage to sustain a rambunctious launch is permitted. When the four wheel-speed signals fall out of sync, indicating a sideways condition or slippery pavement, electronic traction control steps in to save the day. In fact, while driving to the track on wet roads, we found that the Mustang's new traction control works nearly as effectively as a full stability system.
We also learned that the new Mustang knows how to kick hooves. Fling the tach needle to 2800 rpm, step smartly off the clutch while adding throttle, and you're gone. There is no sideways bobble or axle tramp to spoil the escape. The shifter clicks through five gears like Lance Armstrong on a downhill blast. Sixty arrives at the top of second in 5.6 seconds, and you'll dust the quarter-mile goal posts just after shifting into fourth at 14.2 seconds and a galloping 102 mph. With this much torque, sixth is not missed. The Mustang's pace matches some quick cars on the road today, such as Nissan's 350Z, and at least one golden oldie: the bold Boss 302 built in limited numbers thirty-five years ago. Enter another checkmark next to the F for fun.
For the 2005 model year, GTs ride on 235/ 55WR-17 Pirelli P Zero Nero radials. While they do a reasonable job of keeping the 3600-pound Mustang in line with cornering limits of 0.87 g to the left and 0.86 g to the right (tuning discrepancies and driver's weight account for the difference), this car wants more rubber. At the grip limit, the front end chatters wide with understeer, and the 174-foot stopping distance we measured from 70 mph verges on truck territory. Eighteen-inch tires are under development for release next year, but early adopters surely will fit plus sizes on the ride home from the dealership.
How the tuners will deal with the new Mustang's tendency to pitch forward onto tiptoes during extreme braking we can't predict so readily. Consider this the Achilles' heel of strut front suspensions. Chassis engineers report that increasing the antidive effect beyond the current 20 percent level deteriorates ride quality. Their concern is understandable, because the new Mustang shows signs of bronco behavior whenever a pothole or an expansion joint looms.
Bucket seats are on the soft side to salve what the suspension sends through. The buckets are sized for big boys and shaped to hang tight in the turns, though we wouldn't mind a little less puffery in the under-thigh bolsters. The bucket motif also plays in the kid-size back seats. Adults who venture this way will find their knees cocked tight, their heads in contact with the backlight, and a longing for a lubricant to grease their escape. Working the seatback re-lease is an acquired skill (hint: grip the lever tightly between thumb and fingers). Left-to-right-side transfers are forbidden by a center console inspired by the Berlin Wall.
Sunglasses are essential gear in the Mustang, less so for profiling than for living with the flashiest dash this side of Broadway. Load in the optional interior upgrade and color accent packages, and you get three metal finishes (matte, ribbed, and blinding chrome), a couple of color contrasts, and a liberal sprinkling of grain textures. Four small gauges live at the deep end of the central chrome-rimmed cavern. Tach and speedometer graphics ratchet you right back to the '60s with tall, thin numerals filling space the half-length needles can't reach. If that doesn't dazzle your date, sweep through the selection of 125 instrument illumination hues, or crank up the rib-reverberating Shaker 1000 (watts!) stereo system.
In spite of smidgens of silliness, this Mustang is bred with sound bones, tight muscles, and strong will. It looks good, runs hard, and doesn't cost a fortune, which is precisely what has kept Ford's horse rocking for more than forty years.