Retro-styling done right

What birthday present do you get a 45-year-old automotive icon that seems to have everything?

The Ford Motor Co.’s gift to its venerable Mustang, a badge that has landed in 9 million driveways, includes a restyled suit of clothes, a revised interior and suspension plus a dash of extra muscle for its optional V-8 engines.

Ford’s improvements to its fabled war horse are just what the veterinarian ordered, especially facing competition from the born-again Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro. As it was back in the early 1970s, all three of these so-called “pony cars” should re-create some of the spirited rivalry and debate amongst their respective fans.

Ford is all about protecting and supporting its highly successful Mustang franchise and wasn’t about to impose major reconstructive surgery here. Having gone the extra mile to ensure a familiar retro look for the 2005 model year, a nip here and a tuck there has made the car appear more muscular while maintaining the 1965-meets-2010 profile. The restyling includes a new nose, rear clip with sequential trilight taillamps and a “power dome” hood that broadly suggests there’s muscle aplenty residing beneath the front fenders.

Inside, the Mustang uses what is called “Thermoplastic Olefin” (TPO), a leatherlike material that replaces the traditional hard plastic-covered instrument panel. Beyond exuding a rich, textured appearance, TPO also acts as a sound deadener to help make the cabin a more hospitable environment, aided and abetted by the tasteful use of available aluminum and chrome trim.

Other improvements to the Mustang include revised suspension settings, spring stiffness and retuned shock absorbers, along with larger 17-inch wheels (previously 16-inch) on base models and up to 19 inches (previously 18s) on the GT.

Buyers satisfied with only a hint of spirit in their stallion can select the base 210-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6 that carries over unchanged from 2009. However, fans of the GT will be happy to hear that its 4.6-liter V-8 now kicks out 315 horsepower, the same output as last year’s limited-edition Mustang Bullitt model. Although the GT is designed to run on regular 87 octane fuel, Ford says that filling the tank with premium grade will yield improved midrange torque.

At the pinnacle of the performance scale is the Mustang-based Shelby GT500, a car tailored to feast on the bones of such hyper-performers as the 425-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT8 and the all-new Chevy Camaro with up to 422 horses on tap. The Shelby’s 540 rampaging ponies (an increase of 40 from 2009, which now matches the limited-issue GT 500KR) should keep the competition at bay, but at a cost of roughly $18,000 over and above the GT.

The V-6 and GT V-8 powerplants come with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional five-speed automatic, while the Shelby GT500 gets a six-speed manual gearbox.

Base Mustangs continue to offer a wide range of standard gear along with added stability control (to help prevent a skid or spin) and Ford’s patented capless fuel-filler door that seals itself, hands-free, after fill-ups.

Move up to the GT and the fog lights are relocated to either side of the grille from the bumper and the interior lighting can be adjusted to one of 125 different shades. The GT’s exhaust note has also been sharpened so that both passengers and spectators are more aware of the sounds of throbbing V-8 power.

The option list is headed by a panoramic glass sunroof and the latest version of Ford’s voice-activated Sync communications system (which runs all sorts of gadgets, from phones to iPods) that now includes 911 emergency assist and the ability to generate a vehicle diagnostic report.

Both coupe and convertible Mustangs along with their Shelby GT500 counterparts arrive later this spring. All are proof positive that age is no barrier to good looks, quick reflexes and a seemingly endless supply of Mustang magic.

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