If the folks at General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Div. have tired of looking at Mustang taillights in the annual sales race for the most popular "pony" car, relief is on the way:

The '99 Mustang has a new rear end.

With that redone tail, more ponies under the hood, numerous refinements and a few new options, Ford Motor Co. feels pretty confident that its redone '99 Mustang will be able to put even more sales distance between its rear-drive muscle car and that of its longtime rival, Chevy Camaro.

"We have a vibrant product here and a good value," says Mike Ferrence, Mustang program product manager.

And with the '99 version getting reworked sheet metal and a beefed up powertrain, odds are good it will retain its comfortable sales lead over GM's F-body pony cars.

Ford's much-touted "New Edge" design theme makes its way onto the new Mustang, lending sharper, more angular lines that Ford says are similar to its GT90 concept car of a few years back. Perhaps, but Ford definitely stuck with the retro theme for the new Mustang, right down to a nonfunctional hood scoop and those vertical taillamps.

In the rear, Ford changed the deck lid from steel to sheet molded compound (SMC), which gave designers more styling latitude.

But it's not just the outside that got attention. In its first major redo since 1994, the Mustang enjoys a wide range of other improvements, including: a 1-in. (2.5-cm) longer seat track for taller drivers; a tighter, crisper suspension and steering (the turning radius has been cut by a not-unsubstantial 3 ft. [91 cm]) and - finally! - a Robert Bosch GmbH-supplied all-speed traction control system (a $230 option) that Ford believes will attract more buyers in foul-weather markets who previously shied away from the rear-wheel-drive vehicle. The traction-control system will allow some wheelspin during quick acceleration or can be turned off altogether.

As for independent suspension, those wanting that long-needed feature will have to wait until Ford rolls out the Cobra in February. However, all Mustangs get a 1.4-in. (3.5-cm) wider track, which should help in the handling department, and slightly stiffer springs.

Under the hood, Ford makes more competitive improvements: Horsepower for the 3.8L OHV V-6 Mustang engine jumps to a very respectable 190 hp, up from 140 hp. The more than 25% gain in horsepower in the V-6 is the result of improved air flow in the cylinder head and a new "split port" intake manifold that has two runners per cylinder.

But that isn't all Ford did with this once rough-idling powerplant. To weed out extraneous vibration, engineers added a new balance shaft and installed stiffing ribs to the front and rear faces of the block. The main and thrust bearings now are aluminum, a move said to enhance durability.

While the changes still fall 10 hp short of the V-6 Chevy serves up in the Camaro, V-6 Mustang buyers will have nothing to be embarrassed about out on the road.

Significant power improvements also were made to the already-impressive 4.6L SOHC V-8. By making the intake manifold runners straighter, using new camshafts with higher lift and longer duration and larger valves, engineers unleash 35 additional horsepower, taking the 4.6L to 260 hp.

Despite the increase in output, Ford still runs second to the Camaro's 5.7L OHV V-8, which boasts 305 hp in the Z28. Those wanting more ponies have to jump to the more expensive Cobra - where along with the all-new independent rear suspension, Ford increases output to 320 hp, the same as in the Camaro SS.

To slow down these faster Mustangs, Ford switched to twin-piston aluminum calipers for the front brakes, a move that cut unsprung weight by 10 lbs. (4.5 kg).

Ford serves up both a 5-speed manual and an optional 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive on both the GT and V-6 Mustang; the shift schedule and calibration on the automatic are remapped to make it shift more smoothly.

Engineers also worked hard to make the Mustang interior quieter by adding expandable foam in the ends of the rocker panels. This helps cut out noise that typically bled into the cabin through the A and C pillars. Wind noise also has been reduced.

Even the convertible version gets a bit quieter with the top up, thanks to a thicker cloth roof to reduce noise. The drop-top's a few pounds heavier due to two new steel rails that bolt to the underbody. Ford says the full-box extensions will reduce chassis flexing during acceleration, braking and cornering.

The base Mustang is $16,995, up 1.9% over '98. So the Mustang is growing up, but thankfully won't be growing much pricier.