Donald Farr
Former Editor, Mustang Monthly
December 1, 2004

The first thing you notice when slipping behind the tri-spoke steering wheel of the '05 Mustang is that everything is different. From the power-window switches to the instrument-panel layout to the radio controls, the Mustang's interior is totally new. If you're currently driving a '94-'04 Mustang, don't expect to find the tilt-wheel lever on the steering column or the familiar push-pull headlight knob on the instrument panel.

Of course, that's to be expected with a brand-new car, and especially with the Mustang's first major revision in 25 years. The Fox-body Mustang, which debuted in 1979 and saw the Mustang through its musclecar reincarnation over the past two decades, was a good car. The '05 Mustang is a great car.

After teasing everyone for six months with photos and display prototypes, Ford finally gave us a chance to drive the '05 Mustang at a special press preview in Michigan in August. Our schedule called for a quick drive in '04 GTs for comparison, then a switch to '05s for a drive through the Ann Arbor countryside before hitting I-94 for a cross-state jaunt to Gingerman Raceway. The round-trip driving route provided us with over five hours of street time to evaluate the '05 on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of conditions, including railroad crossings, rough pavement, and those famous Michigan pot holes, along with the expected fun drives through some beautiful countryside.

For conditions, we got more than we bargained for when morning dawned dark and rainy. Journalists were paired for each '04 GT in front of the Weber Inn, so Josh Bolger, editor of the Mustang Club of America's Mustang Times, and I teamed up for a young-guy/old-guy Mustang-guy perspective on the '05 Mustang. After a 30-minute drive in the familiar '04 GT (after all, both Josh and I drive SN-95 Mustangs for daily transportation), I took advantage of my "seniority" to claim dibs for the first stint behind the wheel of a Screaming Yellow '05 GT with a manual five-speed.

That's when I noticed that everything is different. With rain coming down, I reached for the end of the turn-signal stalk to turn on the windshield wipers. Not there; it's on a separate up-and-down stalk on the other side. Then I felt for the headlight switch. Not only has it moved lower on the instrument panel, it's also been revised from the traditional push-pull switch to a twist-style. Later, when we had a chance to explore, we discovered the GT's grille-mounted fog lights are also operated by the headlight switch. To turn them on, pull out the knob. The fog lights turn off automatically when the headlights are switched off, so they must be manually turned on when needed again, which means no more leaving the fog lights on all the time.

From a driver's perspective, the steering wheel and instrument cluster are functional and attractive-just enough retro with the right amount of modern. I wasn't sure I'd like the tri-spoke steering wheel, but it looks and feels good. The '67-style instrument cluster, with its large, round speedometer and tachometer pods book-ending a rectangular opening with fuel, temperature, oil-pressure, and amp gauges, is plenty easy to read and understand. Our yellow GT was equipped with the optional "My Color" color-configurable cluster, which can be backlit in 125 different colors, as part of the Interior Upgrade Package. We tried to experiment with it, but for obvious safety reasons, the colors can't be changed while the car is in motion. Guess they want us to keep our eyes on the road instead of fiddling with instrument colors.

Gone are the rocker-style power-window switches, replaced by push-for-down and pull-for-up switches. The power windows now include the auto-up feature to go with auto-down, which allows one-touch operation both ways. The side windows also slide down an inch or so when the door is opened, then go up automatically when the door is closed. This provides a better seal for a quieter interior.

You also sit lower in the car, as opposed to earlier Fox-body cars, which provides a slightly sportier feel than the sitting-tall position. The shifter looks short and stubby, but that's an optical illusion because the console is taller than before. The shifter position was nearly perfect for my relatively short frame, although my elbow tended to back into the storage-compartment lid, which has sharp corners.

The instrument panel's prominent, round air-conditioning outlets allow 360-degree rotation, so air can be directed in nearly any direction, including almost straight up. The passenger-side airbag panel is flat and barren; we can already see "Mustang" script decals or emblems coming from the aftermarket, especially considering the word "Mustang" doesn't appear anywhere on the car (unless it's a V-6 with cloth seats; see photo).

RoadworthyOn the road, the '05 Mustang is, again, a totally new car. It's definitely a Mustang, only better. According to Team Mustang Chief Engineer Hau Thai-Tang, the torsional stiffness of the '05 Mustang's "unique, all-purpose chassis" is 31 percent stiffer than previous SN-95 Mustangs. And you can feel it immediately. Gone is the Fox-body's inherent cowl shake, which was much improved with the '99 and later cars but not totally eliminated. You don't have to grit your teeth or hang on to the steering wheel when driving over rough railroad crossings anymore. The car feels tight, which gives it a higher-quality feel all around.

The all-new suspension, with its longer wheelbase, true MacPherson-strut front suspension, and solid rear axle, is taut but not harsh. Combined with the stiffer chassis, the '05 Mustang GT possesses excellent road feel without rattling your teeth fillings. We especially like the improved turning radius. At one point during our road trip, we missed a turn and performed a quick U-turn on a two-lane highway. We couldn't have done it in an '04 Mustang.

The '05 is also quiet inside- enough to allow normal conversation at 70 mph or more. Wind noise is nearly nonexistent, and with the mufflers at the rear of the car and not underneath the rear seats as they were for the last 40 years, the exhaust tone at cruise speeds is barely audible. Under acceleration, it's a different story, which we'll talk about later. The combination of cabin quiet and smooth ride can get you in trouble, so keep your eye on the speedometer-you may be going faster than you think.

Power PerformanceWith 300 hp on tap from the new three-valve 4.6, we couldn't wait to find a desolate straightaway to stretch the legs on the '05 Mustang GT. When we finally romped on the throttle, two things stood out: the sensation of acceleration and the sound.

At full throttle, the GT doesn't feel fast. Unlike the previous GT with its two-valve powerplant that comes on stronger as the tach spins to the right, the '05's power comes on smoothly, feeling like a cross between the two-valve 4.6 and a naturally aspirated four-valve 4.6, which makes perfect sense for a three-valve. Part of the smoothness can be attributed to the variable camshaft timing and charge motion control valves in the intake runners, which help provide a smooth transition from strong low-end torque to screaming high-rpm power.

While the GT doesn't feel fast, it sounds fast at full throttle, especially from inside the car. To maintain the Mustang GT's signature exhaust note, Team Mustang engineers relied on Ford's in-house audio listening laboratory to help create the '05 GT's mufflers and exhaust system. According to Thai-Tang, they also engineered more induction sound. The result is power in stereo: a wicked roar from the rear and (it's hard to describe in words) a mechanical-like whine from the front.

On the wet pavement, we got a chance to test the Traction Control on a number of occasions. At first, we thought something was wrong with the system on our yellow GT because it didn't seem to be working. Later, at the press briefing, we learned that Team Mustang engineers purposely programmed the Mustang's Traction Control to allow more tire slippage to better fit the driving characteristics of the typical Mustang driver, who, as we all know, tends to like spinning the tires. Of course, the Traction Control can be completely deactivated with a button under the radio.

For the first time, the Mustang gas pedal isn't connected directly to the throttle by rod or cable, so we were anxious to see if we could feel the difference. Electronic throttle control is a "drive-by-wire" system that senses pedal position and relays it through the engine control module to the electronic throttle body. For normal, everyday, around-town driving, you'd never be able to tell the difference. However, during spirited or full-throttle shifts, you can feel a momentary hesitation in the power delivery. We hear the aftermarket tuners are already working on a way around it, mainly for supercharged and racing applications.

For the drive back to Ann Arbor, we switched to a silver GT with the new 5R55S five-speed automatic. If you're strictly a shift-it-yourself kind of driver, you might want to take a testdrive in the automatic. It's a hoot. In fact, it's so much fun that it's tough to keep your foot out of the throttle. The five-speed auto actually feels quicker than the manual five-speed, probably because of the torque that's generated through the first couple of gears. The shifts are quick, but not hard, with none of the lurching associated with the previous four-speed automatic. I'm surprised we didn't get a speeding or reckless-driving ticket during our stint in the five-speed auto GT.

By the way, we've learned the five-speed manual GTs get 3.55 gears, while all others, including V-6s and GT automatics, are equipped with 3.31s.

On The TrackInitially, with rain still falling when we arrived at Gingerman Raceway, we were told the track portion of our '05 Mustang drive had been cancelled. But shortly after most of the journalists headed back to the airport to catch earlier flights home, the rain ended and the emerging sun quickly dried the track surface. Although only two GTs and just 30 minutes were available for track time, we managed to squeeze in a few laps.

On the track, the '05 is an amazingly well-balanced car, thanks in part to the stretched wheelbase that provides an improved front/rear weight balance. According to Team Mustang, the '05 was designed to handle well, yet at the same time prevent inexperienced drivers from getting into trouble. I am by no means a seasoned or even remotely talented road-course driver, so the '05 is set up for people like me. I proceeded to prove it when I dove into Gingerman's Turn 2 way too hot and probably on the wrong line as well. Thankfully, the '05 GT hung in there with me until I could slow it down for the burst down the straightaway. There was more body roll than expected, but I never felt the front end was going to push off the track or the rear end was coming around.

Unfortunately, the wet weather washed out our opportunity to get some seat time in a V-6 Mustang with its new 202hp (210 on some spec sheets) 4.0L engine. One of the two available V-6 cars went back with a couple of early departing journalists, while the other was kidnapped by writers from one of the larger general-interest automotive magazines. They appeared more smitten by the V-6 than the GT, which should probably tell us something.

Now we can sit back and wait for the convertible, due out in February, followed by the SVT Cobra and whatever specialty models come out of Team Mustang. We've heard rumors about Shelby and Boss variations, and maybe even another Bullitt. In between, we'll be seeing the Saleen, Steeda, Kenny Brown, and other performance variations on the '05 Mustang theme.