A Mustang worthy of its muscle-car past

Everybody knew the Ford Mustang deserved better. For 15 years, that icon of automotive Americana had been laden with outdated technology, trucklike driving dynamics, and an all-too-familiar jellybean shape.

But now, the Mustang is back. The 2005 models blend the best of modern engineering with an exciting body that harks back to the early Mustangs of the 1960s. There's the long hood, short tail, arching roofline, and triangular side rear windows. Nostalgia buffs will appreciate the aggressive forward-leaning grille separating two big round headlights. In the back, vertical taillights are split in the middle by a round, chrome "fuel cap" in the center. (It's fake. The real gas cap is under a flap on the driver's side fender.)

There are updates too. Big tires, integrated bumpers, and bulging fenders keep this Mustang from looking out of place on today's highways. Also changed: the positioning of the steering wheel and gas pedal inspired by the late '70s Ford Fairmont, which undergirded the previous Mustang. Those features, combined with the car's low roofline, forced drivers, especially tall ones, into an unnatural recline behind the wheel.

In the '05, it feels natural to slide around the chiseled door and sink into the spacious driver's seat. The interior is as neat-looking as the exterior and brings back memories of simpler cars of the '60s. The high, flat dashboard top forms a hood over large chrome dials, which float in front of a flat panel. Big, deep gauges under the flat dashboard recall the days of the early Mustangs and other 1960s American muscle cars. Tech-addicted drivers will enjoy pushing buttons that adjust the color of the dashboard lights through hundreds of variations - from pink to orange to blue to purple or even chartreuse - to suit their moods.

The car's 500- and 1,000-watt stereo systems can only be characterized as overkill. Then again, the Mustang has never been a family car, as the coupe's tiny back seats attest.

Built on Ford's best platform, the car drives comfortably. The V8-powered Mustang GT moved with gusto and precision during a test drive along the twisting Angeles Crest highway north of Los Angeles. The car's steering is no longer heavy and numb and the shifter isn't big-rig heavy. Instead, when you turn the '60s-style steering wheel, the car responds quickly.

The Mustang comes in four basic models: A V6 coupe and V8 GT coupe arrive in dealerships this month; V6 and GT convertibles are due out next spring. The V6 has 220 horsepower, making it plenty fast. The 300 horsepower V8 isn't neck-snapping quick, but gives the Mustang that characteristic American muscle-car rumble many buyers will find compelling.

The prices are attractive for any buyer in the coupe market: $19,410 for a base coupe and $24,995 for a base GT.

People buy Mustangs for nostalgia. Now that nostalgia comes with no compromises.

Since it's a rear-wheel-drive car, it may not handle snow as well as front-wheel-drive coupes. But it's the only vehicle on the market right now that brings back the glory days of American automobiles with one push of the accelerator.

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