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Mustang rushes to greet the millennium

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  It is pointless, of course, to map the underground streams of your subconscious. Memories flow from unknown wellsprings and disappear all too often into dark crevasses of oblivion. When I occasionally remember visiting the now defunct Oak Motors with my second-grade classmate Lynn Boyte, for example, why don't I clearly recall the ballyhooed debut of the '64 Ford Mustang that we had traveled there especially to see? After all, this was the car that single-handedly ushered in an era of "happy wheels" that continues to influence teenage car tastes to this day.

I do remember one thing, though, with photographic clarity: the disembodied hand of the salesman who handed me a tiny lapel pin depicting the now famous wild pony galloping across a tricolor background of red-white-blue.

I still have that pin; and although I have never owned a Mustang, it's no exaggeration to admit that Mustang has owned me ever since that pin pricked the lapel of my windbreaker 35 years ago. While my racing tastes eventually ran to British and European sports cars as well as to Japanese motorcycles, I can nevertheless trace the roots of my various locomotive obsessions to that first free-spirited, all-American Mustang--which I now scarcely recall having seen.

The car made its impression on me just the same, so the chance to test-drive Ford's dramatically refaceted and freshened '99-model Mustang GT triggered an exhilarating blend of juvenile excitement and adult appreciation. Celebrating its 35th birthday this year, this car--which bears the longest-running nameplate of any current Ford model--now greets the millennium in the prime of its life.

For '99, Ford has taken its most recognizable corporate icon and given it a decided edge, both literally and figuratively. One look at the sharp creases and starchy pleats of Mustang's sheetmetal, and it's clear what Ford means by "New Edge" design. Aficionados may at first wince at the Mustang's departure from its generally bulbous aesthetic, instituted during the model's last metamorphosis in '94. But back in '64, it was precisely the creases and edges, notches and angles that gave the Mustang its iconoclastic allure. By contrast, though, today's Mustang is multi-faceted in ways that extend beyond mere appearance.

With a nearly 16-percent boost up to 260 horsepower, the '99 V8 Mustang GT clearly edges back into a performance dimension it was forced to abjure with the onset of OPEC in '74. (The new V6 base model likewise grows to 190 HP, up 40 percent.) A classic "428 CobraJet Mach I" Mustang from 1969 may well have throbbed out as much as 360 horsepower, but today's "net" horsepower figures (i.e., actual power to the rear wheels) represent not only a victory of truth over hype but also of civility over ruffianism.

Even the most time-fogged memory has to recall the sheer, white-knuckle terror of those muscle-car-era horsepower sleds, with their virtually nonexistent suspensions, boat-rudder steering, and pray-to-God-we-stop drum brakes. What gives the '99 Mustang its distinct edge is the exciting ease with which it pushes the limits. Burbling, boiling V8 exhaust notes stream from the tasty "dule" tailpipes as the new Mustang accelerates through the gears of its five-speed manual transmission. New for '99 is optional traction control ($230) that not only reins in errant horsepower but also indulges the "rodder who never grew up": When a computerized "power start" module notes that the front wheels are aimed straight on with the driver in control, it deems matters safe to burn a little rubber in an understated sort of burnout. Gluttons who need more wheel smoke are free to deactivate traction control altogether.

But flagrant discharges of primal horsepower obscure this Mustang's finer accomplishments. Now approaching middle age, the Mustang trots into the ring as one of the easiest sporty coupes to drive--not only at the limit but at any level, from that of commuter to contender. Steering feel is the best ever in a Mustang, with the power steering's baneful "floatiness" banished seemingly forever. Thanks to improved wheel travel and weight management of suspension components, the car nimbly tackles hard corners without all the bucking that used to plague its short wheelbase. Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock combine an ideal pedal feel with industrial-strength clamping power.

Of course, what no 8-year-old in '64 could ever have appreciated is how having an 8-year-old in '99 alters a driver's performance criteria. The Mustang's distinct competitive edge in the fading category of "pony cars" owes a lot, for example, to the easy convenience of its interior. It's a genuine four-seater, with ample, adult-proportioned room in rear; up front, sport-bucket seating comfortably ensconces both driver and front passenger.

To be fair, Mustang staked out this territory some time ago, and it has become a veritable auto-industry case study to watch Mustang sales dominate their category for the last 12 years, growing 28 percent in '98 alone. Meanwhile, no-longer arch-rivals Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird are in a perennial skid toward lower sales, so that last year their combined results didn't even reach 55 percent of the Mustang total of 144,732. Oh, you'll still hear noise now and then about the Camaro/Firebird being a little faster in a drag, a little meaner under the hood. But even performance purists know, deep down, that these cars and their cramped, labyrinthine interiors are all but insufferable for real-life toodling around.

I tend to get in trouble when I wear my Mustang colors so blatantly on my sleeve, but it's not as if I'm beholden to defend any particular honor apart from that of a shiny little lapel pin in a knick-knack box on a shelf. It's just nice to see a contemporary do such an impressive job of growing up and staying abreast of the times. I'm still growing up as well, I try to remind myself...and hoping to make my own right choices too.

Spirit of openness

As Korean automaker Hyundai continues to mature into a mainstream brand, its national dealer base likewise grows deeper and stronger. The grand opening on Thurs., Feb. 18, of Hallmark Hyundai at 2431 Gallatin Rd. is a local case in point. The Hallmark organization, which also includes Jeep and Volkswagen franchises, is a consistent recipient of Chrysler and now DaimlerChrysler awards for customer satisfaction. With the opening of Hallmark Hyundai, the company picks up a line of Asian imports to complement its strong mix of domestic and European offerings. Hallmark has announced a month-long celebration of its newest showroom: Anyone who test drives a Hyundai during February is automatically eligible to win a new car, along with a $500 shopping spree at nearby Rivergate Mall.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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