Ford Motor Co. has unleashed the sixth-generation Mustang, the product of a delicate effort to balance half a century of history with demands for modern powertrains, technology and styling.
The result retains the essence of the late-1960s fastbacks on which the car's retro-styled predecessor was based — a long hood, short rear deck, tri-bar taillights and a shark-nosed grill.
But the automaker carefully avoided churning out another throwback, instead seeking to connect the Mustang to the design ethic seen across its lineup. The other balancing act: making the quintessential American sports coupe appeal to buyers in Europe and Asia.
"We wanted to make sure that, at first glance, you know it is a Mustang — but at the same time you know it is the next Mustang," said Mark Fields, the automaker's chief operating officer. "You can go too retro, or you can go too futuristic."
[Updated, 11:19 a.m. PST Dec. 5: The automaker displayed the new model in a series of global reveals Thursday that included events in Los Angeles; New York; Dearborn, Mich.; Barcelona, Spain; Shanghai; and Sydney, Australia.
The L.A. event took place along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, adjacent to the walk's stars for celebrities, including Sandra Bullock, Steve McQueen and Michael Jackson. Senior Ford executives looked on as others rolled the front wheels of the 2015 Mustang into a block of wet cement.
"It's fitting that we're right here, among all the stars in Hollywood," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford's executive vice president. "We have our own star right here. The Ford Mustang has been in over 3,000 movie and TV shows. So it's fitting that we're at the Chinese Theatre for this debut."]
Though it presented vexing riddles for designers, the 50th-anniversary Mustang offers no grand departure from the styling that enabled Ford to sell 9 million Mustangs since its debut at the New York World's Fair on April 17, 1964.
The offering of a four-cylinder turbo engine signals a clear shift toward modernity and fuel economy, though today's technology gives that small power plant a whopping 305 horsepower — equal to that of the vaunted 289 V-8 that powered the 1966 Shelby Mustang.
The standard engine will be a 3.7-liter V-6 with 300 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque.
But the car would not be a Mustang without the option of a muscular V-8, a 5.0-liter with an upgraded valve train and cylinder heads that Ford says will yield more than the current GT's 420 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque.
"The Mustang represents the heart, soul and passion of the Ford brand," Fields said.
The new version goes on sale late next year.
Although the Mustang is still popular, it has lost some of its sales mojo. The automaker sold as many as 500,000 Mustangs annually in the 1960s but will struggle to hit 80,000 this year. Since 2009, the archrival Chevrolet Camaro has led Mustang in annual U.S. sales by a small margin.
That's a big deal to Ford and its dealers.
In a good year, Beau Boeckmann's sprawling Galpin Motors in the San Fernando Valley will sell 100 Mustangs a month — at today's prices, about $40 million worth of pony cars annually. But in recent years his Mustang sales have fallen to about half their former level as buyers gravitated to the Camaro and sporty imports.
"There is a point in design where people who are looking for something new and different go to the hot thing," said Boeckmann, whose family owns the dealership. "That is exactly what this new Mustang will address."
Playing from behind is not a familiar position for Ford.
The Mustang is the only pony car to maintain continuous production since the mid-1960s, said Edward Loh, editor in chief of auto enthusiasts magazine Motor Trend.
"It has dominated all of its rivals, from Camaro to Challenger, even foreign competition like the Celica Supra and Genesis Coupe," he said.
In the process it has become the industry's cover girl, making the face of Motor Trend 87 times over the last 50 years.
Ford tried to ignore the Camaro and sales concerns in sketching out the new Mustang, said Fields, the operations chief.
"Sales crowns are nice to have," he said. "But it is more important to run a profitable business that has satisfied customers. We are out of the days of running an individual sales race."
Although Ford's top-selling F-series line of trucks account for far more profit, the Mustang "is the most iconic name in the Ford family," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. "The new model creates a buzz that will resonate across the entire brand."
That so-called halo effect is important, but often misunderstood, said James D. Farley Jr., Ford's executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service.
"People don't walk into a dealer looking at a Mustang and walk out with a Fusion," Farley said.
The effect is more subtle, he said, but no less vital to the automaker's image, sales and profits.
"Every point in brand favorability is worth a couple of hundred dollars in the price of our cars," Farley said.
That's one reason why there was "no end of opinions" on what the new car should look like coming from management, dealers and enthusiasts, said Ford designer Joel Piaskowski.
Many debates focused on the front end, which blends a classic Mustang grill with the modern design language seen in other Fords, notably the Fusion sedan.
At one point the team considered offering two grill designs, one for the high-powered V-8 version and another for four- and six-cylinder models. Some grill designs were tossed because they didn't "capture the essence of the Mustang and still look modern," Piaskowski said.
Headlamps were another issue: An early design featuring smaller lights was scrapped after a panel of customers said they "didn't feel Mustang enough."
Boeckmann, the dealer, served on a Mustang product advisory committee that wrestled with the balance of classic and modern.
"The biggest concern was that it would start to look too European," Boeckmann said. "I think they pulled back from that and got the best balance."
The new model had to have what Piaskowski, the designer, called the three hallmarks of a Mustang: the shark nose, the tri-bar tail lamps and the fastback roof profile.
This will be the first Mustang with a push-button start. Paddle shifters are now standard.
Inside, there is a bit more interior room and trunk space.
Ford, with a nod to selling the car in Europe, has upgraded the interior with stitched leather and softer materials. But the center console remains a hard plastic throwback, a victim of the Mustang's production budget and price pressures.
In response to customer complaints, Ford moved the shifter closer to the driver and added a USB port.
The new vehicle will come in 10 colors, including the traditional racing red as well as ticket-me versions of competition orange and triple yellow.
And, of course, there will be a convertible — with a rag top that will open or close in just seven seconds.
Some Mustang cues got left behind, including the hockey stick pattern that graced the door panels on previous generations.
Another feature dumped from previous generations is the spare tire, a move to cut both expense and weight. Buyers can get one as an added option.
Ford can't afford a misfire with the Mustang, said Tom Libby, an analyst with automotive research firm R.L. Polk & Co.
When the automaker first unveiled the car 50 years ago, it was more of a styling innovation than a breakthrough car. Motor Trend's original review called the Mustang a "nice-looking" Falcon, in a nod to the pedestrian small car on which the first Mustang was based.
Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum, owned a '65 Mustang.
"I also had a '65 Falcon," he said. "And I can tell you that under the skin, it was still a Falcon."
But the Mustang gained sales traction because it looked so different from the boxy cars of the day and was "peppy, reliable and approachable," he said.
And Ford quickly improved the lineup, offering notable models such as the 1967 Mustang fastback and many high-performance versions.
Other generations went astray. Constrained by new emissions standards and an oil crisis, the 1973 version had a timid 150 horsepower packed into a V-8 — about half what the standard V-6 in the new model produces.
But recent generations have returned to the formula that made the original a success, Kendall said, and he expects the 50th-anniversary car to do the same.
"It gives buyers a rewarding driving experience without busting the budget — a performance car for regular people," he said.