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Car reviews - Ford - Mustang - Cobra coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Superb V8 performance, Mustang image
Room for improvement
Poor driver ergonomics, some quality quibbles

9 May 2001

THE reintroduction of the Ford Mustang - arguably one of the car industry's most compelling icons - is one thing. Ensuring that the newly arrived bearer of the traditional nameplate is worthy of the name is another.

Fortunately for Ford Australia, the first factory Mustang to arrive in Australia since the 1960s must be judged as a deserving recipient of the galloping horse badge.

To be sure, not many of the Mustangs created by Ford in North America since the mid 1970s were anything to get excited about. Under pressure from a world economy that indicated things were going to get tougher as oil reserves dwindled, Ford designers floundered around trying to figure how to keep the Mustang relevant.

The car became progressively blander, both in looks and in performance. Even four-cylinder versions were offered, while the looks were more like those of an early Hyundai coupe than an American pony car.

Just in time, in the mid-1990s, Ford made the decision to keep the nameplate going and introduced the Mustang that we know today. Far from being a return to the original styling themes, it was nevertheless a clean, contemporary-looking car free of the blandness that had all-but neutered the name for the better part of 20 years.

Today the Mustang still looks good, if a little dated, and makes a satisfactory basis for bringing the nameplate back to Australia. Even more satisfactory is the decision to bring in only the top-specification Cobra version, complete with a rousing 4.6-litre alloy V8 boasting more power than any other Ford car currently sold here, plus a reworked suspension capable of keeping it all in check.

The Mustang also comes as a coupe or convertible, both priced to compete under $90,000 and equipped appropriately.

It is difficult, in fact, to get a handle on where a Mustang should belong on today's Australian market, where we are fed with a diet of largely European performance coupes and convertibles that, not surprisingly, offer a lot more refinement than this all-American import.

Is the value in the name - and, if so, what does "Mustang" mean to today's performance car buyer? Is there a market out there prepared to push aside thoughts of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or even Saab and Volvo convertibles? Or are potential Mustang buyers those who remember the heydays of the 1960s and early 1970s and hanker for a return to their youth?

Ford Australia tends to think the latter is more likely the case. Mustang buyers are likely to be 40-plus and are more likely to be male than female, and are likely to have a good idea of what they are buying. They are unlikely, for instance, to have delusions about how American quality rates against European quality.

So, what exactly are they buying?

Well, the Mustang is indeed a captivating car, but there's no doubt it will fail to suit every performance car enthusiast.

Its strengths lie in its image, its superb all-alloy V8 - one of the best performance engines to be seen here for a long time - and, perhaps surprisingly, its dynamic qualities.

Its shortcomings lie basically in its American heritage and in some of the unavoidable compromises that result from changing from left-hand to right-hand drive.

But first, let's talk about the strengths.

Undoubtedly anyone driving a Mustang for the first time will be captivated by the engine. The alloy V8 has a deliciously broad power band that, although it tends to favour the top-end and that 6800rpm redline, still delivers handsomely at lower speeds.

With maximum torque developed at 4750rpm it is no stump-puller, but neither does it fall into a hole if revs are allowed to drop below this. This means that a goodly serve of power is always available for highway passing, or for arrowing in second, third and fourth gears through a tight set of mountain bends.

And all the while, this is underwritten by the most glorious engine sound you're likely to hear this side of a Ferrari. The V8 rumble is relatively unobtrusive at low speeds, but transforms into a sharp-edged, crackling roar as speeds rise. In acceleration, the 1557kg coupe will pace it with most of the current crop of muscle cars, putting down 400-metre times of less than 14.5 seconds.

The all-independent suspension does a good job, too. The Mustang feels well planted and secure on the road, with no suggestion of lurking oversteer or understeer waiting to catch the driver out. The rack and pinion steering is nicely weighted and responsive, transmitting a good sense of solidity to the driver's hands.

The ride isn't bad, either, with plenty of built-in compliance available to take the sharp edge off bumps, while keeping the car planted securely if the surface roughs up further. Adding to the sense of solidity is that the coupe body feels taut and flex-free - quite unlike early American muscle cars.

And the braking system, with Brembo front discs and four-channel anti-lock, is very reassuring, while there is also reason to be thankful that the traction control system is more than just a simple, engine output-limiting device. The limited-slip differential helps in putting the power down cleanly too.

The flip side is that while all this is going on, the driver will most likely be fighting a battle to find a perfect, comfortable position behind the wheel.

The relationship between seat, steering wheel and floor pedals feels all askew, and no amount of fiddling with the power driver's seat is likely to find a perfect driving position.

The wheel adjusts up and down only, in a series of pre-set positions, and the driver's left shin will take a battering from the steering column shroud. Even though Tickford has done an excellent job of reengineering the Mustang in so many ways, there are certain things it has not been able to correct fully.

The general comfort factor, apart from the driver ergonomics, is contrastingly fine, with good support from the suede and leather-clad seats and good legroom - at least in the front. In the back it is naturally a little tight but then again we'd be hard-pressed to find a sports coupe that isn't. The boot's okay, but nothing special in carrying ability and it is hampered by a small loading aperture.

But the overall picture is that American muscle has made a welcome return, bringing with it a reminder of how brilliant a rorty, responsive V8 can be - even if the real-world fuel economy is nothing to get excited about, especially with a relatively small fuel tank capacity of 65 litres.

Yes, we liked the Mustang coupe, even though we recognise its faults. What really appealed was the car's essential American essence, and the fact that it is as good to cruise in on a balmy summer's night (although the convertible would be even better) as it is to tackle a winding mountain pass.

At a planned production of 250 units a year from the Tickford facility, Ford Australia should have no trouble moving this metal.

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