Ford Motor Co. is throwing a party in Los Angeles this week, on the eve of the Los Angeles Auto Show, to celebrate the re-birth of its classic Mustang. Though the car will likely reach showrooms in March, 2009, it is already stirring interest among what Ford's representatives excitedly call 'Mustang Nation,' the legion of owners and other devoted fans. "Some of the Mustang web sites are already talking about the [car's] new rear end," says Robert Gelardi, the senior Ford Designer responsible for the car's new look.
Ford is hoping for the kind of new-car buzz that's rarely heard these days, as recession-smitten consumers shun showrooms. "We put in dramatic shape and sculpture," Gelardi boasts, but quickly adds that Ford is "not re-inventing what Mustang is." There's good reason to temper any jarring notions of change the car has been in production continuously for 45 years and Ford has sold more than 9 million, making it one of the most popular vehicles ever built by Detroit. "We don't need to come up with a space ship and put a horse on it," says Gelardi. "This is the next evolution, a modern evolution." (See pictures of "pimped" trucks.)
And it's aggressive, Mustang's promoters are eager to point out. "The shark nose is amplified. The headlamps are more aggressive and the back end has a lot more shape to it," Gelardi notes. "It's modern but it's still a Mustang," he adds, avoiding any mention of "retro" in describing design tweaks. "The proportions are classic, and there are little things that jog your memory. It says Mustang without you having to read the word or see the horse," he says. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
The character lines along the side are better integrated, but they also preserve the hockey stick shape that's traditionally been one of the Mustang's distinctive signatures. The interior of the car also has been fully reworked by Ford's design team. "Designing the interior of this car was like redoing your kitchen. You take everything out. You leave the plumbing in the same place and the electrical, but you put back super high-end material," Gelardi says. Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics in Birmingam, Mich., who has seen the new Mustang up close, thinks the design team succeeded. "The interior of the car is really very good," he says. "It's a 21st Century interior."
Paul Randle, the chief engineer for the Mustang, says Ford's engineers have also improved both the horsepower and the fuel economy on both the V8 and V6 versions. While the final numbers aren't available yet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ford is expecting that the V6 version will get a "best-in-class," 26-miles per gallon. The "Five-Star" crash rating is also unchanged. "You can be riding in a $1.8 million Bugatti and you won't get any better protection," says Randle. The 2010 Mustang will also come with a completely new suspension based on the one used in the special "Bullitt" edition Ford put on the road last year in small numbers. Overall, the early-peek reviews are favorable, but not inspirational. As Car and Driver magazine notes, the new Mustang is "heavily revised version of the current car, with changes concentrated in the areas that called for the most improvement.
Ford seriously considered dumping the Mustang during the 1990s until some cooler heads prevailed. The latest Mustang also has gained from the continuity on the team represented by Gelardi and Randle, who have stayed together for years, much like product development teams at the most successful Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda. Whether Mustang can break through the consumer funk that has devastated new car sales lately remains to be seen.