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A Nag No More

"Secretary's car." Back in 1964, when the first Mustang appeared, that's what they called the six-cylinder model. It earned this pejorative because the car was watered down and slow, with an anemic 2.8-liter (170 cubic inches in the parlance of the day) straight-six wheezing through a single one-barrel carburetor to produce just 101 horsepower. But the daring long hood/short deck styling stood out among a sea of dull boxes, and the girls in the steno pool didn't particularly care if their pony was all hat and no cattle.

The boys who bought rumbling V8 Mustangs derided the lesser versions and the people who drove them, apparently oblivious to the fact that it was these top-selling six-cylinder models that kept the factory running – especially through the fuel shortages and recessions. Without a six-cylinder engine, there would be no hot Mustangs.

For 2011, Ford has (at long last) done penance for its decades of neglecting the six and its buyers. It has finally installed an engine that not only doesn't embarrass the car and its driver, but is an attractive, viable option. Something distinctly different from, but not necessarily inferior to, the V8 car.


A horse of a different color

The V6 engine is a key part of the Mustang's recipe for success, thanks to its fuel efficiency and cheaper insurance than the V8 models. Another critical component has been the car's tolerably useable back seat, making it suitable for singles to squeeze in their friends and for young families to cram in their kids.

Access to the rear quarters remains challenging, but the expected occupants are probably up for the requisite contortions. They don't expect much and the car no doubt exceeds that expectation by some small measure.

The Mustang is now contemporary under the hood, but the front seats are time machines. Wide, flat bottoms evoke the upholstery of early models, while the view from them is of a retro-styled dashboard. One modern trick is the ability to adjust the color of the dash lighting. A soft, green glow can reinforce the throwback appearance of the instruments, but fuchsia, blue, orange or some other hue may be selected as a reminder that it isn't really the 1960s inside the cabin.

Also contemporary is the optional 500-watt Shaker audio system with available Ford Sync hands-free, voice-command technology. Gearheads in the '60s would sometimes talk to their cars too, but they never expected the kind of response today's car can perform.


Refresh or regress?

The heritage-influenced look of the 2005 Mustang was an indisputable hit. However, with fresh competition from a new Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger, Ford had to update a design that could be perceived as stale in the eyes of 20-year-old shoppers who were pedaling around on their bicycles five years ago.

But rare is the tweaked design that doesn't mar the crispness of the original. So it is with the Mustang's sheetmetal, which was renewed in 2010. Sure, it still looks good, different enough to satisfy anyone tired of the previous model. But its beveled corners and squinting headlights diminish the bold muscularity of the 2005 "original."

Ford claims the gimmicky sequential rear turn signals "were a distinct Mustang feature in the 1960s." That isn't true. Ford installed the signals that flashed in a row (like the lights on highway trucks that direct traffic into the next lane) on the Thunderbird, not the Mustang. Carroll Shelby bolted these T-Bird lights onto his GT350 to help differentiate it from the garden variety Mustang. Ford subsequently did the same when it introduced a Mercury version of the 'Stang, the Cougar. They look cool on today's car when viewed from behind, but from the driver's seat, the impression is of a very slow turn signal.


No apologies

The 2011 Mustang V6 is only 10 horsepower short of last year's V8-powered Mustang GT.Descriptions of previous six-cylinder Mustangs never had the word "performance" in them, unless it was to mention how little the cars had. Things are different now. With 95 more horses than last year's engine, the new 3.7-liter V6 powerplant is rated at 305 hp, while the car achieved an impressive 31 mpg on the EPA's highway fuel economy test and 19 mpg on the city test. That is with the optional six-speed automatic transmission; the base six-speed manual is a little less efficient, scoring 29 mpg on the highway, with the same city mileage.

The 2011 V6 car is only 10 hp short of last year's V8 Mustang GT. With this kind of power, the six-cylinder is no longer a "secretary's car" but its own performance model, fit to compete with other six-cylinder sport coupes like the Infiniti G37 and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Ford even offers a high-performance kit, featuring the stiffer suspension from the Mustang GT, larger 19-inch wheels, sticky summer-only rubber, a strut tower brace and a reprogrammed stability control with a sport mode that allows a bit more verve before intervening.


Pony car wars

With the recent return of the Camaro and Challenger, the pony car wars of the '60s are back. For consumers, there are no losers in this conflict. We get to look at all three and pick the one we like best.

Each has its pros and cons. The Mustang's pros include a long heritage, unbroken by hiatus, which has spawned an entire industry of aftermarket parts for customizing. The car's setup is simple (some might say unsophisticated), what with its solid rear axle rather than the independent suspension employed by both the domestic and the aforementioned Asian contenders. But Ford's engineers have tuned the Mustang's suspension and steering so that the older design never feels like a handicap. And with a lighter curb weight than the Camaro or Challenger, it feels more agile, with more responsive steering.

The cabin also has a better view out, without that "Normandy pillbox" perspective of the other cars with their chopped tops.

None of these pony cars are cheap, but the prices are reasonable, especially considering the fact that Ford no longer punishes a driver for cheaping out and buying the entry-level engine.

Base price for the Mustang V6 coupe with a premium package that includes goodies like the Shaker stereo and Sync voice command is $25,845. The addition of an automatic transmission, sportier axle ratio and a security package pushes the MSRP to $28,480. This makes is competitive with the home-grown competition as well as the V6-powered Hyundai Genesis Coupe, and a good bit cheaper than the Infiniti G37.

Historically, Mustangs have not held their value well, a consequence of the woeful maintenance and driving habits of their traditionally young buyers, indifferent construction quality, and a flood of former rental hacks on the used market. Ford is welding, bolting and gluing together today's Mustang much better than it ever has, so used examples will hopefully not be the rattletrap "Rustangs" of the '80s and '90s.


The 2011 Mustang V6's combination of affordability, insurability, economy and power finally make the car a commendable alternative to the thirsty V8. With aggressive styling cues and available GT suspension, all the V6 car surrenders to the better-endowed model is an intoxicating V8 burble when cruising slowly through residential areas. Maybe it should come with a V8 soundtrack CD for the Shaker sound system.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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