Remembrance Of Ponies Past

The Mustang that rolls into dealer showrooms on Dec. 9 will be the first new version since 1979 of Ford's popular car. It's a revamp that almost didn't happen: In the late 1980s, Ford seriously considered slapping the Mustang badge on its sporty new front-wheel-drive Probe. Outraged traditionalists prevailed, and now they've got a muscular, all-American car that harks back to the legendary 1964 original.

This pony car is aimed not only at youthful racers; Ford also hopes to rev up interest among baby boomers who lusted after the Mustang in their teens. It is rear-wheel-drive nostalgia for anyone who recalls Steve McQueen careening around corners in a Mustang fastback in 1968's Bullitt. Rejecting smooth curves as too Japanese, and low-slung, steeply raked lines as too radical a departure from its roots, Ford opted for a bold, traditional look.

CHEAP THRILLS. This Mustang borrows styling cues from the 1960s classic: the long hood, deep side scoops, stubby back deck with triple taillights, and of course, the galloping pony on the grille. But the car has a longer wheelbase and wider stance. A stiffer chassis will improve handling of both the coupe and convertible models.

One hallmark of the Mustang has always been cheap thrills under the hood. So Ford ditched its underpowered four-cylinder version. The new base model, which starts at $13,365, comes equipped with a 3.8-liter, V-6 engine that kicks out 145 horsepower. The GT, priced from $17,280, still has the old 5.0-liter V-8--it's powerful but lacks the sophistication of more modern multivalve, overhead-cam engines. What really smarts: The GT is being outrun by the Chevy Camaro Z28, which arrived last spring with all the brute force of a Corvette-derived engine. Camaro's 275 horses leave Mustang's 215 in the dust. To narrow the gap, Ford plans to bring out a 240-hp Cobra model next spring.

The car has a five-speed manual transmission, but an electronic four-speed automatic option is available on base and GT models. Dual airbags and four-wheel disk brakes are standard, antilock brakes an option. The convertible is easy to unlatch. After motoring down, the top rests flush with the rear deck, covered with a boot that's handier to snap on than its predecessor.

The two-tone interior wraps around a double-cockpit-style dashboard, giving a clear display of instruments. Not unexpectedly, the cabin is noisy, thanks to wind and the V-8's throaty grumble. You can always drown it out with a blast from the optional 460-watt audio system, with MiniDisc player. Mustang Sally, anyone?

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