Cost control was the obvious goal, and the reward is a six-cylinder Mustang that starts at less than $20,000. The Mustang team was not immune to the legitimate needs of the driving public, so it deigned to fiddle with location strategies for its solid axle, repositioning links, installing a new Panhard rod, and placing coil springs on the axle instead of on the trailing arms. Up front, A-frame control arms become L-shaped ones made of high-strength steel; true damper-in-coil MacPherson struts finally get the call. The new suspension delivers desperately needed improvements in ride and handling. Although we found tire noise at highway speed intrusive on the Jersey Turnpike, the 2005 is an altogether quieter and smoother proposition than its predecessor. Credit, too, a stiffer structure.
Overall, our pollsters found comfort positives trending upward for the new Mustang. Requiring less in the way of wily skill and he-man inputs whether pottering or pressing on, it's a much easier car to drive. But steering is not responsive enough, paying only lip service to the concept of turn-in under braking. And as far as roadholding goes, we found the new GT--at least when staked factory-issue Pirelli P Zero 235/55WR-17 all-season tires and explored in the wet--worthy of caution. In rain, the candidate from Flat Rock, Michigan, proved alarmingly prone to completely reversing positions mid-campaign--i.e, spinning out--under the most mild provocation. But at least you know where you stand with the Mustang. It's not a sports car, it's a pony car--a handful and proud of it.
As with the best muscle machines, you'll choose to accommodate it because of its engine. The GT sounds better than it ever has, especially when it's getting down to the people's business of revving hard to its 6000-rpm redline. Forty hp up on its predecessor and boasting an 18-lb-ft climb to 320 lb-ft of torque (at 4500 rpm), it goes faster than ever. An automatic with five forward gears--a very liberal allotment of ratios, for Ford--is optional. But running through the Tremec 3650 five-speed manual in our test car and the GT's standard 3.55:1 rear, the 4.6-liter, 24-valve SOHC 90-degree V-8 spurs the Mustang to reel off 0-to-60-mph runs in 5.6 seconds, on its way to a 143-mph maximum speed. There's nothing wrong with that, or with the feel of the shifter, which is dramatically improved over the rock crusher in the outgoing GT. It's pleasant, even. Operating the clutch is no longer a hamstring-threatening endurance test, either. And the four-wheel disc brakes are bigger, better, and biteier.
Call it retro, call it slavishly reminiscent, we call it a Mustang. To our eye, there's nothing wrong with the way the GT looks. The restyle by Ford designer Larry Erickson (of CadZilla fame) looks tough and mean.
There's no doubting that the cost cutters camped out in the interior for weeks, but it's not an irredeemable stinker. The dash top is flimsy, the door panels unrelentingly plastic, but overall, one experiences a sense of occasion when seated behind the wheel. One optional feature, called (in a stroke of desperate unhip-ness) "My Color," allows the driver to choose from among 125 hues of dashboard lighting. Part of a $450 interior upgrade package, it's trippy enough the first few times around but pans out as something less than the most exciting innovation of the microchip era. The gauges themselves look pretty cool, if a little cheap.
We're not going to stand here and tell you that the WRX looks better than the Mustang, because that would be like trying to suggest that Ross Perot traveled far on his good looks alone. We're not going to ask you to believe it sounds better, because it doesn't. It certainly provides a fast and furious soundtrack when wound up, thanks in part to a bigger muffler and single pipe for 2005, but if you prefer your exhaust system to be your number one calling card and megaphone and you're leaning toward the Subaru, the aftermarket is standing by to help.