305 horsepower and 29 miles per gallon. No, really.
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, The retro look of the 2011 Ford Mustang captures the spirt of the America's original Pony Car, regardless of whether you choose the new V6 or V8 engine.

I must be getting old. Or maybe just growing up. Whatever the case, I like the V6 version of the new Mustang as much as the V8.

There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say such a thing, especially about such a Detroit icon as the original Pony Car. After all, along with the Pontiac GTO, the Mustang was responsible for the horsepower wars that resulted in the production of some of the most affordable performance cars ever built.

But having driven both the V6 and V8 versions of the 2011 Mustang now, I can honestly say they each have strengths that must be considered by potential buyers.

Ford has received a lot of coverage in the automotive press for each engine this year. Both are all-new for 2011. The 3.7-liter V6 has been praised for generating over 300 horsepower but still achieving an EPA rated 29 miles per gallon on the highway. The 5.0-liter V8 has been celebrated for churning out 421 horsepower, an incredible 106 more than last year's 4.7-liter V8. Who cares about the mileage.

The V8 version is designated as the Mustang GT. I test drove one earlier this year and was suitably impressed by its power. Mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission, acceleration was instantaneous at all speeds. The result was great fun, whether launching the Mustang at green lights or easily passing slower vehicles on the freeway.

The new V6 produces 95 more horsepower than last year's base engine. In contrast the Mustang V8, the V6 version was more quick than fast. Also mated to the six-speed transmission, acceleration was smooth in all gears but not as abrupt as the V8.

So why do I think the cars are equal?

Despite the fun factor, the V8 Mustang could be handful in day-to-day driving. Smooth starts required practice because of the engine's massive 390 foot-pounds of torque. And the stiffer suspension could be jarring on poorly maintained streets - the price for its higher limits of adhesion.

In contrast, the V6 version was less challenging to drive from day one, especially in stop-and-go traffic. The softer suspension floated over broken pavement but still handled twisty roads and sweeping corners like a real sports car. Basically, the Mustang V6 is easier to drive fast than the V8 version, just not as fast.

Either way you go, the current version of the Mustang is one of the best looking American cars on the road today. The retro body style that debuted in 2005 perfectly captured the spirit of the first generation 1964 to 1973 models, while successfully integrating such contemporary touches as big wheels, low profile tires and high-tech headlights. The dash is clean and simple, a welcome relief from the complex climate, entertainment and navigation control systems found in so many vehicles these days. Ford deserves credit for giving the Mustang a complete set of gauges. And the well-bolstered seats are comfortable and supportive.

The redesign was so successful that Detroit's other original Pony Car manufacturers followed with their own models. If anything the new Dodge Challenger is even more authentically old school than the Mustang, if not quite as attractive. The new Chevrolet Camaro is a more inspired by than the original versions than a copy of them, making it the most modern of the three. The new Pony Car skirmishing givies car buyers something they have not had in years - real competition among American manufacturers to dominate a market niche.

Despite its strengths, the new Mustang retains some of the weaknesses of the original versions. They include a back seat that is only suitable for small children, an undersized trunk and restricted rear visibility because of the fastback design's token side windows. But those kinds of shortcoming are to be expected in what is essentially a mass-produced specialty car.

With a base price of just around $25,000, Ford should have no trouble selling the V6 version of the Mustang. And such a good engine should redefine what a base model can be.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Mustang.

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Midsize coupe.

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

• Style: Two-door fastback.

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

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic.

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

• Price: Beginning at approximately $26,000 ($27,840 as tested).

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