There are lies, there are damnable lies, and then there's reporting on the domestic auto industry. Consider this statement: Detroit doesn't build the cars that people want. Despite the fact that the Detroit carmakers build half the cars and trucks sold in the U.S. each year, you can't escape that quip. It's required in every story concerning the Detroit Three bailout. It's even hard-coded into the business plans that the automakers submitted to Congress.
This is nothing new. News outlets have been banging that counterfactual drum since New York Times columnist Micheline Maynard published her 2003 book The End of Detroit. There are a lot of things that can be learned from that work. The first is that it's indeed possible to give a big, sloppy tongue kiss to Japan, Inc., via print. The second is that understanding the auto industry isn't considered a prerequisite to report on it. (This also forms the basis of "The Friedman Principle.") The third is that The End of Detroit makes a really excellent wheel chock to hold the new 2010 Mustang back while doing a wicked burnout.
Yes, the Mustang — now going into its twenty-second year as America's best-selling sports car — is really, really good at burnouts. So good that a time delay has been programmed into the newly available backup camera, letting riders check out the collateral damage from their vulcanized carnage for ten seconds after the Mustang's been dropped into a forward gear.
Burnout camera aside, the 2010 Mustang is an evolution rather than a reinvention. At its heart, the new Mustang uses the same basic mechanical bits as the old one. The chassis, engines, and gearboxes all make return appearances. The front suspension retains MacPherson struts. The rear axle is still live. Each car's suspension gets a hand-me-down upgrade from higher up the food chain, however. The new GT gets the uprated suspension from the old Mustang Bullitt, so the strut, shock, and spring tuning buttons down the car far better than its predecessor. Mustang V-6 models get the same suspension as on the old Mustang GT. All models get a little plastic diffuser that directs air under the front crossmember, reducing front lift by 23 percent at high speeds.
The carryover 4.6-liter V-8 now makes 315 hp — 15 more than the 2009 car — thanks to a cold-air intake setup and a heavier crank damper that raises the redline 250 rpm, both swiped from the Bullitt as well. In addition to some bragging rights ("I dare any aftermarket company to design an intake that flows better than this!" boasts Mustang engineering chief Tom Barnes), the extra shove knocks off a third of a second from the new GT's zero-to-60 times. Adaptive spark control lets the engine computer get creative with its spark timing, so juicing the car with high-octane gas will up its normal 325 lb-ft of peak torque to 335 lb-ft. The base V-6 remains the same 210-hp iron-block lump shared with the Ranger pickup truck.
That evolutionary bent continues on to the Mustang's lithe new body, where designers faced a conundrum that's the bane of retro designs everywhere: If the last Mustang was supposed to be a reinterpretation of the 1968 fastback, isn't that well a bit dry for inspiration? Yes, actually, which is why the 2010 Mustang pulls a lot of its cues from the 1970 model. The narrower grille and headlights are pinched down at the prow and rush over the front wheels in a wave. The doors and quarters hike up and over the rear arches before terminating in a pert, forward-canted heinie that flashes its three-bar turn signals sequentially. The only piece of sheetmetal that's carried over between generations is the roof. The overall effect is to imbue the design with some much-needed kinetic urgency.
Ford's newfound love affair with snazziness carries over to the cabin, where the new Mustang's interior no longer looks like it popped out of a coin-op machine at the zoo. The entire instrument panel is one padded, strokably soft expanse of grained vinyl that swoops around the underside of the dashboard to cosset an integrated center stack, which houses the controls for the climate, radio, and optional Sync ports and navigation system. Strategic sound padding and redesigned window seals made the Mustang's interior so quiet that a loud-tube, essentially just a plastic barrel that transmits intake resonance, was connected between the intake tract and the firewall to punch up the amount of engine bark making its way to drivers' ears. Ford's acid-trip MyColor LED lights are back again, their sphere of influence having expanded to include glowing Mustang scripts on the door sills.
The new Mustang, then, is the sum of progressive updates. It's been distilled, tightened up, dialed in, and given an interior that is grown up without having grown old. At $27,995, the 2010 Mustang GT is $750 more expensive than the car it replaces, but owners were spending more than that to upgrade their old cars to Bullitt parts, anyway.
With the balls against the wall, the Mustang's exhaust (true 3.5-inch duals with a crossover pipe, although the latter is restricted down to less than an inch internally) thrums in the background, with the majority of the noise coming from the mechanical thrash of the V-8. Teddy Roosevelt can get bent; the Mustang's soundtrack is raw, naked, American aggression of the type we do so well.
Concessions to broad-demographic comfort mean that the Mustang is saddled with somewhat numb and slow steering, and the soy-based seat padding is squishy and unsupportive in all the wrong places. The Tremec five-speed transmission is the same unit used in previous Mustangs, and its shifter is no less recalcitrant and notchy here than it's been in the past.
Mustangs now come standard with stability control, but quick button stabs allow two distinct stages: The system can be disabled entirely or be put into sport mode, which disables traction control and allows between seven and nine degrees of slip before its accelerometers narc you out to the ECU. Sliding through the cliff-faced canyons of the Los Angeles basin with the system set to halfway reveals two truths: First, the system's so forgiving that any Johnny Lunchbucket can be a tail-out, countersteering hero. Second, you're never old enough to fully outgrow the biological urge of accidentally urinating in your trousers.
Fortunately for my jeans and the Mustang's pristine leather seat, Ford's chassis upgrades make for the greatest leap forward in neutrality since the Swiss Constitution. Several more hours of banzai berserking reveal that the Mustang has been scrubbed clean of most of its conceits. It banishes the tired yarns about live axles and oxcarts to somewhere long forgotten. The firmer suspension adroitly handles body control, and the summer tires bite down in ways that the old Mustang's M+S all-seasons couldn't imagine.
Our particular Mustang's impeccable road manners were directly the result of Ford's new track pack, which swaps out the 3.31 differential for the 3.73 carbon-plate limited slip unit from the GT500. That car's parts basket is also raided for its front and rear anti-roll bars and rear lower control arms. The shocks and springs are firmer; high-performance Pirellis take the place of its standard all-season performance pieces; the stock brake pads get an upgrade to dusty buggers that have phenomenal fade resistance if poor initial bite; and the front suspension towers are joined by a beefy crossbrace that's thick enough to double as a B-17's landing strut. The chassis development team was so thrilled by how the package turned out that they harangued Ford's product planners until they were convinced the kit should be sold for the marginless price of $1495. That's an insane deal, since the parts to recreate the kit cost more than $2000 from Ford's factory racing parts catalog, and that doesn't include the upgraded rubber. A Mustang GT with the track pack can be had for under $30,000, making it one of the more compelling ways to spend your hard-earned bucks on a 2+2.
Mustang is Ford's third new car to be launched at a time when the company is being painted as obsessed with trucks and determined to win at all costs an SUV arms race long gone. Irony — and perhaps a tinge of hypocrisy — finds its way into the equation when the Mustang is set against the tableau of Capitol Hill. As the collective fury of Congress is brought down on 15-mpg, eight-cylinder trucks, this particular 15-mpg, eight-cylinder coupe, based on a red-meat concept that's old enough to remember the Space Race, isn't even a blip on the screen.
Yet the Mustang hasn't found a safe harbor just yet. Like Freon, CAFE, and carb cleaner that works, the auto industry's very product lineup is the latest object to be dissected and potentially regulated in the name of national environmental and energy policy. Federal bridge loans, if they ever happen, may be pegged to federal oversight of and veto power over what's coming down the pipeline. The camel's nose found its way past the tent flap with the first draft of the bailout bill, which called for a position to be filled by presidential nomination that would oversee "a viable and competitive domestic auto industry that minimizes adverse effects on the environment," and the development of "energy-efficient," "advanced technology vehicles."
If Ford's product portfolio ends up under the domain of a federally appointed assembly-line autocrat who is working under a mandate that high-mpg compacts ("just like the imports") are truly what Americans want to buy, then one of the cars that Americans are actually buying right now will end up being sacrificed to legislators' broad brushstrokes. American-car apocrypha, as Maynard's book shows, is full of half-truths that persist long after they should have been left for dead. We can only hope the Mustang — now better than it's ever been — is powerful enough to stay out in front of them.