HARBOUR SPRINGS, Mich. Conventional wisdom and current sales results suggest that pickup trucks and sportutes have replaced
sporty coupes as the sort of car young people bring to show how much fun they can be at a party. (Would you want to invite someone who drove one of those to a party? Never mind. . .)
So you might wonder why Ford would invest in a fairly significant redo of the Mustang for 1999, particularly considering that the current version is doing pretty well, being the sales leader in its segment virtually forever, and with its only real competition, the GM Fcar (Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird) appearing to be in its death throes.
Part of it is that Ford is expecting a bubble of consumer interest in two-doors; witness the recent launch of Honda Accord, Toyota Camry Solara and Mercury Cougar coupes.
These, of course, are all sedan based front drivers, but Ford feels there's still room for the classic domestic rear drive pony car.
There's also an almost mystical image associated with the Mustang nameplate within Ford.
Jack Witucki, brand manger for Mustang in the U.S., says he has "the best brand manager job in Ford," because of the car's iconic status.
"Mustang is the number one aspirational car for young, firsttime buyers," he says. "Yet it has a broad demographic appeal, attracting fun loving, spirited people of all ages."
Witucki notes that in this segment, where some 20 models compete for only about 600,000 buyers continent wide, success hinges on novelty, fashion and value.
So while 1998 was Mustang's best sales year since the most recent makeover in 1994, "we can't rest on our laurels."
Janine Bay, chief program engineer on the new Mustang, agrees. "The basic Mustang concept hasn't changed since 1964 when, as the saying goes, 'hotcakes were selling like Mustangs.' "
For 1999, the new exterior is more sharply angled, a blend of the GT90 show car of a few years ago which also presaged Ford's New Edge design ethic, and the original '64 Mustang. "It's a 'pyramid' theme, wider at the bottom, where the tires do the performance work," Bay notes, almost poetically.
So it offers flat planes with crisp edges on major body panel surfaces, together with three vertical element tail-lights, a honeycomb grille with chrome encircled galloping pony emblem and what are now known as "side character lines" (as opposed to fake side air scoops), all in the traditional longhood/shortdeck configuration.
Inside, long-legged riders will appreciate the 25 mm increase in seat travel.
Front seat belt buckles are relocated to the seat cushion for proper belt alignment regardless of fore and aft adjustment.
The optional power seat is now a six-way, rather than four.
New upholstery features an embroidered "pony" emblem. Yeehah!
Big audio has always been part of the pony car deal, so an 80-watt "premium" system with a single shot CD player is standard. Sadly, it's Ford's old teeny weeny push-button head unit; the much easier to use big buttoned ones won't fit in Mustang's old dash.
In an era when commonality among platforms is the watch word for efficient production, it's surprising that the ancient Fox platform, which has underpinned everything from the Fairmont to the Lincoln Mark VII, is now exclusive to Mustang.
It's also surprising that for such a low volume, lowcost car, they've torn it up to this degree.
A re-contoured floor pan raises the drive line tunnel by 38 mm, primarily to allow 25 mm more vertical movement of the solid rear axle, for improved ride and handling.
Travel, as it's called, is every suspension engineer's Holy Grail, and to be given the budget to do this was a huge blessing to vehicle engineering manager Paul Giltinan and his team.
They took advantage of this freedom to recalibrate the springs, shocks, anti-roll bars and bushings, with different setups for V6 and V8 powered versions.
The front control arm and anti-roll bar mounting points have been moved rearward which, along with other front suspension massaging has improved steering feel and reduced the turning circle by 940 mm on V6 models, 838 mm on V8s.
Rear track is increased by 36 mm, improving both the car's cornering stability and its stance.
The front brakes now have weight saving aluminum calipers and have been re-engineered to be easier to modulate.
The base engine continues to be the Windsorbuilt 3.8 L V6, with split port induction.
A new intake manifold, improvements in cylinder head flow and a variety of friction reducing strategies boost power a whopping 40 horses, now up to 190.
Torque is also up, by 5 lb.-ft. to a maximum of 220 at a low 2750 r.p.m.
Mustang GT stays with the 4.6 L single overhead camshaft V8, but it too has had a significant adrenaline injection.
Power is up 35 horses to 260, and torque rises 10 lb.-ft. to 300 at 4000 r.p.m. still high in the rev range. New camshaft profiles, bigger valves, revised intake manifold and modified combustion chamber shape get the credit for the increased output.
Both engines come with a five-speed manual gearbox, although they are different for sixes and eights. A four-speed automatic overdrive is optional.
Any rear-drive car with this much power will challenge a driver to keep the rear wheels following the fronts.
A new optional traction control system retards ignition timing, cuts fuel and/or ignition and applies the brake to the offending rear wheel(s) should the ABS wheel sensors detect rear wheel slippage.
A Power Start feature allows a certain amount of wheel spin on dry pavement for those drivein burnouts. If you really like driving sideways, a console mounted switch can shut the thing off entirely.
Not many car engineering projects begin with a clean sheet of paper and an unlimited budget. In fact, some of the most challenging, hence most rewarding, involve making small but significant changes to existing products, getting the most bang for the fewest bucks.
That's the new Mustang in a nutshell.
I was never a fan of the 1994 edition; it was heavier, slower, less fun to drive than its predecessor, but Ford has gotten all that back and then some in the new one.
It is markedly quicker with either engine, although the V6 is still a rough, noisy old lump.
If your budget restricts you to this engine, you will be pleased that the torque comes in at such low revs, because you'll gain no joy from exceeding four grand in this car.
In spite of the V8's high torque peak, it has more bottomend grunt. It still benefits from some revving, but this engine is happier there than the six is.
The Chev Camaro/Pontiac Firebird are still much more powerful, but the Mustang's performance is more accessible, less threatening, for the majority of drivers, and that's a big part of Mustang's appeal, especially to women.
The biggest improvements are in road manners.
The steering is direct and communicative. Ride is significantly better, handling more precise, braking more confident.
Pricing is another good story. The base V6 coupe at $20,995 and the V8 GT convertible at $31,995 are both $1,600 less than last year's equivalents.
The V6 convertible at $24,995 is a whopping $4,300 less, although those who bought last year's car may not be that impressed.
The GT Coupe is the only model which sees an increase. At $27,995, it's an even grand more than before.
These are all fully equipped cars, with air, power locks, mirrors and windows anti-theft alarm, four-wheel disc brakes and dual airbags, among other goodies. GT models also get four-wheel ABS and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Options are limited to such niceties as power seats, leather upholstery, that traction control system and an even louder sound system.
Combine all this with the fact that a new higher performance SVT Mustang Cobra with independent rear suspension (on a Mustang!) was unveiled a few weeks ago (details and driving impressions in February) and it looks like it'll be a long time before the Mustang rides off to that big corral in the sky.
The 1999 Ford Mustang officially goes on sale on December 26, 1998.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to Michigan, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by Ford. You can catch Kenzie each Sunday on Talk 640 Radio at 1 p.m.
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