Saturday, March 21, 2009

2009 Ford Mustang V6 coupe

Note: this was written in July 2008, but somehow never got posted. It refers to the 2009 model, not the mildly revised 2010 model, which is said to have improved some of the things I didn't like about the 2009 car. And no, I didn't buy one - I ended up with a first-generation Miata instead.

The search for a new car continues...

Certain among those close to me are uncomfortable with the idea of me buying a Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car which I have driven twice and now lust after mightily. Their objection is simple: they think it too small and worry that I'll get squished. If I must have a convertible, they say (and I must), then what about something bigger? What about, say, a Mustang? It's still a convertible, still rear-wheel drive, still available with a manual transmission, if I must have one (and I must), and it's, well, bigger. Less squishable.

So today I went in search of that rarest of beasts: a Mustang convertible with a V6 engine, a manual transmission, and a leather interior. I did not find one. But I did find a coupe with a cloth interior and the appropriate drivetrain, so I decided to make a Bold Move, Drive One, and discover whether Quality is Job One and if there is in fact a Ford in Your (My) Future.

Have you driven a Ford lately? I have.

Let there be no doubt: retro style has reached its peak with the current Ford Mustang. The almost-fastback body, the big chrome emblem on the rear, the three-bar taillights, the three-spoke wheel, the throwback typeface on the gauges - the past melds seamlessly into the present in today's Mustang. But there are awkward elements: the dials rest deep inside their bezels, and while the tachometer is well-positioned, the speedometer lies too far to the right, forcing the driver to turn his head to look at it. The switchgear is simple and intuitive, but oh, that speedometer. And that fastback style does come with a penalty: two enormous blind spots aft of the driver. Lane changes are a test of situational awareness - and faith.

As for the seating arrangements, the rear seats of the current Mustang are as useful as in any other Mustang: they're not. But that's okay; the Mustang isn't about the passenger, it's about the driver. Unfortunately, the cloth seats are rough, unpleasant affairs, not like those found in other Fords. Spend a little extra and get the leather.

The Mustang drives pleasantly enough. There were no twisties to be found, but the steering never attracted any undue attention, either. In fact, it didn't attract any attention. It's properly weighted and linear; the car goes where it's supposed to without undue effort on the driver's part. The 4.0-liter V6 engine is, depending on your perspective, either hopelessly outdated or tried and true; either way, I found its 210 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque enough to motivate the 3350-pound car to extralegal speeds in a reasonably short time. Many buyers will opt for the 4.6-liter V8, with its 300 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque, classic muscle-car sound, and bragging rights. The fuel economy penalty is minimal - one mile per gallon separates the automatics, two the manuals - but the V8 commands a $6700 premium up front. Put another way, you can buy a V6 convertible for V8 coupe money. Or you can buy 1675 gallons of $4 gasoline to drive (at the manual V6's 20mpg combined rating) 33,500 miles. We won't even speak of the price of a V8 convertible (hint: it's a lot.)

Where the Mustang's mechanicals disappointed me, however, was in the transmission. Maybe it's the European and Japanese cars I've been testing, but the Mustang's clutch was heavy and the shifter felt notchy and clunky, with long throws and a strong hand required. At one point, rolling in traffic with the clutch fully depressed, the shifter simply refused to go into second gear. Maybe I didn't pull it far enough over, but it took three tries before it would go in gear. I may be an inexperienced manual driver, but that shouldn't happen.

I haven't driven a current convertible, so I don't know if the wind still hammers occupants above 60mph as it does in the previous-generation Mustang I've spent a lot of time in. I am told that it doesn't. Watch this space.

When it appeared in 2005, the current Mustang received many accolades for its styling, improved chassis dynamics, and greater refinement over previous models, all achieved without sacrificing any of the car's essential Mustangness. Those accolades were well-deserved: the current Mustang is a great improvement over the previous car. But to me, it's not good enough. At this price point, I expect more.

Maybe it's a good thing Ford went retro on the current Mustang. Buyers who came of age in during the first muscle-car era will love today's Mustang; it reminds them of all that they loved about the classic Mustangs, with enough creature comforts to keep them happy in their middle age. But as the second muscle- car era draws to a close, ended (once again) by rising gas prices and environmental concerns, the Mustang stands alone. For better or worse, it is - or soon will be - the last great American muscle car. Whether it survives the coming automotive apocalypse remains to be seen.

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