- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

Like Marilyn Monroe, the Ford Mustang achieved its iconic status more with looks and sex appeal than talent.

We will never know what the blonde goddess might have become. But we do know what has become of the Mustang, now in its 40th year. For 2005, completely redesigned, the Mustang adds talent to go with its image. This new version is the best ever.

True to its heritage, the coupe is a fastback of a shape like some of its progenitors. It has a retro look about it, with strong styling cues from the 1967 model and some lesser borrowing from the 1965 car. But the execution is thoroughly modern.

As with past Mustangs, the new version likely could have gotten by mainly on its looks. After all, the original was little more than a Ford Falcon in an attractive dress.

But this time, the Ford designers decided that their new baby, the sole survivor of the “Pony Car” genre, should have competence and confidence to go with its pretty countenance. The result is a sporting grand touring car that is ruggedly American in personality, but with a grace and freshness rarely found outside of the import ranks.

To maintain its bona fides with its legions of dedicated fans, the 2005 Mustang has V-8 as well as V-6 power, gets that power to the rear wheels via an automatic or stick shift, and plants the rear wheels firmly to the pavement with a solid rear axle — not an independent rear suspension as with many modern cars.

The engines define the lineup, with the V-6 as the base car and the V-8 powering the GT model. The six is no slouch, and likely will eventually constitute the majority of Mustang sales. It delivers 210 horsepower through either a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission.

Enthusiasts have the same choice with the GT V-8, though the hard core likely will opt for the five-speed stick. With 300 horsepower emanating from 4.6 liters, this is the hot Mustang opener.

It was, to put it succinctly, a ride to get the juices flowing. The Ford designers left out enough sound-deadening material to make certain that everyone inside and outside could hear the marvelous burble of a 21st-century Detroit V-8.

From the driver’s seat, the view forward is over a long, bulging hood. Directly ahead of the steering wheel are large instruments housed in pods, surrounded by chrome bezels that mimic trim from a remembered era.

The instruments are one of the few places where the designers faltered, however. Though you can change the color of the lighting, they are set so deeply in their dark pods that they are difficult to see in daylight. And the digital readouts for things such as trip mileage and average fuel consumption are impossible to read without bending close and squinting.

Ah, but the Ford folks have finally gotten decent seats for the Mustang.

Where earlier models had buckets that were hopelessly squishy and should have been sued for nonsupport, the new seats are well shaped and tightly padded for good support and comfort, though they could use a bit more lateral bolstering on the mostly flat seat bottoms.

The business parts of the driving experience — throttle, clutch, shifter, brakes — enhance the excitement. The clutch is light and progressive in feel, and the shifter is sturdy and precise, if a bit on the stiff side.

There’s a good road feel to the steering, which in concert with the new suspension system provides precise handling on twisting roads. But the turning circle is fairly wide, which affects parking and other low-speed maneuvers.

With the solid rear axle, it is possible — in a fast, fierce turn — to get the rear tires skipping over the pavement. But for the most part, the Ford engineers have managed a fine compromise between handling and ride. Though matters get a bit choppy on rough roads, the jolts are sensed more than felt.

There is a real back seat for two, but they should be of small stature, else they will dent their noggins on the coupe’s sharply sloped back window. Moreover, the front seats must be moved forward to provide back-seat knee room.

Gaining access to the back seat is a challenge. The front seat backs flip forward, but the seat itself remains rooted — an obstacle to be climbed over. The lack of a mechanism to slide the seat forward was an admitted economy measure, as are the nonfolding outside rear-view mirrors.

The mavens at Mustang are painfully aware that their customers are extremely price-sensitive, so some corners had to be cut. But the desired result was achieved.

The V-6 Mustang starts at $19,410, including the destination charge. The tested GT, with the V-8 and the five-speed stick, opens at $24,995.

Standard equipment includes antilock braking with traction control, air conditioning, a stereo with CD changer, remote locking, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, a power driver’s seat and fog lights.

With side air bags, an interior upgrade package, machined aluminum wheels, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, the leather upholstery and wheel locks, the test car came in at $27,395.

At that, the lines should form quickly.

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