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First drive: 2015 Ford Mustang aims to please everyone

David Undercoffler
Los Angeles Times
With 3 engines and 50 years of history, the 2015 Ford Mustang aims to please everyone around the world.

On the surface, all the familiar hallmarks are there — the fastback roof, long hood, short rear deck, tri-bar taillights, the shark-nosed grill.

The automotive press Wednesday got its first glimpse into the soul of the 2015 Mustang, on a winding drive through the burning heat of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Ford faced a delicate balancing act in crafting the sixth-generation Mustang for the car's 50th anniversary, blending half a century of history with demands for modern powertrains, technology, safety and styling. The car tries to please everyone, and largely succeeds.

Purists will relish the 435-horsepower V-8 Mustang GT, a surprisingly nimble muscle car. Newcomers, especially those on more of a budget, will embrace the lighter EcoBoost turbocharged four. Any version puts its new (and long-overdue) independent rear suspension to excellent use, gripping the pavement and absorbing bumps with aplomb.

This is no longer a low-tech, purely American sports car. Though it has already sold 9 million over the last 50 years, the sales trend is in a generally long decline. Ford needs the sixth-generation Mustang to attract a younger and more global audience — without ticking off loyal owners itching to buy the new model.

"Everything you do that changes the vehicle runs the risk of alienating someone," said Raj Nair, Ford's product development chief. "People that are amazingly passionate about every aspect of the vehicle."

Ford Motor Co. aims to expand its appeal — and sales — across the oceans and beyond its niche of American loyalists. Although Mustang sales are dwarfed by Ford's F-series truck, the Explorer SUV, even the Fusion sedan, the pony car remains central to the brand's image. It says youth, vigor and style.

Although the Mustang's biggest competitors remain the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, fellow muscle car fraternity members since the 1960s, muscle cars are an antiquated notion for millennials and the Generation-Y crowd.

This is an audience raised on cheaper four-cylinder cars that rely on turbocharging or supercharging for octane-induced thrills: The Subaru WRX STI, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Volkswagen GTI, Hyundai Genesis Coupe and Mini Cooper S.

The sports car market has changed significantly since Ford brought out the last new Mustang in 2005. In the model's second year, Ford sold a whopping 167,000 Mustangs, about 7% of the automaker's overall sales, auto information company Edmunds.com said.

But since then, new retro-styled versions of the Camaro and Challenger have eaten into Mustang sales. Last year, the 77,000 Mustangs sold accounted for just 3.2% of Ford's total vehicles.

Expect those sales to bounce back in a big way with a fresh take on the Mustang for younger buyers, without losing the style and power that defines the car. And Ford's not done. A license-killing Shelby GT350 model is expected to debut this fall, and Ford has a deep garage of Mustang specialty versions from the past — like the Boss, Mach 1 and Bullitt — that could also return.

As Ford knows from marketing research, the image of a convertible Mustang cruising Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny day is seared into the minds of consumers, regardless of where they live. That's why the Dearborn, Mich., automaker settled on Southern California to put the car in the hands of 250 automotive journalists for a parade-like drive through the mountains.

The new Mustang is the first car ever built that will offer engines in three different cylinder configurations — all of them with more than 300 horsepower. There's a V8, of course, but also a four-cylinder turbo and a V6.

Ford didn't want buyers to compromise on performance because they couldn't afford the biggest engine, Nair said.

Power in the V8 increases to 435 horsepower from 420; torque sneaks up to 400 pound-feet from 390. Fuel economy is rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city, 25 on the highway.

The middle child is Ford's "EcoBoost" four-cylinder, the first turbo four inside a Mustang since 1986. The all-new 2.3-liter inline four produces 310 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is rated at 21 mpg in city driving, 32 on the highway for automatic transmission models.

The third choice is a 3.7-liter V6 engine that's largely unchanged from the previous generation. Horsepower clocks in at 300 and torque is rated at 280 pound-feet. Fuel economy is rated at 19 mpg city, 28 highway.

The Mustang starts at $24,425 for the base V-6 Mustang — the darling of rental car companies throughout Southern California. The four-cylinder turbo, starting at $25,995, costs just $1,570 more than the V-6 model, with substantial gains in both power and efficiency. The traditional V8 GT model sits at the top of the range, starting at $32,925.

All versions come with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and rev-matching downshifts. The car also gets a long-overdue suspension upgrade.

Until now, Mustangs were among the few new cars on the road still using an antiquated live rear axle. Preferred by drag-strip guys — and cheaper to produce — it hampered the Mustang's grip in corners and ability to soak up bumps.

The all-new independent rear suspension was considered essential for Ford to update the Mustang's handling and image — especially in Europe, where a live axle design would get laughed off the road. This suspension was worth the wait. It displayed a modern composure and lively feel through the tight mountain roads on Ford's press debut.

Mustang 6 also gets a host of in-car tech and optional safety features such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot alerts and forward collision warning.

How does it drive?

The GT and its V-8 still proves the old muscle car adage: There's no replacement for displacement. This is the Mustang's valedictorian and the one to pick if you consider white-knuckle driving an athletic endeavor.

There's meaty torque everywhere during acceleration, but it's predictable and approachable. Our GT tester had the six-speed manual transmission with an easy clutch and a straightforward shifter.

The GT is surprisingly lively and fun on tight roads. Though wider, higher and a little heavier than before, the power and size of this car are perfectly matched.

Our loaded $44,290 tester had the optional performance package that included larger wheels, wider tires, a stiffer suspension setup and larger front brakes. This combination helped the GT stay planted and flat through hard cornering.

But the GT's engine growl — half the fun — loses something in translation through the exhaust. Like an opera singer in a ski mask, this Mustang doesn't roar like a 435-horsepower car should.

But Ford expects only 40% of Mustang buyers to opt for the GT. A majority of those remaining are likely to head to the cheaper EcoBoost version. Using the same all-new chassis as the GT, the EcoBoost also benefits from the road-hugging independent rear suspension, while carrying 200 fewer pounds. But something feels missing. Maybe it was because we drove the V-8 first, but the EcoBoost felt like it was playing in its big brother's shoes.

It's certainly a capable car with eager power, once the engine gets into higher rev ranges. And the lighter curb weight was obvious from the first corner. But the low-end torque was missed, and the automatic transmission felt sleepy in manual mode.

The EcoBoost gives more casual buyers a sporty option for daily driving, and turbo fans an appealing and approachable canvas to start tuning. But Ford doesn't expect it to lure away V-8 fans. Which is good, because it won't.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Twitter @latimes_driven

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