EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Take your pick.

A. The 1994 Mustang is a very good car.

B. The 1994 Mustang is a very ordinary car.

Pick again.

A. The 1994 Mustang is nimble and lively.

B. The 1994 Mustang wanders the road and is lethargic.

The answers are A and A or B and B. There’s no right answer, no wrong answer. The 1994 Mustang is really two cars-one for show, one for go.

The base model looks good but offers only a 3.8-liter V-6. The GT model looks good, plus it performs very well with its 5-liter V-8.

The 1994 isn’t all that different from the original 1964 1/2 that established the pony car market and offered a choice of two engines: an in-line six-cylinder engine for those who simply wanted to look good in a new sports coupe, and a V-8 engine for those who wanted onlookers to admire the hardware from a distance-preferably well back from the taillights.

We test-drove several Mustangs here at Ford’s Dearborn Proving Ground as the automaker prepares to launch the next-generation Mustang, and the first all-new model since 1979. That was the year Ford tried to breathe some life back into a car that had been saddled with the Mustang II designation and a lifeless four-cylinder engine that turned the original pony car into a candidate for glue.

Mustang and Mustang GT are like the proverbial night and day. The base Mustang is powered by a 3.8-liter, 145-h.p. V-6, the GT by a 5-liter, 215-h.p.V-8. But off-the-line power isn’t the only advantage the GT enjoys.

The base Mustang comes with a suspension system for driver comfort, which means you’ll experience body lean and sway in corners and turns but won’t be jostled or jarred over the tar marks on the straight stretches.

The GT comes with a performance suspension in which the shocks and struts are meant to allow the driver to be aggressive. The suspension is meant for movement, but it won’t rock you to sleep.

Also, the base Mustang comes with 15-inch radials as standard, 16-inch all-seasons as optional. The GT comes with the 16-inch all-season radials as standard, 17-inch performance-rated tires as an option.

Next spring, the Mustang Cobra will be added to the line. It will be powered by a 245-h.p. high-output version of the 5-liter V-8 with 5-speed manual only. An even higher-output version of Ford’s 32-valve 4.6-liter V-8 now offered in the Mark VIII eventually will be added to Mustang, but not until 1996.

In the interest of safety, dual air bags are standard in both Mustangs. In the interest of money-to keep the cost down-antilock brakes are optional, not standard, and traction control is not offered.

We first drove the GT with a 5-speed manual teamed with the V-8 engine and the optional 17-inch tires. The V-8 may be the same 5-liter offered in today’sGT, but it’s still really quick. It almost boggles the mind to think that Cobra will have 25 more horses. The exhaust is tuned with sufficient rumble toaccen tuate the power.

The suspension system is what makes the car so much fun to drive. Road feelis excellent. You can take corners very tightly. Handling is superb. The 17-inch tires are very sure-footed. You sit flat without any lean or sway evenat speed along winding, serpentine roadways. You feel in total control of the road.

Downshift into the turn and then upshift in what feels like a very narrow gear range coming out of it, and the speedometer springs back to life without any delayed reaction or lag time. The power steering response is quick and adds to the GT’s agility. It goes where you point it. Very limber and nimble. The exhaust sound effects add to the fun.

The test car had antilock, a must for any spirited road car like the GT. Sadly it’s only an option; sad, too, is the fact that a car as aggressive as this doesn’t have traction control.

After several laps of the track we pulled the reins on the Mustang to determine how well the ABS reacts i harnessing the power. Mustang stops in a straight line without tires squealing, brakes fading, or front or rear end opting to change direction.

We then drove the base model with V-6, 5-speed and 15-inch radials. Press the pedal toward the firewall and the response time is noticeably longer-and the engine louder without benefit of exhaust sound effects. You feel the body lean and swing in every corner and turn.

With the 17-inch tires, the footprint gripped the road. With the 15-inch tires you feel as if the sidewalls have come into play. Lots of squeal. It’s best to back off the accelerator pedal a bit before entering the turn.

Downshift into the turn and upshift coming out of it, and the speedometer moves upward much more gingerly. The one improvement over the GT is the wider,more comfortable seat, which oddly enough seems to have a bigger side bolster to hold you in place. In the GT, the bucket seats are narrow, as if Ford has amindset that anyone who drives aggressively also is a devotee of fat-free food. Perhaps, however, the base Mustang seat offers more side support becausethe suspension has more lateral play than the GT has.

We then drove the GT with its V-8, 5-speed and 16-inch all-season tires. The 16-inch tires provide far better road grip than the 15-inch on the base model, but there was a little squeal when turning the wheel sharply to get through the serpentine course. The 17-inch tires are the best by far in terms of sticking to the pavement regardless of how adventuresome the driver tends to be.

However, the 17-inch tires are not all-seasons, which means you’ll need twosets of tires to enjoy year-round driving-or simply opt for the 16-inchers.

We next turned to the GT with automatic and 16-inch tires. Ample power off the line. The GT didn’t seem to lose any quickness with the move to automatic.One benefit of the automatic is that when driving aggressively you can keep both hands on the wheel without having to give one up to the gear shift lever.

Finally, we gave the GT convertible a run, not so much to test the ride, handling and performance as to check out the top and its ability to tone down the noise levels common with the current Mustang drop top.

The top is lined and does a very good job of keeping the decibel level to aminimum. The liner and glass rear window also give the top some added structural integrity so that it doesn’t flap in the wind. To ensure year-roundusage, Ford is offering an optional hardtop you can attach over the ragtop to eliminate the need for seasonal storage.

The GT comes with a deck lid spoiler; the base model does not. But the GT has one quirk the base model didn’t. The rear end on the GT seems to stand taller than that on the base model, high enough so that you can see the black gas tank underneath, as was common on the 1974-1979 Mustang II. Seeing the tank makes the car look somewhat unkempt or unfinished, as if ju st before the assembly line was ready to roll an engineer hollered: “Oops, forgot to hide the tank. Too late.”

After testing Mustang in its numerous variations, it’s obvious the base model with V-6 and 15-inch tires is meant to provide the sporty look without intimidating the driver. Power is subdued. Ride and handling is economy-car conservative.

The base model is meant as the daily commuter, an economy car that doesn’t look cheap, a low-budget version for those interested in function and budget, yet still an investment that’s wise, thanks to the dual air bags the car comeswith and the ABS brakes you definitely should add (as well as 16-inch tires). The base model is meant for cruising from the line, not challenging coming offof it.

The GT is for the serious driver, the person caught up in the “My Ford is better than your Camaro” feud, the person who spends a day winding through thecountryside reliving Walter Mitty fantasies by negotiating each bend or tw st or hill in the road as if a checkered flag was the reward.

Standard equipment in the GT includes power brakes and steering, dual powermirrors, rocker moldings, rear spoiler, digital quartz clock, center console with cupholder and CD/cassette storage, tilt steering, power door locks, stainless steel exhaust, tinted glass, AM/FM stereo, power windows, and a hugemetal “racing horse” in the center of the grille that’s sure to replace the Cadillac crest as the object of thievery by youth hell-bent on novel belt buckles and chains.

Options include power seats, compact disc player and a 460-watt AM/FM stereo with cassette.

Mustang goes on sale Dec. 9. Prices won’t be firmed up for several weeks.

We previously reported that the new 1994 Honda Accord isactually three cars in one-economy, luxury, performance-depending on choice ofengines, transmissions, suspensions and tires. Absolutely ditto for Mustang.

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