Still America's favorite pony car.
Before the Ford Mustang entered the scene in '64, performance-car enthusiasts were limited to one of two types of vehicles: sports cars or big muscle cars. But the '64 Mustang was a fresh, new hybrid of sports and muscle car that offered relatively surefooted handling and straight-line speed. And what's more, it came with a reasonable sticker price.
The Mustang and the Mustang-inspired cars from other manufacturers that followed became known as pony cars; over the years, the Mustang's leadership in the group was rarely threatened. Today, however, when the class is reduced to three players — the Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird — Ford's innovator faces its most serious challenge.
All three contenders are well-built, offer the latest in safety features and are backed by solid dealer networks. As a result, the principal weapon in this pony-car battle is horsepower. Although the Mustang offers 215 hp in its high-end GT model, the General Motors cars up the ante considerably with a healthy 275 hp apiece in their high-performance versions, the Camaro Z28 and Firebird Trans Am. (Later this year, Ford will offer a special limited-edition Mustang Cobra that will close the power gap. However, buyers will have to pay a premium for the Cobra and there won't be many of them thanks to the limited production.)
In addition to the engine, the Mustang GT's five-speed manual transmission is surpassed by the GM cars' six-speed gearboxes.
But power isn't everything, and there's a lot to like in Ford's fancy horse, judging by the maxed-out $26,765 GT convertible we tested. For many motorists, the Mustang's overall attraction and sense of history could very well outweigh the performance benefits conferred by Camaro or Firebird ownership.
Much has been made — by Ford, in particular — of the resemblance between the Mustang of 31 years ago and the 1995 model with its side scoops, segmented taillights and trademark galloping-horse emblem in the air inlet. For pony-car aficionados, these reminders probably do evoke fond memories of the original, but the average driver might miss the subtle connection.
More obvious is the fact that the Mustang is a full foot shorter than the Camaro or Firebird. As a result, it's easier to drive through traffic; the relatively short overhangs, front and rear, make parking easier as well.
The Mustang is offered in two body styles (coupe and convertible) and two trim levels (base and GT). The convertibles — which have power-operated tops — are assembled on the same production lines as the hardtops, and are thus free from the structural weaknesses of previous aftermarket-built Mustang convertibles. The convertible does a good job of isolating occupants from noise and weather; the coupe, of course, does even better.
From the outside, the Mustang base model (powered by a V-6 engine) and the more powerful V-8 GT look pretty much alike. The most noticeable differences: The GT has a wing on the trunk lid — which interferes slightly with the driver's view through the back window — and rides on larger wheels (standard 16-inch or optional 17-inch rims). For aesthetic reasons, it's a shame Ford doesn't offer even larger wheels. Something about the Mustang's shape is such that even the 17-inch wheels don't look big enough.
Not everyone is satisfied with the way the Mustang's basic design has been detailed; a number of critics have found fault with the treatment of the rear lamps and license plate housing, and the fussy lines sculpted into the body sides. However, in wrapping new sheet metal around the previous-generation Mustang's dimensions, Ford stylists faced a real challenge. Their development budget was far smaller than GM's Camaro/Firebird resources, and they've done a remarkable job under those conditions.
The Inside Story
The Mustang cabin offers a fine blend of style and comfort. In the basic version, the seats are comfortable and provide reasonable side support — and the highline GT seats are even better. There's plenty of room for the driver and front-seat passenger, and those who are able to perform the contortions necessary to get into the backseat will find enough space available for comfortable short-run travel.
All materials used in the interior are of good quality. Visual appeal centers on the car's rounded, twin-pod dashboard and center console. The driver-side pod houses full instrumentation — done in Ford's plain, readable graphic style — and the console carries the shift lever and the climate-control system and radio.
Kudos to Ford for providing easy-to-use rotary knobs for climate control and a large pull-knob for the headlights — and demerits for installing unlit window and door-lock switches that left us fumbling around at night.
The Mustang convertible's top is easy to raise and lower, and is concealed by a flexible plastic boot when stowed. Coupes offer slightly more trunk space because the convertible top eats up more than 2 cubic feet of room that could otherwise be used for luggage or groceries.
Ride & Drive
Ford expects nearly two-thirds of its '95 Mustang customers to opt for the more powerful GT version — and after the first few minutes of our GT test drive, we knew why.
Around town, the base model's standard 3.8-liter V-6 engine is fine, and it offers decent fuel economy for the cost-conscious driver. However, this smaller powerplant comes up a little short on acceleration and exhibits some high-speed roughness.
The V-8 proved to be another story altogether. The Mustang GT scoots along in traditional pony-car style, with plenty of juice for both low- and high-speed acceleration. True, the Camaro Z28 and Firebird Trans Am are a little quicker, but not as much as you might think. And the sound of the Mustang GT engine — the low rumble of the good old American V-8 — was music to our ears.
To sweeten the pot, Ford makes anti-lock brakes standard on the GT (optional on the base model), complementing the already competent four-wheel disc brake system.
Two transmissions are available for use with either engine. A five-speed manual is standard; it has a slightly stiff linkage, but shifts are positive. A four-speed automatic is optional and, although it lacks the manual's sheer macho flavor, it's equally well-suited to Mustang duty.
The Mustang's best feature may be its chassis. Don't let the smooth, low-speed ride fool you: The Mustang can romp with the best of 'em. There is some body roll during cornering, but this is well-controlled and doesn't upset the car's balance. Steering precision and cornering traction are strong pluses, too. An expert driver will be able to extract plenty of performance from a Mustang; less-skilled pilots can have a lot of good, safe fun.
It must be said that the Ford Mustang sends out mixed messages: it's expressly tailored to offer style and speed, but we found it slightly lacking in performance compared with its rivals from GM. That's not to say that the Mustang is unsatisfactory. But overall, the basic package would be more tempting if Ford were to bolt in some additional horsepower — a move that is in the works for the 1996 model year.
We suggest that the base models be passed by; the essence of the American pony car is V-8 power, and that's what brings this car to life. The Mustang gives a lot of satisfaction in GT form, is very well-built and is reasonably priced.
By delivering maximum fun for the buck, the Mustang has once again earned its traditional top spot in the pony-car sales derby.
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© 1995 New Car Test Drive, Inc.