Still America's Sweetheart.
by Jim McCraw
If there is one car that could be called America's Sweetheart, it would be the Ford Mustang, now in its 33rd year on the market. Born in the crazy cultural upheaval of the mid-'60s, it has survived Vietnam, two gas crunches, the war on emissions and the safety blitz to carry on as this country's favorite pony car.
Extensively redesigned in 1993, the Mustang has only two direct competitors, the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. There simply aren't any other rear-wheel drive V-8-powered sporty coupes out there in the same price class as the three Americans that make up the pony car class. Indirectly, of course, it competes with a host of smaller sport coupes.
Like the two General Motors entries, the Mustang comes in both V-6 and V-8 versions, in coupe and convertible body styles, with a super-performance model — in this case, the Cobra — on the top of the heap. The Mustang offers a pretty good 3.8-liter V-6 with 150 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque as its basic engine, although the GM V-6 engines have more muscle.
The GT is equipped with a 4.6-liter single overhead cam V-8, rated at 215 hp and 285 lb-ft of torque, while the Cobra gets a twin cam 32-valve version of the V-8 capable of producing 305 hp.
The Cobra is available only with a five-speed manual transmission. The other Mustangs offer the option of a four-speed automatic.
Our test car was the high-volume GT V-8 with a manual transmission, a car that starts out a mere $18,525, including Ford's $525 destination and delivery charge, making it one of the performance bargains of the year. The V-6 versions that don't say 4.6 GT on the front fenders are substantially less than that (from $15,880), and the Cobra, with its power, tire and suspension upgrades, makes no apologies for a base price of $24,510.
The Mustang is a small car, barely 15 feet long, with a wheelbase just over 100 inches. While this factor makes it easy to maneuver and easy to park, for the performance-minded buyer it also means the Mustang is a sporty platform, relatively light, quick to change direction and stable while doing so.
This is an old platform, and given a short and narrow package to work with, Ford's designers have a done a good job of masking the car's size with generous sweeps of front sheetmetal and really good design on the sides and rear end. It's short, but it manages not to look stumpy or abbreivated.
There are several neat touches on the 1997 Mustang. Our test car had the standard passive anti-theft system (PATS), in which the key and the car communicate electronically every time the car is started, and it had the optional perimeter anti-theft system ($145), which protects it from unauthorized entry through doors, windows, hood or trunk. Yet another option was the remote keyless entry system ($270), which controls the door locks, interior lamps, decklid and a panic alarm from the keyfob, an idea which is rapidly becoming industry-wide.
One touch we could have done without was the optional ($195) rear spoiler. Not that we didn't like the aesthetics, you understand; we just think they should have thrown it into the GT package as standard equipment.
The Inside Story
One of the most pleasant surprises with the new Mustang is the interior design job that Ford did in the 1993 makeover. It is loosely based on the instrument panel in the original 1964 car, with two individual rounded coves built into the instrument panel and connective tissue in between, racy without being radical. A full complement of well-done analog instruments greets the driver and the car is fairly narrow, so nothing is out of reach or requires long stretches to get to.
The interior space is nice and cozy in the coupe verion, with just enough seat track length to accommodate tall drivers, and just enough elbow room to keep one from feeling cramped. The driving position is much, much higher than in either the Camro or Firebird, and it's much easier to get in and out of the Mustang.
The front bucket seats are thinly padded, and short in every dimension, which means they aren't very comfortable for long distances, but adequate for around-town driving. More importantly, for those who attack back roads occasionally, there isn't much side support built into the bucket seats and you have to brace yourself in the car to stay in place in front of the steering wheel. Fortunately, Ford has provided a place on the left side of the floorboard to do exactly that, with a footrest for the left foot.
The back seat, like the back seats in almost every modern coupe, is best left for groceries, dry cleaning, infant seats, dogs and small kids. The split fold-down rear seatback, a new item of standard equipment, can be very helpful for hauling large items, because the trunk is among the smallest in the industry.
Ride & Drive
In this class of car, horsepower and acceleration at a reasonable price are what move the sales needle, and the Mustang 4.6-liter V-8 has plenty of needle-moving potential. While the new modular V-8 engine doesn't have the loud and lumpy idle quality and ferocious intake roar of the old 5.0-liter overhead-valve V-8, it has almost exactly the same power and torque characteristics and accelerates at almost exactly the same pace with a great deal more smoothness and much greater rpm capability.
Where the old car was out of steam at about 5000 rpm, the new engine will pull happily and smoothly to 6000 rpm, making the driving experience that much more fun, even if it is a tick or so slower to 60 mph. And while the four-speed automatic would be a better choice for those who have to deal with commute traffic, with very little performance loss, the new Borg-Warner T-56 five-speed manual is much more fun to drive — flexible, smooth-shifting and strong enough to take high-rpm shifts for the life of the car.
What's underneath the swoopy Mustang is essentially what was underneath the Mustang in 1979, with a lot of clever bracing and refinforcing to make the car handle more crisply, steer more accurately and deal with road shocks more effectively. But it is still a modified 1979 Mustang unibody chassis with relatively unsophisticated MacPherson strut suspension and a solid rear axle. Given what they had to work with, the Mustang's engineers have done a good job in making the car ride much more smoothly than the old car and making it handle potholes and bumps that used to move the old car around quite a bit.
Almost all of the raw edges and choppiness of the Mustang's suspension behavior have been sanded smooth. The steering, too, is more direct and more positive than previous Mustangs, helped by the quantum leap in perofrmance tire technology.
The optional ABS brake system was excellent under all conditions, with a lot of room in the system for manual brake modulation before the anti-lock system kicked in. Were we Ford, we would make it standard equipment across the board and raise the base price accordingly.
The Mustang GT is one of those cars that speaks to you from its spot in the driveway, begging to go out for a Sunday drive. It has the power, the suspension, the steering and the tires to make those kinds of three-hour adventures really fun. And, reasonably well equipped at $21,140, a Mustang GT like our test car represents one of the great performance car bargains on the market today.
While it isn't as brutally quick as either the Camaro or the Firebird, with the 70-hp advantage, the Mustang GT gets better mileage, is not as noisy, rides smoother, provides better ergonomics and, in our opinion, holds its own in construction quality. It is also less expensive than either of the V-8-powered GM pony cars. And that's why, after all these years, the Mustang is still America's favorite.
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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.