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2011 Ford Mustang GT: Power to the people

New 5.0-liter V8 ups ante in pony car wars
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Old school looks and up-to-date performance features highlight the newest Ford Mustang.

If you only read environmental news, you might think the hottest head-to-head automotive contest these days is the fight between Nissan and Chevy to produce the first practical electric car. The all-electric Nissan Leaf and gasoline-supplemented Chevy Volt are both scheduled to debut in coming weeks. Experts are already debating whether consumers will prefer the zero emission 100-mile range of the Leaf or the 400-mile range of the Volt, which uses a small gas engine to recharge its batteries.

But in the performance car world, the biggest face-off these days is between the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro. The first two American pony cars, the Camaro and Mustang have been competing for bragging rights since the mid-1960s. Last year the 426-horsepower version of the Camaro proved fastest. This year the Mustang appears to have the edge by virtue of its new 412-horsepower 5.0-liter V8.

Our test model - GT Premium with the available Brembo brake package - had the new engine fitted to a Mustang-first six-speed manual transmission. It was very quick around town but an absolutely monster when the roads were long and clear enough to mash the accelerator pedal to the floor. The throaty exhaust roar was music to the ear of performance fans who have been living withcars geared more towards economy.

There's a big difference between winning a race and living with a car on a day-to-day basis, however. But the 2011 Mustang has a lot more than straight-line acceleration going for it, including classic lines, crisp steering, great seats and a clean interior.

The result is surprisingly well-balanced performer. Handling is remarkably neutral for a rear-wheel-drive car with a solid axel. The knobs that control the entertainment and climate control systems are easy to find and use, a welcome break from the confusing array of tiny buttons favored by some manufacturers. It is also offered as one of the few four-seater convertibles on the market today, although the rear seats are best suited for children.

Our test model also had a number of drawbacks, however. The optional stiffer suspension was occasionally uncomfortable on bumpy streets. The clutch also released so close to the floor that practice was required for smooth starts.

Some trade-offs are common with virtually all cars that include high performance versions, of course. Most base models are compromised to appeal to the largest number of potential buyers. Rides are designed to be relatively soft, seats are less than confining, engine power is reduced to improve fuel economy and so on. Such compromises are reduced in performance versions, which manufacturers know will appeal to fewer customers.

In fact, with the 2011 Mustang, Ford has blurred the line between base and performance versions. The entry-level engine is an all-new 3.7-liter V6 that produces 305 horsepower and still rated at 31 miles per gallon on the freeway by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And even the new 5.0-liter V8 is EPA rated at 26 miles per gallon on the freeway. And the V6 version can be bought with a softer suspension than our test model, if that's a concern.

Some design problems defy easy solution, however. The clutch pedal is so far forward that shorter drivers must practically hug the steering wheel or recline their seat far back to fully depress it. The cup holders are directly behind the shift lever, exactly where drivers are likely to rest their right arms. And it was too easy for drivers to strike their right knee on the steering column adjustment lever when slipping in and out of the car.

After 47 years of continuous production, the Mustang may be the most iconic American car of all time. Its success is the all the more remarkable, considering its humble origins and Ford's missteps over the years.

The original Mustang, introduced in early 1964, was based on the compact Ford Falcon, the company's cheapest car. Although virtually the same mechanically, the Mustang nevertheless caught on with young car buyers looking for something fun. The engines - a based 170 cubic inch inline 6 and optional 260 cubic inch V8 - were nothing special. But when Ford offered the 289 V8 as an option in 1965, a true performance car was born, setting off the pony car wars that quickly included the competing Camano, Pontiac Firebird, Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Javelin.

Like other American cars, the Mustang grew larger over the year, first by adding a hatchback model (popularized by Steve McQueen in the 1968 film 'Bullitt'), then by the substantially bigger and more luxurious redesign that debuted in 1971.

Ford stumbled badly in 1974, however, when it introduced the second-generation Mustang II. Trying for improved fuel economy, Ford based the car on the subcompact Pinto and it showed. Early models were only available with an inline four-cylinder or V6 engine. Enthusiasts turned their backs on the car, even when Ford offered a 5.0-liter V8 the next year.

The Mustang began its long climb back to popularity in 1979 with the introduction of the third-generation version. Slightly larger and more aerodynamic than the ill-fated Mustang II, it was available with an optional handling package and a greater variety of power plants than before, including a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

Ford finally recaptured the magic of the original Mustangs with the third-generation version that debuted in 1994. Ford even offered a Bullitt version in 2001 that strongly resembled McQueen's car but included such modern touches as four-wheel disc brakes and five-speed manual transmission. Ironically, however, Ford also dropped the popular 5.0-liter V8 in 1996, replacing it with a 4.6-liter unit.

The fifth-generation Mustangs introduced in 2005 were big news. The bold retro styling strongly resembled the 1969 and 1970 models, which were slightly bigger and boxier than the one McQueen drove. The result was a runaway sales hit, even when gas prices briefly surged to around $4 a gallon for regular. Slight styling changes slimmed the Mustang down slightly in 2010, when the suspension was also upgraded to improve ride and steering. The 4.6-liter V8 was massaged to achieve 315 horsepower.

The success of the retro Mustangs helped inspire Chevy and Dodge to introduce updated versions of their pony cars, too. The Challenger debuted first in 2008, offering drivers an even more authentic 1970s driving experience with two optional Hemi V8, a 370-horsepower 5.7-liter version and a 425-horsepower 6.1-liter version. The new Camaro came out in 2010 with an SS version that featured a 6.2-liter V8 that boasted 426 horsepower, making it faster than both the Mustang and Challenger.

Ford responded in recent months by bringing back the 5.0-liter V8, now rated at 412 horsepower and mated to the Mustang's first six-speed manual transmission. Although not as powerful as the SS Camaro, road tests are proving the Mustang GT to be slightly faster, primarily because it weighs less than the Chevy. The V6 Mustang is also testing faster than the V6-powered versions of the Camaro and Challenger, too.

At least for now. If history continues repeating itself, the three revived pony cars should continue trying to top each other in coming years. Although not generating the headlines of the Leaf versus Volt competition, this fight is being followed by an equally adamant - if not more dedicated - group of automotive enthusiasts.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Mustang.

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Midsize.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Coupe and convertible.

• Engines: 3.7-liter V6 (305 hp, 280 lb-ft torque); 5.0-liter V8 (412 hp, 390 lb-ft torque - as tested).

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 19/31; 17/26 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,995 ($33,695 as tested).