Another Thoroughbred

PAUL DEAN

The concurrence of Mustang makers was to retain the burger-fed, square-jawed, gum-chewing, slightly cocksure look of an All-American classic.

From the first designer doodles of 1990 within the secrecy of their Dearborn skunk works, engineers agreed the car could be given rounded modernism to entice the 1994 generation. But nothing jelly-bean Asian or stiff-upper European.

Styling touches--hood ridges, the galloping grille emblem and air scoops that have survived three decades as Mustang hallmarks--would be repeated. After all, there were several million loyalists, more than 450 owners' clubs, President Clinton and James Bond to appease.

As in the past, the Mustang line would range from pony car to muscle car. The bottom rung would be fun and user-frisky. The enforcer would be implanted with enough raw horsepower to kick bumper of any vehicle that growled back.

All cars must stay affordable.

Last week, three years after parameters were set and fingers crossed, Ford engineers brought their 1994 Mustang here and invited waves of international journalists to run it hard through hot hills near the Santa Ynez fire.

Dogmatic and die-hard Mustang fans may stop praying.

Without doing anything revolutionary, despite small slips that will become second-year fixes, the 1994 Mustang is a super successor that certainly will not surrender its lead among specialty cars.

All-American? The hood is broad and made tall by lateral ridges accenting a central platform. The car is longer, wider and with squarer shoulders than, say, the Mitsubishi Eclipse and other imported 2+2s. It has a shape that swaggers on the move and looks truculent at rest.

And Mustang still means rear-drive and cast-iron engines with push rods--and that's pure Detroit, good buddy, not Osaka.

Styling heritage? Hood ridges, the emblem of a scalded horse heading for the barn, C-scoops ahead of the rear fenders and three-bar taillights are a deliberate lift from debut Mustangs in the year of our Ford, 1964 1/2.

Affordable? With the car not due in showrooms until December, Ford isn't discussing prices beyond proclaiming its desire to hover around current levels. The industry prediction is a 10% price hike on 1994 Mustangs with radical mechanical upgrades, and status quo stickers on models with lesser additions.

Heftiest equipment changes are with entry-level Mustangs.

Performance anemia that was their birth defect has been corrected by a large dose of iron. The four-cylinder, 105-horsepower sewing machine has gone. The new engine is a V-6 that produces 145 horsepower and makes a gymnast of a 3,055-pound coupe.

Driver- and passenger-side air bags are standard; also four-wheel disc brakes.

Options include anti-lock brakes, 17-inch aluminum wheels and Gatorbacks for performance Mustangs, and a Mach 460 sound system with a MiniDisc option. Eight speakers and 460 watts of peak power will insert Miles Davis' trumpet in a driver's inner ear.

The squeaky, leaky, clattering Mustang hatchback has been dropped. By its execution, Ford finally acknowledges that cutting three large doors in a unibody ruins structural integrity and turns small cars into capable two steppers.

The LX designation really meant nothing in the past as it covered notchbacks, hatchbacks and convertibles. It's also history. The 1994 line is coupes and convertibles identified as base Mustangs and Mustang GTs.

Therein the bully boys. GTs, whether hard- or rag-tops, continue to be equipped with another Ford staple: A 5.0-liter V-8 engine.

Playing with air box and intake manifold has squeezed 10 more horsepower (to 215) from this ancient setup. For heftier performance brokers, a 245-horsepower Mustang Cobra--built to increase Ford's competition against GM's Corvette-engined, knuckle-skinning Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Firebird--will be available next spring.

Still, trust us, the old V-8 is thunder enough. With 0-60 m.p.h. times below 7 seconds, this is a chunk of raw meat. But thanks to some incredible platform wizardry improving Mustang's resistance against bending and twisting by more than an average 60%, the car is much less of a thug in handling and ride.

As a matter of fact, putting the GT coupe into a NASCAR mode, through sweepers and hairpins spider-webbing Los Padres National Forest, produced a mild softness and roll far from the coarse handling of yesteryear's lustier Mustangs.

The downside is a gnashy five-speed manual that requires too much thought and, on occasions, some visual monitoring. It is too vague between gears, too long in the shifter, too long in the throw . . . and clearly too long in the tooth.

Externally, the new shape is a chunky wedge in keeping with the marque's lineage. For the final look, Ford stylists, their clay models and computers narrowed choices to three concepts labeled--and we jest not--Bruce Jenner, Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jenner, obviously, was athletic, softly powerful. It also wore the gentle look of nonchalant performance common to Japanese cars.

Rambo was sharp edges and flared nostrils. It implied something Mad Max would drive while hunting Somalian war lords.

Between the extremes was Schwarzenegger, more muscular, certainly bulkier, and the clear favorite of Ford clinics and focus groups. So he was born in Austria.

Arnold's tough look is made more sinister by a squat spoiler on GT models. The shape works very well as a medium for all that Mustang Americana. As one engineer noted: Take away the badges and it still looks like a Mustang.

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Internally, the car is a complete redesign. A swooping line makes arcs--some will see McDonald's arches--flowing from doors across dashboard, around the console to the passenger side.

It creates a cockpit that's Trekkie. The high, arching sweep of the passenger side of the dash is even reminiscent of a very early Corvette. But nothing about the interior is jarring, controls are positioned in popular places, and these are comfortable, adult accommodations.

Except tiny back seats. They are for kids, preferably those not old enough to complain.

A satisfying capper to the freshness of Mustang's interior is the horn button. Despite the air bag's puffy presence, the button is back where God and Henry intended, positioned for cathartic thumpings right in the middle of the steering wheel.

Driving the GT with a leaden loafer, discovering there's enough mid-range torque to power reeeeeally hard from middling corner of decreasing radii and curious cambers, feeling the stickiness of wide tires on big wheels, listening to this beast snorting through its sinuses . . . well, it's easy to be seduced into evaluating no other model.

But the GT is new outsides, new insides, old engine. The Mustang with the mostest is the smaller-bored, more-civilized base model. Especially the convertible with a two-catch, one-button power top.

Canvas down, these are stylish wheels that feel 10 grand more expensive than the guesstimated $19,000 sticker. Because of all that chassis stiffening, the car is smoother and free of cowl shimmies.

Development time spent in an aerospace wind tunnel suggested a faster rake to the windshield. The slipstream billows into vortices behind driver and passenger, allowing conversational tones even at faster than freeway speeds.

The Taurus-derived V-6 engine is a peach. It pulls well, accelerates with definite authority and, driven sanely, doesn't lose too much vitality to a pedestrian four-speed automatic. Less sensitive britches just might confuse it with a small V-8.

That stiffer platform allows finer suspension tuning, so the car maneuvers with precision and balance. There was graphic proof in tight and twisty bits high above Solvang's pastry shops where base Mustangs kept some well-driven GTs--even a Taurus SHO piloted by a corporate hotshoe--squarely in their sights.

Overall, Mustang is a substantial addition to a significant spread of domestic automotive history.

Remember, this marque is as old as the Beatles and the heat of the Vietnam War. More than six million Mustangs have been sold. Their devotees belong to 472 Mustang clubs on five continents.

Which brings us to the President and James Bond.

Clinton owns a vintage Mustang.

James Bond drove another in "Diamonds Are Forever."

The new Mustang will leave 007 stirred, not shaken.

1994 FORD MUSTANG

Cost

* Estimated price for base coupe: $12,500 (includes driver- and passenger-side air bags, electric mirrors, tachometer, four-wheel disc brakes, power locks, tinted glass, variable assist power steering and five-speed manual).

Engine

* 3.8 V-6 developing 145 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, rear-drive, 2+2.

Performance

* 0-60 m.p.h., estimated, with automatic transmission, 11 seconds.

* Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h.

* Fuel consumption, estimated, city and highway average, 20 m.p.g.

Curb weight

* 3,055 pounds.

The Good

* Bigger, better engine inherited from Taurus.

* Styling a tasteful testimonial to Mustang heritage.

* Very stiff chassis, much tauter handling.

* Affordable fun.

The Bad

* Transmissions, automatic and manual, need improvement.

* Deep space interior maybe too jocular for exterior.

The Ugly

* Nothing visible.

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