LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, Nev. - Strapped into a wild ride, I cinch my helmet, blip the throttle, run through the gears just for practice, and watch as the Christmas-tree lights of the drag strip move from stop to" go-as-fast-as-you-can. With slightly wet palms, I steady this Darth Vader-black stallion to a straight course, mash the go pedal, watch for the red needle to hit 6200 rpm, mash, shift and watch for 6200 again. I'm a nose off of 104 mph when the time clock is tripped at the quarter mile. How's that for a working afternoon?

Slowing to round the pavement to the return, where I'll get to do this all over again, I am brazenly aware that I have shaken off the Bright Lights, Big City attitude of Veghast - stripped of the fantasy of hotels that assert you're in Paris or Venice all almost at once. Who needs "em? Here, at the motor speedway, the best show is a ponycar that wants to rock and roll one more time before it's put out to become adhesive.

Ford's Mustang Mach 1 lives again - and still does the 23-year-old current Mustang, though it's only a short month or so before Ford shows the new one in Detroit.

How much horsepower?

Pounding out 305 horses and sporting a signature 'shaker' hood scoop, the 2003 version of Ford's legendary muscle car is designed from wheels to seat covers to recall the heritage of its predecessors. Only 6,500 will be sent down the assembly line, and almost all are spoken for already.

The Mach 1 Sportsroof was first introduced in 1969 and, almost immediately, it was one of the most coveted cars on the road. A 428-cubic-inch Cobra jet motor whipped the pony car from 0 to 60 mph in under seven seconds, and more than 72,000 units were sold. By the early "70s, new restrictions on emissions and sharply rising gas prices seemed to spell the end for muscle cars, and in 1979, the Mach 1 brand was put out to pasture.

Ford's 1993 reintroduction of the 'Stang came after over a decade of forgettable Mustang-like models that were underpowered and understyled. By the new millennium, the 265-horsepower Bullitt brought new hope to die-hard muscleheads, and the stable grew to include coupe and convertible models, a Mustang GT and sizzling-fast SVT Mustang Cobra version. The Blue Oval hopes the Mach 1 will further invigorate the brand with its serious performance and fun-to-drive looks.

Looks deceive

This horse's hide recalls elements of the original design, including a black front air-dam extension, black rear decklid spoiler, big rocker panels and body side scoops. The hood-mounted scoop is black, along with a bold racing strip down the center of the hood and along its rocker panels.

The body is lowered by "" compared to the Mustang GT, giving the Mach 1 extra crouch on the starting line. Seventeen-inch 'Heritage' five-spoke wheels feature a galloping pony badge, as do the front grille and front side quarter panels. Chrome-tipped dual exhaust pipes are unique amongst the 'Stang stable.

Under the hood, the MOD 4.6-liter, 281-cubic-inch V8 delivers 305 horses at 5800 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 4200 revs. The compression ratio is 10.1:1, and modifications include specially calibrated camshafts, a modified upper intake to accommodate the ram-air system, heated PCV, forged crankshaft and performance exhaust manifolds port matched to the cylinder heads. 

A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. The automatic, though not the choice for true enthusiasts, is upgraded with a heavy-duty gearset and brazed 11.25-inch torque converter so that it can handle the V-8's output.

In this case, what's on the hood is as important as what's under the hood. The classic drag-race inspired 'shaker' hood scoop, so named because the induction system shakes in rhythm with throttle changes, is mounted to the intake manifold and directs fresh air to the filter tray assembly to boost power. In 1969, the scoop mounted directly onto the carburetor.

DNA testing

The cockpit of Ford's newest flyer also has original Mach 1 DNA. 'Comfortweave' black leather, which made its first appearance in the '69 model, returns throughout the interior seats, which have been bolstered laterally for today's behinds. Four-way adjustable head restraints are standard on driver and front passenger seating positions.

The instrument cluster features retro-style numbering on the speedometer and tach, but modern touches include steering-wheel mounted audio and cruise controls and room for an air bag underneath the leather-trimmed wheel. The center dash panel is simple and straightforward, without too many extras - appropriate for a performance car. Still, a six-disc in-dash CD changer is standard equipment. Optional race-inspired aluminum pedals and ball shifter are worth the extra charge.

On the road, the lowered suspension is crisper and firmer than its GT cousin. New front and rear coil springs are the key, but the rear springs are stronger too. Thirteen-inch vented Brembo front rotors and dual-piston calipers are standard; rear brakes are vented discs with single piston calipers. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard on all Mach 1 models.

The Mach 1 is a powerful combination of drag-race heritage and new-era driving technology. Computerized traction control combines with an old-school shaker intake to help the vehicle break the barrier between street-ready and racetrack-worthy. Just as the '93 Mustang marked a new chapter in Ford history, the '03 Mustang Mach 1 will boost the Blue Oval's performance portfolio and remind buyers of a time when Ford engines were legends. If you're still wondering, there's no reason to wait until next year.

2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1
Base prices:
 $27,361
Engine: 4.6-liter DOHC V-8, 305 hp/320 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 183.2 x 73.1 x 52.4
Wheelbase: 101.3 in
Curb weight: 3465 lb (manual); 3475 lb (automatic)
EPA City/Hwy: 17/25 mpg (manual); 17/23 mpg (automatic)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control
Major standard equipment: In-dash six-CD changer, 17-inch 'Heritage' wheels, 'comfortweave' black leather seats
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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