For 2003, the Ford Mustang stands alone as America's only remaining rear-wheel drive V8 powered pony car; its closest and oldest rival, the Camaro, was laid to rest last year. With the Camaro out of the picture, the Mustang reigns supreme in terms of horsepower and torque, now challenged only by a handful of V6 powered front-wheel drive competitors.
The Mustang line continues to offer both the base model and high-output GT in either hardtop coupe or convertible form. Though it rests on an aging platform, Mustang engineers continue to find ways to brace and stiffen the car's body and improve its suspension and handling characteristics. This year, the Mustang gets new shock absorbers and larger bushings and bump stops that help control jounce (the rebound movement that occurs after a car hits a bump in the road) and also limit the rear-axle's upward movement, thus improving ride quality. The ride handling changes are noticeable, especially on the GT model, but the Mustang's ride still remains fairly rough in comparison to many newer platforms.
The most affordable Mustang is the V6 model; it offers a 190-horsepower engine, a long list of standard features and a sticker price that starts at just over $18K. Ford offers three packages with the Mustang: standard, deluxe and premium. Each trim combines the most popular options customers usually order into a single, low priced package. Even fully loaded, a V6 powered Mustang coupe remains under $23,000, which by today's standards seems pretty impressive. The V6 is a nice engine for the Mustang, providing a good amount of low-end torque that enables it to move quickly off the line. The standard 5-speed manual feels crude, almost truck-like in its execution and the heavy clutch pedal movement doesn't feel much better. Ford does offer a 4-speed automatic transmission and we think this is a good choice for those who do not like to shift their own gears. The Mustang's automatic transmission provides smooth shifts that make the most of the engine's power and includes an overdrive gear to maximize highway fuel efficiency.
The car that puts the power in the Mustang's kick is the GT. Saddled with a 4.6-liter V8 engine, the GT is able to deliver 260 horsepower to its 17-inch rear wheels, enough power to chirp the wheels in second gear as well as arouse the attention of every traffic cop within eyesight. The GT offers the same 5-speed manual as the V6 model, but its long throws and heavy mechanism seem less bothersome due to the V8's tremendously fun-to-drive attitude. The GT's standard limited-slip rear differential helps the rear-drive coupe maintain its poise on slippery road surfaces as well as during hard cornering; the GT also comes standard with traction control.
On the road, the Mustang handles pretty well. Its power steering allows the wheel to feel heavy without much float, but it does not return much in the way of road feel. Thankfully, the Mustang's combination of a short hood and short wheelbase allows you to maneuver the car around tight corners with little effort or trepidation. The Mustang comes standard with a nice set of four-wheel disc brakes that greatly improve the car's stopping power; ABS is optional on the V6 and standard on the GT.
This year, Ford has created a limited-production Mach 1 model that adds a real-live functioning "shaker" hood scoop, unique paint and wheels and a special interior leather designed to mimic the original Mach 1's interior. The GT's 4.6-liter engine has been re-worked with new cams and a modified air intake to accommodate the ram-air shaker hood scoop; the result is a Mustang that produces over 300-horsepower. The Mach 1 will also ride on a one-inch lower suspension and have special 17-inch Magnum 500 wheels and Mach 1 paint decals.
Interior space in the Mustang is tight, especially if you are over 6-feet in height. The primary cause for the car's limited legroom is the short seat tracks that do not allow seats to slide back far enough: the Mustang's large transmission tunnel also takes up much-needed space in the foot wells. Rear-seat passengers should be both short of stature and lean of frame if they are expect to sit comfortably for any duration that exceeds 15 minutes. The V6 seats are a bit soft and do not offer much in the way of lateral or lower thigh support. The GT's sport seats are somewhat better, with more side bolstering and lumbar support, but the best Mustang seats can be found in the new Mach 1; they feature large side bolsters, tall seat backs and 4-way adjustable headrest.
Standard equipment on the V6 Mustang includes air conditioning, rear defroster, power door locks, power windows, 16-inch alloy wheels, dual power mirrors, tilt-wheel, tachometer, keyless entry, AM/FM stereo with CD, cloth bucket seats and a power trunk release. The GT adds a V8 engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, performance tires, anti-lock brakes, 6-way power driver's seat, speed control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, traction control and a limited-slip rear differential.