By Thane Peterson
The Good Affordability, cool retro styling, improved handling
The Bad Minimalist rear seating, small trunk
The Bottom Line Really gallops for the bucks it costs
The other evening, I found myself having dinner at a place called Johnny Rockets, one of those retro burger joints with old-fashioned malteds, rock 'n' roll oldies blaring on the jukebox, and burgers the size of a catcher's mitt. You're drawn to places like this when you're tooling around in a Torch Red Ford Mustang GT convertible on a hot summer evening. I mean, if this car doesn't put you in a retro mood, nothing will. It's just so satisfying to be able to sit in a booth by the window and watch people outside sidle over to the car and give it an admiring once-over.
The Mustang, of course, is an American icon, and sales of the latest version are booming: Ford (F ) is producing 192,000 Mustangs this calendar year, up from 112,000 in 2004. Yet, with sales up 47% through May, the main problem with the 2005 Mustang is getting your hands on one. Most of them are already spoken for, and dealers are starting to take orders for the 2006 model, which will hit the showrooms in August and September.
The good news is that the 2006 Mustang will be almost identical to this year's model, a Ford spokesman says, though it's not yet clear whether the price will go up. Place your orders now, anyway, if you want one.
One reason the Mustang is generating so much excitement is that in the all-new 2005 version Ford did a wonderful job of updating and redesigning the car. The retro styling really turns heads. And the base sticker on the 2005 GT convertible is just $30,240 -- and, even with numerous options my test model listed for $34,080. At that price, it's hard to beat the new Mustang's combination of style and performance.
Indeed, in my quest to find the ideal Midlife Crisis models -- the ones with the excitement quotient to put some pizzazz in an aging baby boomer's otherwise humdrum existence -- the Mustang GT Convertible fairly jumped out and demanded to be included in the list.
The car is just so cool looking. With its relatively short front profile, it doesn't really look much like the early Mustangs, the classic "pony cars" with the signature long sloping hood, short rear deck, and sculpted flanks. But the stubby rear end, the contouring around the rear bumper area, the slight suggestion of a prow in the hood -- to say nothing of the galloping silver horse logo on the grille -- all give the car a retro feel that strongly suggests Mustangs of the past.
HEAR IT GROWL.
Ditto for the interior. Clad in black leather with highlights in brushed aluminum -- a $450 option that my test car had -- it's almost understated, except for some retro touches that give it punch. For example, the dash has four very distinctive-looking chrome air vents with brushed-aluminum louvers. In my test car, the bucket seats were in red leather with matching red floor mats (which cost another $175). The red is very striking against the black leather, though I suspect the effect would wear on you after a year or two.
Then there's what may be my favorite feature of the whole car: The engine's throaty growl. The second-to-last day I was test-driving the GT convertible, two Pennsylvania state troopers dropped by the house (I won't go into why except to say I really wasn't at fault). As soon as they were done with business, they started peppering me with questions about the Mustang parked out front. When I revved up the engine so they could give it a listen, one of the cops marveled: "Isn't it great to hear that sound again?"
Exactly. The roar of the engine is loud enough to drown out conversation when you're accelerating with the top down -- and that's another deliberate attempt to recall the muscle cars of the '60s and '70s. Think of the sound of Steve McQueen redlining a 1968 Mustang GT through the hills of San Francisco in the movie Bullitt.
The new GT convertible doesn't just sound speedy. Equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission (you can get it with a 5-speed automatic for an extra $985, if you prefer -- but why?), the powerful 2005 GT's 4.6-liter, 300-horsepower V-8 propels the car from zero to 60 in just over 5 seconds. That's fast enough to match much more expensive convertibles such as the BMW 645ci and the Audi S4.
The handling is also reasonably tight, unless you do some really hard cornering. Thanks to a number of structural enhancements, the new convertible's frame is much more rigid than the previous model's. That keeps it from shuddering and rattling on bumpy roads when you're driving with the top down.
The Mustang's main downside is the minuscule back seat. The only way I figure a normal adult can sit in the thing is to push the front seat all the way forward, get into the back seat, and then ease the front seat back over your feet. That leaves you with no wiggle room to keep your legs from cramping on a long ride. The 11 cubic feet of trunk space is tolerable for a convertible -- unless you go for the optional $1,295 Shaker 1000 audio system, which includes a subwoofer the size of a carry-on bag stashed in the trunk.
Getting the automatic soft top up and down is a bit of a chore, too. It does raise and lower easily enough: You just undo two levers at the top inside of the windshield and then hold down a switch for 15 seconds or so. But getting the fabric cover on -- and you're not supposed to drive without it -- involves pinching the cover's edges in under the body and around the back seats, and attaching various cords and plastic clips to hold it down.
I never got it on in less than five minutes. That's a heck of a lot less handy than the automatic tops on General Motors (GM ) models such as the Corvette and Chevy SSR.
Still, those are mainly quibbles. We're talking an American icon here at a price most Americans can afford. Hi Yo Silver!
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online