Pros: Numerous models and options; impressive power and fuel economy from the V6; quality interior and electronics

Cons: V8 models can be pricey; convertible has noisy interior; independent rear suspension is needed

The 2012 Ford Mustang may be the best of a long line of thoroughbreds to have worn the galloping pony badge. It has at least as much muscle under the hood as most of the legendary Mustangs from the 1960s and 1970s, but it delivers handling and fuel economy to leave its ancestors in the dust.

The Mustang is not as sophisticated and smooth as a Porsche, nor is it as razor sharp in the curves as a BMW M3, but that's not its intent. The Mustang is about muscle and cruising and being seen. It's a uniquely American form of motoring that, frankly, most of the world doesn't get. The fact that you can get into a V6 Mustang for around $20,000 is a big part of the draw, and even a fully loaded GT is still cheaper than most Porsche and BMW cars.

But this Mustang is not for everyone, especially if you require a real back seat. Its handling is good by muscle-car standards, but its solid rear axle won't have the Mustang overtaking lighter cars with independent rear suspension, at least not in the curves.

Comfort & Utility

When it comes to passenger comfort, the Mustang fawns over its driver and passenger and has little regard for those in the back seat. That's because the Mustang's short wheelbase and sharply angled roof make for a rear seat that is little more than a leather-covered grocery bag bin. The story changes completely when we move to the front seats, which have just enough side bolstering to give some lateral support, but not so confining as to pinch those with American-size frames. The GT500 and Boss 302 can be equipped with Recaro racing-style sport seats, the GT's trimmed in leather. The footwells are a bit cramped, a situation exacerbated by the wide console, but this is a situation shared with the Camaro and to a lesser degree with cars like the Nissan 370Z and the Dodge Challenger.

Soft-touch materials, detailed door panels and lots of chrome accents on the instruments give the Mustang a clear leg up over the Camaro and Challenger interiors. Toss in features like the MyColor dash, which allows 125 instrument lighting color choices and seven ambient lighting colors, and the Mustang's interior can literally become one of a kind.

Beyond the optional leather seating and the colorful light show, the Mustang can be equipped with a fixed glass-panel roof, exterior enhancements including upgraded wheels, paint and graphics and option packages.

Technology

The highlights of the Mustang's technology roster are Ford's SYNC voice-activated control for cell phone and iPod and the Shaker 1000 audio system, which pumps 1000 watts through 10 speakers. A slightly less potent Shaker 500 comes standard on the GT, equipped with eight speakers and a 500-watt amp. Ford's voice-activated navigation is also an option; teamed with SYNC and Sirius Travel Link, it can help you avoid traffic jams, predict the weather, get sports scores, avoid being late for a movie and find the lowest gas prices in your area. The SYNC system can also be used for voice control of driver's-side temperature, to read incoming text messages and to stream mobile apps such as Pandora and Stitcher.

On the performance side, the Mustang's selectable Electronic Assist Power Steering (EAPS) allows the driver to select the degree of assist, with settings for Standard, Sport and Comfort. To make parking easier, the Mustang can be equipped with ultrasonic rear parking sensors or with a backup camera that projects its image onto the rear-view mirror or onto the optional navigation screen.

Performance & Fuel Economy

That a V6 engine can produce 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque is impressive by anyone's standard, but to have it deliver fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg city and 31 mpg highway is something the original Mustang's designers could never have imagined. These figures are with the six-speed automatic transmission, but the figures for the six-speed manual are nearly as good at 19/29 mpg.

Equip the Mustang with the 5.0-liter V8, and horsepower and torque jump to 412 hp and 390 lb-ft. With the Boss 302 package, the 5.0-liter ups the ante to 444 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Yet, for all its power, the V8 returns fuel ratings of 17/26 mpg with the six-speed manual and 18/25 mpg with the six-speed automatic. The Mustang's automatic doesn't feature a manual shift mode, but it does incorporate Hill Mode function that extends the time a gear is held on uphill climbs and provides engine braking on steep descents.

In a class of its own, the GT500 is equipped with a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 that generates 550 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission offered is a six-speed manual that returns fuel economy figures of 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.

Safety

The Mustang has standard four-wheel ABS, electronic traction and stability control and integrated blind spot spotter mirrors. The passenger cabin is protected by four airbags including front and front side airbags.

Driving Impressions

We spent equal amounts of time in the base Mustang V6 and the V8-powered GT and came away impressed by both. If you're not all about the muscle and the horsepower bragging rights, the V6 Mustang with the manual transmission is a great driver's car. There's plenty of power, and the ride seems more livable while the interior seems quieter absent the rumbling V8. As a daily driver, the V6 Mustang would be our choice, but as a weekend brawler, there's just no getting around the neck-snapping acceleration of the 5.0-liter V8. The GT has a beefier suspension and bigger wheels and tires, and you'll feel the difference in the improved cornering- but also in the rougher ride.

The Mustang corners well, but if you push it hard, that back end with its live rear axle will cause the traction control to come online in hurry. With the traction control shut off, the rear simply breaks free and fishtails like Mustangs of old. But this is half the fun of driving a rear-wheel-drive V8 muscle car.

Convertible models perform pretty much the same, with the exception of added body flex due to the absent hard top. We also found the convertible models rather loud inside, owing to the top's lack of insulation.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Camaro - The Camaro's exterior is newer and better-looking than the Mustang's, but its interior can't compare. The Camaro also has a bit more horsepower than the Mustang V6 and V8 GT, but it's also more expensive.

Dodge Challenger - The Challenger R/T can't match the Mustang GT's horsepower ratings, nor can it match its handling. But the Challenger offers a much more family-friendly back seat, and the SRT8 has more power than the Boss 302, although that Mustang costs about $3,000 less than that Dodge.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe - The Genesis Coupe may not have the V8-powered muscle to compete with the GT and the Boss 302, but its turbocharged 4-cylinder and 3.6-liter V6 engines are more than a match for the V6 Mustang, and its more sophisticated suspension delivers better handling. Plus the Hyundai's 10-year/100,000-mile warranty trumps the Mustang's warranty by a wide margin.

AutoTrader Recommends

With 11 Mustang models to choose from, it's hard to say which is best, so we'll divide into two camps. The V6 Premium with the Performance package is a perfectly good car with great looks, performance and ride, and it won't run you more than $30,000. If, however, you live for the thrill you knew as a youngster (or you just love the sound of a V8), the GT Premium with all the fixings is the route we'd go, although it will likely cost you a good $10,000 to $15,000 more than the V6.

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