By Alex Taylor III
August 31, 2010

When General Motors and Ford release car sales for the month of August, a lot of attention will be focused on one category that is inconsequential to business performance but huge in terms of bragging rights: pony cars.

Or to put it in starker terms, the sales race between the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro.

These are high-visibility cars that get starring roles in movies and attract hard-to-please younger male buyers, whom the manufacturers hope to retain as they age, take on family responsibilities, and shop for cars with more carrying capacity.

For the first seven months of this year, Camaro leads Mustang by 6,340 cars. But Ford is playing to win. For 2011, it upped the ante by dropping an all-new V-6 engine into the Mustang. Instead of cast iron, the engine block is made of lightweight aluminum.

The new V-6 produces extraordinary numbers. With a 3.7 liter displacement, it puts out 305 horsepower — nearly matching the output of the old Mustang GT’s V-8. That’s enough to propel the ‘Stang to 60 miles per hour in 5.4 seconds, according to several enthusiast publications. Yet it gets 31 miles per gallon on the highway with a six-speed automatic. I averaged 26 mpg in a city/highway combination.

All this for a base sticker price of $25,845. Optional equipment, including a rear backup camera that is increasingly becoming de rigueur on any car larger than a MINI, brought the as-tested price to $32,975.

The red candy metallic premium coupe was a head-turner during the road test, especially in my neck of the woods in northwest Connecticut where Subarus are the default cars of choice. Onlookers still react to the traditional long hood/short deck fastback lines of the Mustang coupe, and they all become teenage boys.

This was the Mustang Club of America edition. It featured handsome gray metallic painted aluminum wheels and a cleaned-up billet front grille, with the galloping pony Mustang logo tucked into a corner.

Inside, Ford’s retro-futurist designers have created a ‘60s-style round speedometer and tachometer with stylized numbers. The needles spin when the engine is ignited, and a blue backlight appears.

The switchgear felt more refined than in Mustangs from years past. And thanks to Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s dictum that cockpit controls reside in the same location from car to car — just like a Boeing airliner — everything is easy to find. The navigation system is a model of clarity and ease of use.

Underway, the Mustang delivered on the promise of its slinky lines, with the new V-6 providing plenty of giddy-up. Sound effects were sadly lacking, unfortunately. The Mustang could use some acoustic enhancement to go with its higher horsepower. There’s a lot of room between refinement and boring.

For a performance car with a solid rear axle, the Mustang handled pavement bumps better than you would expect. Cornering and road-holding were exemplary, though the steering could have delivered a bit more directional change in exchange for wheel turn.

At 3,500 pounds and with two back seats, the Mustang is no sports car. But it is a credible grand tourer, and with a surprisingly commodious trunk, it is well-equipped for weekend getaways.

You won’t find any predictions here about the outcome of the 2010 pony car sales race. But with the 2011 Mustang, Ford has a strong contender for first place.

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