Review: 2010 Ford Mustang GT

Up Front Ford (F) likes to bill the Mustang as "America's favorite muscle car for 45 years straight." But early signs are that the 2010 Mustang may have trouble holding onto that title. General Motors' newly revived 2010 Chevy Camaro is mounting a strong challenge for the No. 1 spot.

Ford has been doing relatively well overall as a company, but the Mustang is lagging. U.S. salesof the Mustang plunged 23.3% during the month of August, to just 6,289 sales, and fell 36.8%, to 46,763, during the first eight months of the year, despite the arrival of the 2010 Mustang last spring.

GM's public relations machine, meanwhile, is gleefully declaring the 2010 Camaro "the hottest car in America." In August, Camaro sales hit 8,680, nearly 40% more than the Mustang's, after also outpacing the Mustang's sales in June and July. GM has sold 31,190 Camaros since the model started arriving in dealerships in April and has been struggling to keep up with demand. If current trends continue, the Camaro could outsell the Mustang next year. That would be quite a coup for a company that just came out of bankruptcy.

At this point Chrysler loyalists are probably saying, "Whoa, what about the new Dodge Challenger?" But the Challenger is running a distant third in the muscle car sweepstakes. Its sales plunged 69% in July, to a mere 886 units, and 45% in August, to 1,132 units. So the main competition at this point is really between the Mustang and the Camaro,

I prefer the edgier-looking Camaro. The Mustang's pony car look is starting to seem a little tired to my eye, even in its 2010 update. However, both are great driving cars if you get them with V8 engines.

I can't see much reason to buy the V6 Mustang, which is powered by a 4.0-liter, 210-horsepower engine that's seen better days. The convertible has some appeal as an alternative to the aging Chrysler Sebring convertible. But the main appeal of the V6-powered Mustang coupe is its low price (it starts at just $21,845; add $5,000 for the convertible) and decent fuel economy (it gets 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, and uses regular gasoline). But you're getting a Potemkin sports cars; it looks hot but it lacks the guts. And there are more practical alternatives if all you want is an economical car (the entry-level Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, etc).

The Mustang GT, on the other hand, is a classic muscle car at a reasonable price. It's powered by a 4.6-liter, 315-hp V8 that's far smaller on paper than the massive 6.2-liter, 426-hp powerplant in the Camaro SS. However, the GT is more than 400 lbs. lighter than the SS and accelerates with nearly as much panache.

It's also less expensive. The Mustang GT starts at a mere $28,845, which is about a grand less than the starting price of the Camaro SS and only about a grand more than the previous version of the Mustang. Not bad, considering that the new Mustang contains many of the add-ons (such as a sport-tuned suspension and a cold-air induction system that boosts the engine's power) that were part of the $3,310 Bullitt option package on the previous Mustang. With either engine, the Mustang comes standard with a five-speed stick shift; a five-speed automatic transmission costs an extra $995, just as it does in the Camaro.

Both the Mustang GT and Camaro SS are rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway with a stick shift. Both can use regular gasoline, though performance is better if you use premium (the Mustang GT's horsepower rating rises by 10 if you use premium).

For now, if you want a convertible, you have to go with the Mustang (and pay an extra $5,000). However, GM says a Camaro convertible will debut in the first quarter of 2011.

Behind the WheelOne of the biggest appeals of the Mustang GT is the throaty growl it emits when you rev the engine. It's no accident that this marvelous sound reverberates in your ears. Ford designers provided the new GT with a "sound induction tube" connecting the car's engine to the cabin. Inside the tube is a membrane that transmits the desired sound frequencies to you ears without allowing air to flow into the cabin. When you aren't revving the engine, the Mustang's cabin (like the Camaro's) is as quiet as a family sedan's.

Car and Driver magazine clocked the Mustang GT with a stick shift at 5 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. That isn't quite up to the Camaro SS's blazingly fast 4.7 second zero-to-60 rating, but it's plenty fast—about as quick as a BMW 335i, for instance.

When it comes to handling, the Mustang feels lighter and more refined than the Camaro, which drives like the big bulky muscle car it is. Which one is preferable is a matter of taste, but in general, the Mustang achieves more with less. Its engine is smaller, but the car moves nearly as quickly as the Camaro. The Mustang doesn't have the Camaro SS's oversized Brembo brakes, but nonetheless slams to a halt about as quickly. The Mustang has old-fashioned live action (rather than independent) rear suspension, yet the car doesn't lack for grip in hard cornering. And I love the Mustang's steering, which is light- to-the-touch but responsive and precise.

The Mustang GT's interior has been much improved, with higher-grade materials and more chrome trim than before. The dash is relatively vertical and angular, with round dials and brows over the glove box and instruments. Ambient lighting glows in the cup holders even during the day, and big, bold "Mustang" logos on either door sill light up when you open the doors at night.

The front seats in the GT are well-bolstered and comfortable. However, the rear seat only holds two passengers (same as the Camaro and one less than the Challenger). Space in back is very tight, with the front seat set for my height (5 ft., 10 in.) there wasn't enough knee-space in back for an adult to be comfortable. Headroom also is limited by the Mustang's radically sloping roof.

The Mustang's trunk has a big, wide opening. It provides 13.4 cu. ft. of luggage space, 2.1 cu. ft. more than the Camaro's. The rear seats fold down in a split pattern.

Buy it or Bag It?The consumer profiles of the Mustang and Camaro are almost exactly the same. The average buyer is 45, and about 80% are male. A majority of them finance the purchase. Virtually no leases are being done on either model, according to the Power Information Network (PIN).

Whether to go with Mustang GT or a Camaro SS is largely matter of taste. Both the Mustang and Challenger, for that matter, have a more straightforward retro look than the Camaro. The Mustang is the least expensive of the three, with an average price of $35,454, according to the PIN, versus $37,843 for the Camaro and $37,185 for a comparable '09 Challenger.

I'd be willing to pay more for the new Camaro, which I believe one day will be considered a collectible classic. But you won't give up much in the way of performance if you go with the Mustang instead.

Click here to see more of the 2010 Ford Mustang GT.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.