Some say the Mustang is a tribute to the great muscle cars of yore. Others say it's a throwback to the bad old days when American cars were unsophisticated lumps of iron. Look in the windows of Mustangs going by and you'll see that the car's appeal transcends its history: Mustang drivers are young and old, male and female, people who love cars and people who see them merely as A to B transportation. We know the Mustang is a gret icon -- but is it a great car? Read on. $27,200 base, $32,475 as tested, EPA fuel economy 17 MPG city, 25 MPG highway.
First Glance: Retro done right
I love the Mustang's exterior styling. It's a near-perfect homage to the original Mustangs of the mid- to late-60s. In front, the two inner headlights are set into the grille (link goes to photo) and disguised as fog lights, a feature borrowed from classic Mustangs. Out back, the roofline and rear window recall the original "fastback" Mustang. Of all the "retro" cars on the market -- cars like the MINI Cooper, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Chevy HHR -- the Mustang, in my opinion, looks the best.
The Mustang I drove was a V8-powered GT model with the new-for-2007 California Special package (which, Ford is quick to point out, is available in all 50 states). This is one of a number of "special edition" packages that Ford plans to introduce in order to keep interest in the Mustang alive. The California Special includes unique 18" polished aluminum wheels, rolled exhaust tips, Mustang-logo floor mats, special trunk badge, and black-fade tape stripes on the fender and door with the initials GT/CS (which I assume stands for California Special -- though those are also the initials of Carroll Shelby, who has lent his hallowed name to high-performance variants of the Mustang such as the Shelby GT and GT500. Coincidence? I think not!). The California Special package adds $1,895 to the Mustang GT, bringing the price up to nearly $30k; with other options, including seat-mounted side airbags and an upgraded stereo, my tester stickered for nearly $32,500. Yowch! The V6-powered Mustang, which comes well equipped for $20k, is a much better deal.
In the Driver's Seat: Front seat is great, the rest... isn't
The Mustang treats front-seat occupants well, with comfy bucket seats and a cool-looking instrument panel that recalls the original Mustangs of the 60s with modern-day touches like user-selectable dash lighting color (including blue, red, green, purple and white). The driving position is a bit of a throwback, too; the steering wheel sits close to the driver, as was common in cars of the 60s. The view out over the long, bulging hood is magnificent, though limited sightlines make parking difficult.
Things in the back seat aren't so great. The seat itself isn't bad; it's got scooped-out sections that your rear end slides right into. But there's little knee room -- even for kids and short adults like me, as this picture shows -- and young'uns won't be able to see much out of the high, small windows. To make matters worse, after tilting the seats forward to let rear-seat passengers in or out, they only move back this far -- so you have to manually re-adjust the backrest. When you're toting the kids around all day, this quickly becomes a major annoyance.
And while I'm complaining, let's talk about the trunk. Not only is it small, but the narrow opening makes loading bulky items very difficult. My test car's optional "Shaker 1000" stereo had a subwoofer that ate up a big chunk of space. The rear seats fold down, but a high ridge at the front of the trunk means that big items won't slide in without a fight. At least the Mustang uses non-intrusive struts in place of traditional hinges. They help... but not a whole lot.
On the Road: V8 magic, solid-axle reality
And fast it is. 300 horsepower isn't the magic number it once was, but the 'Stang's V8 pulls strongly in any gear. That's good, because the clutch is heavy and the five-speed stick-shift can be downright belligerent. Fuel economy is the pits (I averaged 16.5 MPG) but at least the V8 gets its kicks on regular fuel, not premium.
When it comes to handling, the Mustang really is a throwback. It's not as soft and wallowy as the old muscle cars were, but nor is it a true driver's car. The heavy steering offers little meaningful feedback. Sharp bumps reverberate through the car's structure with worrying ferocity. The Mustang has a solid (or "live") rear axle, so a bump on one side affects the wheel on the other. Mid-corner bumps can wreak havoc with live-axle cars; the Mustang isn't as jittery as most, but it doesn't keep its composure the way cars with independent rear suspensions do. And with 320 lb-ft of torque going to the rear wheels, there's the constant threat of giving it too much gas and causing the rear end to break loose (though the traction control system does a good job of not letting things get too far out of hand). The Mustang is a great cruiser, but driving it fast on curvy roads is an awful lot of work that comes under the category not of enjoyment, but of survival.
Journey's End: Despite it's flaws, I really like it
I really enjoyed the Mustang. I felt like I was getting in touch with America's motoring history. Robin disagreed; she thought driving the Mustang was too much work for too little reward, and she had a point: There are plenty of modern front-wheel-drive cars that go just as fast, if not faster, and that are easier to drive, more efficient and more practical. The Mazdaspeed 3, Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Chevrolet Cobalt SS and Honda Civic Si are all way better in the curves and less expensive than the Mustang GT, but none have the same old-school muscle-car feel -- and until the 2008 Dodge Challenger and 2009 Chevrolet Camaro arrive, nothing will.
Were I considering a Mustang, I'd opt for the V6 model. Its 210 horsepower engine offers plenty of get-up-and-go and has that same muscle-car-like rumble, plus it's way less expensive to buy and insure. But would I consider a Mustang in the first place? I have a family, and let's be honest, the Mustang makes a lousy family car. The gas mileage sucks and the handling is mediocre... but you know what? I just might consider buying one. At least I wouldn't have to argue with Robin about who gets to drive it. -- Aaron Gold