A new breed of 'muscle cars' from Ford

The Ford Mustang SVO is a very different kind of ''muscle car'' - fast, yes, but its manners are gentile. It's a modern, high-tech adaptation of the snortin' beasts of the 1960s and early '70s.

The SVO is the first street car from an elite Ford department called Special Vehicle Operations - thus the acronym SVO.

Special Vehicle Operations, under the direction of Michael Kranefuss, was established in September 1980 to supervise Ford's renewed involvement in car racing. It was also to develop limited-output, high-performance vehicles by applying race-derived technology to specific cars and trucks, such as the Mustang.

In brief, then, the Ford Mustang SVO is a new-era muscle car, minus the claws of its 1960s and '70s forebears. While it looks like a race car, the average interstate driver can handle it with ease.

Unlike its predecessors, this car doesn't rely on a seething V-8 engine for power. Instead, Ford engineers took the company's base 2.3-liter engine and, by applying the latest in electronc technology, came up with a car that moves from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 7.7 seconds - not as fast as some of the best in the muscle-car era of long ago, but still several seconds faster than today's Audi coupe.

The overhead-cam engine is fuel-injected and packs a turbocharger with intercooler. The turbocharger, in fact, reacts to the barometric pressure, which means that it provides the same performance at sea level as at high altitude. In today's world, that combination means performance, no matter where the driving takes place.

What the intercooler, a radiator-like device, does is lower the intake air temperature from 300 degrees F. to 175, increasing the power output by 20 percent. Volvo also offers an intercooler in its brand-new 760.

As for mileage on the road, the Environmental Protection Agency has come up with 21 m.p.g. in the city and 33 on the interstate. That's probably much too high under real-life conditions.

Ford wanted a true GT suspension in the SVO to provide for high-level handling in all road conditions. Simply, it wanted to compete with some of the best that Europe can produce. Achieving its stated goal required major work beneath the car, including adjustable Koni gas shock absorbers and struts. Ventilated disc brakes are used on all four wheels.

On the design end, the Ford stylists came up with a long, sweeping hood that reaches almost down to the bumpers, thus eliminating the grille, plus double spoilers in the back.

The designers kept aerodynamics in mind as they made slight changes in the exterior of the Mustang to create a downforce on the rear while smoothing the path of the air over and around the SVO. The alloy wheels, for example, are almost flush with the outer edges of the tires.

The design treatment is simple, not exotic. In the future the car should get flush-mount headlights, such as those now installed in Ford's 1984 Continental Mark VII.

Inside, the seat backs swing freely as in other Ford cars of today.

The offset hood intake is functional rather than ornamental and provides air for the intercooler.

The spirited Mustang SVO, with a base window sticker of $15,956, is, in Ford's words, aimed at the affluent customer who has been buying performance-oriented imported cars. You can read that to mean BMW, Audi, and the like.

But will the BMW owner give up his built-in-Bavaria machine the next time around? Time will tell.

The top speed, in excess of 130 m.p.h., may seem excessive to many motorists, yet it has to be remembered that the Mustang SVO is also aimed at the young driver who wants to compete in showroom-stock road racing as well as other types of competition. The car is jampacked with American technical expertise.

The Mustang SVO tips the scales at around 3,100 pounds, about the same as the Saab 900 turbo. Wheelbase is 100.5 inches. The car has a 5-speed manual transmission and includes a Hurst shifter.

Interestingly, while the engine requires unleaded fuel, it isn't fussy whether its regular lead-free or super unleaded. All it takes is the snap of a switch. With the super variety of fuel in the tank, the SVO delivers its snappiest performance.

Whatever the speed, the SVO 2 + 2 provides a happy combination of ride and handling that should delight a car buff if he has enough money in his pocket to buy it. Even the Racaro-type seats are a pleasure to sit in, at least to this driver.

The Ford Mustang has been around for the last 19 years and set a styling trend that swept the industry. It also had a decisive impact on the career of Lee A. Iacocca, then head of the Ford division but now chairman of Chrysler Corporation.

This newest Ford Mustang, the SVO, is a response to buyer demand to put the ''drive'' back into driving, and it does just that. The SVO is a GT coupe with class.

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