When the Mustang was redesigned for 2005, it created a sensation in the car world. It was easy to see the car's modern interpretation of classic Mustang design cues on the outside and inside; it took what was great about older Mustangs and brought those elements into the 21st century. Since then, Ford has had free reign in the muscle car realm, but Dodge and Chevrolet are returning to this once hotly contested segment with a modern-day Challenger and Camaro. Ford is set to answer with an updated Mustang for 2010, but few details are available as of this writing.
I haven't driven the new Camaro, which isn't on sale yet, but I have tested the new Challenger, and I'd still take a Mustang over it because of the Ford's more engaging driving experience.
People have strong allegiances when it comes to muscle cars, and on the whole I like the Mustang's exterior design — especially when you consider the version it replaced. The current model's larger dimensions work really well with the retro styling cues and give the coupe better proportions overall. (See a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model.)
So what are those retro cues, you ask? Practically anywhere you look on the exterior, you'll see one. In front, it's the forward-swept grille and round headlights. On the side, it's subtle sheet-metal creases behind the doors and the fastback roofline, both of which are reminiscent of Mustangs from the late '60s. In back, it's large red taillights that recall those from early Mustangs.
A variety of aluminum wheels are available for the Mustang, some of which have a retro appearance, complete with fake spinners. The standard wheels measure 16 inches in diameter, but 17- and 18-inch rims are also offered.
Ride & Handling
What impressed me more in the Mustang than in the Challenger was handling prowess. Both cars offer relatively comfortable ride quality for performance cars, but the Mustang's weighty steering feel is worlds better than the Challenger's light steering.
Helping the Mustang's cause is the fact that it's smaller than the Challenger — and it feels that way from the driver's seat. While the Challenger feels huge when you look out over its big hood, that sensation isn't there in the Mustang.
Even though the Challenger is quite large, it handles corners surprisingly well, as does the Mustang GT; body roll in the Mustang is well-controlled, and the chassis feels very planted and stable.
The Mustang's biggest downside in terms of ride and handling is its solid rear axle, a design that's long past its prime for a sports car. You would think that if the Ford Expedition full-size SUV gets an independent rear suspension then the Mustang would too, but that's not the case. My problem with this design is its tendency to, when the car hits a bump or hole in the road, distribute the impact of one rear wheel to the other one, thereby unsettling both wheels rather than just one. Here's hoping the updated 2010 Mustang gets an independent rear suspension.
Going & Stopping
By definition, a muscle car needs to have some actual muscle under its hood. In the Mustang, that muscle comes in the form of an optional V-8 engine (a V-6 is standard). The all-aluminum 4.6-liter V-8 makes 300 horsepower. That may sound like a lot of power, but it falls well short of the power specs for the V-8s in the Challenger R/T (376 hp with the manual transmission) and upcoming Camaro SS (422 hp with the manual). Both the Challenger R/T and Camaro SS, however, are significantly heavier than the current Mustang. I wouldn't be surprised if Ford answered with a more powerful V-8 for the 2010 Mustang.
But back to the car at hand. The 2009 Mustang GT's V-8 offers strong, if not overwhelming, acceleration, accompanied by a sonorous exhaust note through the dual exhaust system. The exhaust rumble is still there when cruising on the highway, but it's much more muted. At any rate, it's sure to be a glorious symphony to muscle car fans' ears.
Like the V-6, the V-8 is available with a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. My test car had the five-speed manual, and it features a short-throw shifter that moves from gear to gear with a mechanical feel; it takes some effort to push the shifter around, but this does more to enhance the beefy feel of the car than to make it feel unrefined. The clutch pedal, on the other hand, is light and doesn't take much effort to depress; even after constantly working the clutch pedal when commuting in rush-hour traffic, my leg never tired.
The Mustang's brake pedal feels much more solid underfoot, which is good for your confidence if you have to hit the brakes hard. The Mustang's nose dives a little during hard braking (just like it rises a little when you hit the gas from a stop), but braking response is very controllable and progressive.
Like the outside of the Mustang, the cabin has a number of retro cues, including a stepped dashboard and thin-spoke steering wheel. The script for the gauges and the appearance of the optional leather seats in my GT test car also fit into the retro theme. Some areas of the car, like the center control panel, have a generically modern look, but the buttons and switches move with a fair degree of refinement.
The GT's front bucket seats offer good comfort on longer drives; I took a three-hour trip in the Mustang and stepped out without feeling sore at all thanks to the seat's soft cushioning.
Ford has made a push to offer unique cabin lighting in its cars, and the Mustang is included in that effort. The available MyColor feature consists of adjustable backlighting for the gauges and front cupholders, which means you can change the gauges from white to orange, for instance.
The Mustang is also available with a glass roof, which is a new option for 2009. For $1,995, Ford replaces the coupe's metal roof with a large, fixed piece of glass that makes the Mustang's cabin feel extremely open. You can dim external light sources somewhat with a sliding sunshade, but you can't completely block them out because the shade is made of a mesh fabric.
Even though the Mustang is a two-door sports car, it offers a usable trunk that measures 13.1 cubic feet (9.7 cubic feet in the convertible). Coupes have a 50/50-split folding backseat that makes it easier to carry long items inside the car.
The Mustang has standard side-impact airbags for the front seats, but a number of other important safety features are either optional or not offered: Antilock brakes and traction control are optional, and side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system aren't offered. Most Challenger trims have a stability system, while the Camaro will offer it as standard equipment across the line.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Mustang convertible Good overall (the highest score possible) in its side-impact crash test and Acceptable overall in the frontal-offset test.
Mustang in the Market
The big unknown in the muscle car world is the new Camaro, which looks like a promising entry on paper but hadn't been tested as of publication. If you're a Camaro fan, waiting a few more months for your car is probably preferable to getting a Mustang now. Similarly, Dodge fans aren't likely to walk into a Ford or Chevy showroom to see the competition. Like I said, allegiances run deep.
What all of this renewed action in the muscle-car segment seems most likely to do is bring enthusiasts who left when their favorite model was dropped back to the segment, as well as some new fans, too. The state of the nation's economy and continued concern over gas prices are sure to put a damper on sales of these "fun" cars, but even though Dodge and Chevy have newer offerings, the current Mustang is still a solid muscle car. It'll be interesting to see how the new one compares.
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