When you're out for a Sunday cruise through the countryside, it's idyllic the way all the pretty horses stand around in pastures, waiting for something to do. The horse-and-buggy days are long gone, after all; the horses that remain are more akin to expensive huggables for the jodhpur set.
Similar comments might be made concerning the arrival of Ford's new Mustang sports coupe for 2005. The '60s-era pony-car craze-redolent of asphalt-scorching thrusts and parries among Mustangs, Chevy Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds-is today a closed chapter. Chevrolet and Pontiac threw in the towel years ago, leaving Ford with King-of-the-Hill status as North America's sole surviving front-engine, rear-drive sporty coupe.
Nissan, of course, is mounting an uphill charge for consumers' attentions with its gorgeous 350Z; and GM has recruited an Aussie from Down-Under to play dress up in recycled Pontiac GTO frocks. But the fact remains that Ford's Mustang is the last North American pure-bred example of a V8-equipped, tire-shredding power sled. In completely restyled livery for 2005, the new Mustang looks positively idyllic as it cruises through the lonely countryside.
Ford's achievement with the latest-generation Mustang is primarily psychological. Since its debut at mid-year 1964, Mustang has insinuated itself into the American psyche as the mechanical embodiment of fun-loving wanderlust. Mustang's galloping pony logo is an internationally recognized icon; and Ford designers have been shrewd enough to preserve this status with a new exterior style that looks backward to a romantic, idealized past rather than forward to an edgy, uncertain future.
The result is a brawny, muscular coupe with long hoodlines and taut, coiled flanks. Lines and curves are deliciously fluid and contemporary, but the overall impression conveyed is one of pious homage to the heavy-metal heyday of the late '60s and early '70s, before a 1974 oil embargo extinguished burnout-mania forever.
What's amazing is how viscerally Mustang's retro-homage styling affects the thirty- and even twenty-somethings who never experienced monster horsepower, 29-cent fuel, and eight miles-per-gallon performance in the first place. There's something gutsy about the new Mustang's chunky hunk-o'-steel styling that boils the blood in a way no wind-tunnel sculpted, sissy-looking GTO or 350Z can match. Considered differently, the moody croonings of, say, Dave Mathews Band certainly have their appeal, but it still takes a tune like Led Zeppelin's 1969 debut rendition of Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Times" to spark a riot-even among today's iPod Generation.
So it's all the more fascinating to examine what, exactly, Ford has wrought with its crucial rejuvenation of the Mustang Mystique. Technically speaking, very little. Although the platform is six inches longer than before, the Mustang GT still boasts a meaty V8 underhood, a solid (or "live") rear axle in back and a choice of manual or automatic transmission in the console.
The V8 mostly carries over from last year. It's a single-overhead-cam design, displacing 4.6 liters. For 2005, a new three-valve head and variable valve timing boosts output by 40 horses to 300 hp, with torque at 320 ft.-lbs. These are great numbers, of course; and they're just the thing for "standing on it" at a dead stop in preparation for stenciling neighborhood lanes with rubbery black stripes.
Keep in mind, though, that the jewel-like V6 in Acura's new RL luxury sedan musters 300 hp from a mere 3.5 liters-a clear indication that, for Acura, progress means "less is more." Still, it's no small victory that Ford's larger V8 manages 17 mpg/City and 25 mpg/highway using regular fuel. Since both of these figures are within one mpg of Acura's own mileage ratings (i.e., 18 mpg/City, 26 mpg/highway) perhaps Ford is countering with a "mo' is better" strategy all its own.
Inside, the chief beneficiaries of Mustang's extra six inches in length are the two rear-seat passengers. Although hardly a limousine ride, rear occupancy in a Mustang is no longer a form of penance. Legroom is now more than tolerable for longer journeys. What remain vexing, on the other hand, are the flibbertigibbet acrobatics required to oonch into a rear seat through front doors. Then, because the rear seats are shallow wells that position knees above the waist, getting back out again without bopping the head into the downward-sloping roof is an aerobic sport in its own right.
For the most part, the new Mustang extends its '60s homage into the interior. Vents, instruments and controls are clever re-interpretations of what have filled Mustang cockpits for the last 41 years. Of course, features like air conditioning and the 500-watt "Shaker 500" audio system, with in-dash six-CD player, are up-to-the-minute modern-they just look retro. What a contrast, then, to the "My Color" dash display. This obvious concession to the Xbox Generation allows full customization of backlight displays for the dashboard and console gauges. There are 125 lamp colors to choose from, and it's conceivable that someone might spend all afternoon playing with Mustang's "My Color" palette wheel without ever laying hands on the steering wheel.
Which would be to misunderstand why Mustang exists in the first place. Although MacPherson struts provide independent suspension up front, Mustang's venerable solid axle continues to bring up the rear. Legendary handling feel is thus preserved well into the future. With its comparatively short wheelbase, wheel-spinning torque and plank-like axle configuration, Mustang remains a throttle-steering delight in the twisty bits. Four-wheel-independent suspensions are race-proven superior; but there's nothing like punching a V8-powered Mustang through switchbacks and feeling that hardtail rear suspension go swish-swoosh with tail-wagging delight.
This is entirely the point of owning a Mustang, after all; and for 2005, Ford has cleverly sharpened that point with a new-old re-interpretation of America's original sports coupe designed specifically for just horsin' around.
2005 Ford Mustang GT Premium; 2-door, 4-pass.; 4.6-liter SOHC V8 w/ vvt; RWD, 5-sp. manual; 300 hp/320 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/City, 25 mpg/Hwy; trunk: 13.1 cu. ft.; base price: $25,705; as-tested, with four-wheel ABS disc brakes, live rear axle, "My Color" dashboard, "Shaker 500" AM/FM/in-dash 6-CD audio, opt. side airbags, leather, 17-in. wheels: $27,395