Mustang vaults into relevance

What interests me about the 2010 Ford Mustang might not interest you. I could stay up all night reading about taller tire sidewalls and their effect on suspension settings. You? Maybe not so much. I'm positively Nelly over the car's stiffer chassis -- hubbah! -- and cold air induction. You, on the other hand, might have more important things to think about. Maybe your dog has a kidney stone. Maybe feral parrots have taken up residence in your hair. Look, I'm no mind reader.

Maybe you're a wee bit distracted on account of the economy tiptoeing on the bubbling brimstone edge of ruin. Ah, well, that brings us back to the Mustang, doesn't it? If Ford can reform a chintzy, gimpy, flubbery, moronic mess that was the Mustang, anything is possible.

Only two years ago, I couldn't have hated the Mustang more if one had run over my tongue. The car was cheap and plasticky inside, unsorted underneath and uncouth all around, a car that seemed custom-built for the receptionist at an Alabama nail salon.

The 2010 Mustang -- while still far from perfect -- is summarily a more serious and charismatic car, with vastly better interior fittings and brass work, a keen updating of the boomer-centric sheet metal and (most important for me) a masterful revision of the ride-and-handling characteristics. These cars used to pitch, roll, over-rotate and flop around like a slain-in-the-spirit Pentecostal. The new car is the first decent-handling Mustang I've ever driven. Oh yeah, I said it. That just happened.

Here's the deal: Even if you care nothing about cars, you should take heart in the fact that Ford -- big, old, thick with vested privilege -- has managed so much reform in so short a time. As we ponder the depressing macrocosm and consider sticking our collective head in the oven, the Mustang's take-away message might be: Yes we can.

A bit of Mustang-ography: Born in 1964 from the loins of Lee Iacocca (as for the visual, you're welcome), Mustang is the second-longest-running sports car nameplate in the U.S., after Corvette (1953). For cost reasons, the original Mustang was built off the old Falcon platform, and somehow the tradition of sticking this supposedly sporty car onto the shoddiest, most obsolete rear-drive platform in Ford's larder lasted for decades. My family owned an early-'80s Fox-chassis Mustang. If mediocrity were a bright light, I would now have no retinas.

The current generation of Mustang came out in 2004, wearing the high-gloss, design-schooled "retro-futurist" sheet metal penned by Sid Ramnarace. The car looked super-cool. Alas, the same historical problem plagued it: a badly compromised chassis. Long after the market abandoned live-rear-axle geometry -- except in trucks -- the Mustang kept it because it was cheap, beefy and compact. And, for most buyers of the base V6-powered car, the live axle was a nonissue because those toupee-wearing wannabes weren't taxing the car very much.

However, when inevitably Ford developed its GT500 and GT500KR versions -- supercharged cars with 500+hp -- things got messy real quick. The power and torque of these engines overwhelmed the chassis. In December 2006, I called the Shelby GT500 "one of the creepiest handling modern muscle cars it's ever been my terrifying pleasure to drive." I was being kind.

Ideally, Ford would have completely redesigned the Mustang for 2010. After all, this car is going up against a very respectable Dodge Challenger and the new Chevrolet Camaro. I imagine when the program costs were laid out in front of Ford execs -- half a billion dollars or so for a clean-screen redesign vs. $100 million for a heavy revision -- the decision was made for them.

What we have here, then, is a small masterpiece of fixing only what needs fixing. First, the saddle work: Lots of new, rich-feeling materials have been poured into the cabin, including -- on the GT I drove -- great stitch-pleated leather seats and door gussets. The instrument panel has been remodeled -- now with two Crisco can-size apertures for the white-faced speedo and tach -- and a textured aluminum fascia pulls together the whole dash.

Meanwhile, the between-the-seat console has been cleaned up and the hand brake gets a proper leather-like boot. In up-level models, Mustang can be ordered with a huge, 8-inch navigation screen in the center stack.

The exterior re-skin, meanwhile, seems to pour a bottle of hot-and-ornery on Ramnarace's design. The lines are sharper, the contours sleeker and more contemporary.

The hood bulges with the effort to contain the engine. A signature design bit is the new, sequentially firing three-bar LED tail lamps, reminiscent of Aquarian-era Thunderbirds.

For me, though, the main thing is the handling equation. I drove the '09 and '10 GTs back-to-back around a large auto-cross course, and the cars felt like they were from different planets.

The '09 was exactly as I remember: pitchy, floppy and roll-happy, with lots of nose push and a tendency to multiply rebound energy corner-to-corner until the car was utterly out of shape.

The stroke of genius in the '10 car is the taller, slightly more elastic 50-series Pirelli tires, which first appeared on the Bullitt Mustang last year.

This fraction of additional tire softness allowed the engineers to stiffen and batten down the rest of the suspension -- shocks, springs, anti-roll bars -- without making the car a miserable paint-shaker to drive. The result is recalibrated magic: great transitional manners, great turn-in, snubbed-down body control, a delicious competence. Axle tramp has gone buh-bye.

There's lots more to this car, like the special acoustic piping connecting cabin to the engine compartment, the better to hear the 4.6-liter, 315-hp V8's snotty cackle.

There's a three-stage stability control system -- AdvanceTrac -- which lets you slide the car around like mad before finally stepping in to save your keister. Like I said, stuff you might not be interested in.

What you might find fascinating, though, is that the all-American Mustang, a veritable icon of Motown, isn't quite as washed up as we've been led to believe.

To paraphrase Emily Dickenson: Hope is a thing with withers.




2010 Ford Mustang GT

Base price: $28,845

Price, as tested: $31,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 4.6-liter, 24-valve, SOHC V8; five-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 315 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 325 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm

Vehicle weight: 3,600 pounds (est.)

0-60 mph: 5 seconds

Wheelbase: 107.1 inches

Overall length: 188.1 inches

EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city/23 mpg highway (est.)

Final thoughts: A better breed of steed

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