- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Throughout its 40-year life, the Ford Mustang has had a variety of missions, but the one that triggers the most excitement and nostalgia in lovers of the marque is its role as a true American muscle car.

So, it should come as no surprise that the tradition continues with the all-new 2005 Mustang.

Combining the essence of a great mid-20th-century body style with surprisingly competent 21st-century mechanical components, this sexy fastback coupe stirs the souls of gearheads every time they hear the rap and rumble of a lusty, 300-horsepower V-8 engine beneath its hood.

But Ford has more in store for the newest Mustang than creating an adrenaline rush for car-crazed young males. The planners, designers and engineers have decided that, for many, less actually can be more.

That is why Ford offers not only the brassy Mustang GT, but a somewhat less edgy version powered by a surprisingly peppy V-6 engine.

The wisdom of their forethought is already showing.

With the factory rushing to fill thousands of custom orders, and waiting lists growing in dealerships across the country, the new Mustang is starting to look like a major success story.

And, yes, V-6 power is leading the way.

Ben L. Poore, Ford’s car group marketing manager, reports that 7 out of 10 Mustang buyers are choosing V-6 power. He predicts that, when the Mustang convertible hits the road this spring, 8 of 10 ragtop buyers also will want the smaller powerplant. Company officials believe these numbers are driven mostly by their expectation that 55 percent of all Mustang buyers will be women, traditionally the less power-hungry sex when it comes to cars.

To assess the merits of the new Mustangs, I recently spent a few days in a torch-red Mustang GT coupe, followed by a few days in a less fiery, Windveil medium blue V-6 version. Both had five-speed automatic transmissions and in all other respects were nearly identically equipped.

Like anyone infected with car lover’s fever, I was thrilled by the rush of available power in the GT and was particularly impressed by the improvement in the handling department. But, essentially, the car delivered pretty much what I expected.

What I did not expect was the ample power delivered by the V-6 engine. Its 4.0 liters of displacement generate 210 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque. That will vault the 3,400-pound coupe from a stop to 60 mph in about seven seconds. It also provides plenty of passing power in the all-important 50-to-80 mph range.

And while it is not in the same acceleration league as the GT (5.5 seconds to 60 mph), the V-6 car returned 17 to 26 miles per gallon on regular gas, easily trumping the 15/21 figures I obtained with the GT.

The only down notes were the raucous noises the V-6 engine generated under strong acceleration. Apparently tuned to mimic the lusty beat of the V-8, it sounded to me more like a farm tractor climbing a steep hill.

Ford has tried to insulate passengers from this aural intrusion by offering a sound system that automatically adjusts its volume as the engine roar increases and decreases. The effort is only moderately successful, so I found myself fiddling with the volume knob incessantly.

That complaint aside, there is a whole lot to like about the bread-and-butter Mustang. The body is tight, the chassis rigid and the power steering is precise, if a bit overboosted.

The V-6 Mustang’s suspension is softer than the setup on the GT, but certainly adequate under all normal driving circumstances. More importantly, engineers have managed to eradicate most of the wheel hop common to previous Mustangs on rough roads.

The 16-inch wheels and tires stretch stopping distances and reduce the limit of adhesion compared with the GT, but, again, that shouldn’t bother any but the overzealous.

Inside, all Mustangs are reasonably well appointed, with comfortable front seats and a dashboard laid out with simple, easy-to-operate switches and gauges. Drivers of a certain age will feel a wave of nostalgia as they gaze upon the retro-style instrument cluster and look out over that long expanse of hood.

There is a back seat, but as has always been the case with the Mustang, it really is not functional for anyone older than a toddler. And, one more quibble, driver and front-seat passenger will find it’s a long reach behind them to grab the seat belt.

Base price of the V-6 Mustang is a surprisingly affordable $19,370 and that includes air conditioning, sound system, power driver’s seat, cruise control and power exterior mirrors. Loaded with the optional automatic transmission, leather-trimmed seats, more powerful sound system, rear spoiler and several other upgrades, it carries a sticker price of $25,175.

A disappointment was the level of standard safety equipment. Although included in the final price of the car I drove, front-seat side air bags are a $570 option and anti-lock brakes with traction control add another $775 to the price.

Can less really be more? It certainly can be to those who enjoy saving about $5,000 on the purchase price, to those who like to pay less at the pump, and to those who enjoy lower insurance costs.

Regarding insurance, John Paul, public affairs manager for the American Automobile Association, says the tab for the V-6 Mustang should generally run about 20 percent less than the bill for the GT because it is not designated as a performance car.

Of course, none of those savings will sway the speed merchants who live ” and sometimes die ” by the throttle. But, the remaining 70 percent of buyers will enjoy a comfortable, updated ride down memory lane.

And, I’m guessing that a lot of guys just might find that the updated V-6 power is plenty for their needs, too.

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