Click on any Mustang or Camaro/Firebird enthusiast website and it’s jammed with comments like “My Saleen will rip your LS1 to shreds, fella.” Or “Don’t run off at the mouth if your car can’t back it up, little guy.” It’s all about macho as Mustang and Camaro fans hurl claims, veiled threats and pointed questions about one’s masculinity in an enduring debate over which car rules supreme.
The Camaro/Firebird crowd continues the fight despite GM deep-sixing the brands years ago when it shuttered its F-body plant in Quebec.
While sales of the Camaro/Firebird tanked in its twilight years, Ford’s Mustang has enjoyed nine feline-like lives.
Mustang’s achievement is even more remarkable because it used the Ford Fairmont’s pedestrian underpinnings for the last 25 of its 41 production years.
Talk about old bones.
The “Fox” platform was finally retired with 2004 models, replaced by the retro-styled Mustang for 2005, which put the contemporary Thunderbird/Lincoln LS platform to good use.
CONFIGURATION Since its introduction in 1964, the Mustang has defined the American pony car: a rear-drive coupe or convertible built on a lightweight compact-car chassis, powered by potent six- and eight-cylinder engines.
The Mustang’s history is long, but let’s focus on the last half-generation: 1999 to 2004.
The 1999 models were a reskinning of the Mustang that had debuted for 1994.
The wraparound headlights, tail lights and pronounced wheel arches were part of Ford’s trademark “new edge” styling.
As before, the ’99s were available as coupes and convertibles (the hatchback retired in 1993), but at least now the coupe offered fold-down split rear seats to accommodate longer items poking through the trunk.
The rear seats were reasonably passenger friendly, but the front chairs were roundly criticized for being, well, chairs.
The Mustang received more poke in the engine compartment, too.
The base 3.8-litre V6 got an additional 40 hp, thanks to a split-port intake manifold and improved cylinder heads, good for a total of 190 hp and 220 lb.-ft. of torque.
The GT model’s SOHC 4.6-litre V8 received 25 more ponies due to new camshafts, bigger valves, revised intake runners and direct coil-on-plug ignition.
The changes delivered a total of 260 hp and 300 lb.-ft. of grunt.
The rare and expensive SVT Cobra used the twin-cam version of the 4.6-litre V8, good for 320 hp, 15 more than before.
All models received an updated suspension, with the rear track width growing by 3.5 cm.
A solid axle remained at the back to reduce costs – although the high-buck Cobra did get an independent rear set-up, consisting of a tubular subframe, aluminum differential housing and multilink suspension.
Ford produced a couple of special editions in subsequent years.
The 2002 “Bullitt,” named for the seminal Steve McQueen movie, was largely a cosmetic exercise with killer retro wheels and 10 extra horsepower from the GT’s V8.
The resurrected Mach I for 2003 included a retro “shaker” hood scoop to go with its 300-plus hp output.
Hurt that the SVT Cobra could never quite match its Corvette-powered rivals, Ford unleashed a supercharged Cobra in 2003, grinding out 390 hp.
It was more than enough muscle to do donuts on the graves of the recently departed Camaro and Firebird.
ON THE ROAD The V8-powered Mustang GT could sprint to 96 km/h in 5.5 seconds with the five-speed manual transmission – a half-second quicker than the stock 1993 5.0 Mustang favoured by many enthusiasts.
For the first time, the six-cylinder models were no slouches either, taking less than eight seconds to get up to highway speed (previously, V6 Mustangs were poor cousins to the GTs).
With more suspension travel, the ’99s delivered a distinctly smoother ride on all road surfaces, coupled with bodacious grip (0.85 g for the GT).
Car and Driver magazine characterized the handling as “very secure, no dramatics, balanced,” although it did note that understeer was prevalent.
For those who shifted themselves, the manual tranny was unpleasant to work around town due to a heavy, long-travel clutch.
Overall, the 1999-2004 Mustang had wrung the very best chassis dynamics out of an ancient platform, making the GT, and even the hot Cobra, a decent daily driver. Who says a muscle car has to punish its driver? WHAT OWNERS REPORT There are legions of fans of this iconic auto who offer the common sentiment that it’s “a car I’ve wanted since childhood.” Many have been delighted with the 1999-2004 models, praising them for their civility, style and practicality.
Yet, unacceptable build quality did raise the ire of some owners.
Manual transmission users complained of faulty throw-out bearings in the clutch (generating a rattle or squeal), sometimes at a young vehicle age and sometimes more than once.
“I brought the car back to the dealer five times over the last four years for the throw-out bearing,” reported a 2000 GT owner.
“Each one lasts about 30,000 km, and that’s normal driving,” Automatic transmission users had problems of their own: faulty torque converters are common, and the 3.8-litre V6 is prone to head gasket failure. Also noted were stalling problems.
The fix, according to owners, involves replacing the “idle air control.” Other gripes included bad rear differentials, broken motor mounts, oil consumption and leaks, rattling interior bits and faulty paint.
The complaint list is substantial, yet, somehow, the legend endures.
As one owner posted on the Internet: “The car is a blast … when the planets align just right and the car is in perfect working order.” We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: Lexus GS 300, Cadillac Catera and Nissan Xterra. Send your comments to: Mark Toljagic, P.O. Box 51541, RPO Beaches, Toronto ON M4E 3V7 or toljagic @ ca.inter.net.