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New Ford Mustang can run with the big boys

The 2011 Mustang shows that Ford is done being pushed around in the engine department. Its powertrain engineers have sent the company’s engines to the gym.
Image: 2011 Ford Mustang GT
2011 Ford Mustang GT: The all-new 5.0-liter V-8 engine in the 2011 Mustang GT delivers 412 horsepower.Ford / Ford

When it comes to engines, Ford was always the skinny runt of the Big Three that got sand kicked in its face. Try as it might, Ford’s V8s could never match the legendary smallblock Chevy or Chrysler Hemi. Among its smaller four- and six-cylinder engines the problem has been equally acute.

But the 2011 Mustang shows that Ford is done being pushed around. Its powertrain engineers have sent the company’s engines to the gym and produced miraculous improvements.

The celebrated 5.0-liter V8 in the Mustang GT and the historically overlooked V6 engine in the base car are now the equal of competitors’ engines, not only in rated horsepower and torque (412 horsepower, 390 pound-feet), but also in character — the sound, response and tractability of the engines.

Yes, the Camaro and Challenger both have higher maximum horsepower than the Mustang’s V8, but their engines are bigger. But while the dynamometer reading says those engines are stronger, the seat of the pants says the Mustang has finally caught up in the engine department. The V8’s designers poured their toil into this engine — one welded up a set of prototype exhaust headers in his garage to perfect the engine’s power delivery — and their above-and-beyond effort shows.

Upgraded drivetrain
The rest of the drivetrain is equally upgraded, with automatic and manual six-speed transmissions across the line. The automatics enjoy better shift programming than Ford’s earlier efforts calibrating six-speeds, and the manuals have modern short-throw, low-effort shifters that represent a significant improvement for the car. Mustang traditionalists may be a little put off by the shortness of the throws and the narrowness of the six-speed’s shift gates compared to those of older models, but these improvements make the car’s shifter thoroughly contemporary.

Blue Oval fans surely appreciate the fact that the Mustang finally has engines that are state-of-the-art rather than state-of-the-'70s, as was the case with the old, discontinued V6 powerplant. It had evolved from an engine that made its U.S. debut in the 1970 Mercury Capri, a model imported from Germany under one of Ford’s previous attempts to exploit its global resources.

The engines and transmissions combine for some pretty impressive highway EPA gas mileage numbers. But in everyday mixed driving, the resulting mileage for both V6 and V8 test cars was just about 1 mpg above the car’s city highway ratings of 19 mpg for the six and 17 mpg for the eight-cylinder. Still, that 18 mpg for the V8 is impressive compared to the 16 mpg for the ’68 Mustang I drove in high school, and its V8 (289 cubic inches, measured in the pre-metric method) made less than half the 2011 car’s power.

Blend of new and old
In many ways the Mustang remains a blend of new and old. The exterior styling was tweaked in 2010 from the introduction of the all-new car in 2005, but to my eye the 2010 update detracts from the 2005 original.

Underneath, changes abound in addition to those under the hood. The whole car enjoys additional bracing that makes the chassis stiffer than ever and the coupe’s impressive strength promises to keep the car rattle-free over years of service, in contrast to the 1979-2004 cars which were as floppy as an election-year politician.

The convertible, despite a 12 percent improvement for 2011 over 2010, appears ready to flop with the prevailing winds, as Ford’s specifications show that cutting the Mustang’s roof off slashes its rigidity nearly in half. This isn’t a reduction in stiffness that is hard to discern; the Mustang shimmies and shakes even over barely perceptible pavement imperfections.

Probably it is less intrusive in the more softly sprung base model convertible than the GT with its stiff, track-ready suspension.

In either form the Mustang’s folding convertible top is an old-tech design that is slow to rise from its stowage space in a surprise spring shower. Almost as anachronistic is the Mustang convertible’s requirement that the driver operate the roof latches manually. On a $45,000 car with a large, power-operated top, it is a tiresome throwback to the old days.

Loads of plastic
Inside, the dashboard is designed to recall those of the late-'60s models. That would be OK if it were also made of better materials than the late-'60s cars. There is less metal on the dashboard, but it is replaced with loads of cheap plastic, so that’s no improvement. The broad, flat seat bottoms also appear to have been lifted from those Mustangs of yore, leaving the driver to slide from side-to-side.

Better to have emulated the aggressively bolstered Recaro seats of the 1979 Indy 500 Pace Car edition of the Mustang, which may have resembled S&M devices but which gave the driver the needed restraint. The panic police will surely be chagrined to learn that the GT’s speedometer now reads to 160 mph “to reflect the capabilities of the new powertrain,” according to the company. That’s an upgrade from the old days, when a '68 model with a 289 V8 topped out at its speedo’s top reading of 120 mph. Or so I heard.

In total, the 2011 Mustang is an extremely appealing machine, with muscular style and powerful engines. But it seems to be a matter of correctly matching the right car to the right task. Horses for courses, as they say.

Packing the potent 5.0-liter V8 engine, unyielding springs and optional $1,695 Brembo brakes in the convertible’s compliant chassis seems a mismatch. Better for would-be racers to leave the metal roof on so the car can withstand the forces of acceleration, turning and braking that its equipment produces. And for sunny top-down cruising, choose the 305-horsepower V6 engine and cushy suspension setup of the base car. Either way, Ford will finally provide an engine that is among the best in its class.