LOS ANGELES – The ’11 Ford Mustang is about as subtle as a right hook to the jaw.

From its svelte yet muscular sheetmetal to its deliciously throaty exhaust and breakneck acceleration, the latest version of Ford Motor Co.’s iconic pony car raises the bar in the segment.

And that segment is seeing more action than a Mustang on wet pavement. Sure, the king of the hill is under fire from Chevy’s all-new Camaro, which is outselling the current Mustang 2-to-1.

But expect the pony car that started it all to regain its footing. The new Mustang is good enough to surpass its bow-tie rival, once dealer lots fill up. The current Mustang is no slouch, outselling the much fresher Dodge Challenger by a wide margin.

The Mustang always has been known for power (with the exception of the largely forgettable Mustang II), but this iteration brings it to a whole new level.

Stomp on the accelerator and the ’Stang leaps forward in a convincing display of raw power. And this comes from the base 3.7L 305-hp V-6.

Based on the 3.5L DOHC Duratec, the engine replaces the current-generation Mustang’s woefully outdated 4.0L V-6 and churns out 95 more horses, thanks to some technological updates such as Ford’s Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing, which allows variable control of valve operation across the rpm range.

The 3.7L is the perfect fit for the Mustang. It’s well-balanced, boasts excellent noise, vibration and harshness levels and is exhilaratingly quick off the line.

Despite its power and low-rpm responsiveness, the V-6 is surprisingly docile at highway speeds, making the base Mustang an excellent choice for commuters who like to have some power on hand.

At any speed, the V-6’s sonorous exhaust note, courtesy of some fine tuning and an all-new dual-exhaust system, is music to the ears. This is a welcome change from past V-6 offerings, which delivered little audible feedback.

The new engine makes the base Mustang a real performance car and should once and for all dispel the myth that the V-6 is a secretary’s car, while the V-8 is for the big boys.

Despite the prodigious output, there is little sacrifice by way of fuel economy, as the base model carries an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 19/31 mpg (12.4-7.6 L/100 km) city/highway when mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

That rating comes with a caveat, however. During some light-footed highway driving here in an attempt to eke out optimum mileage, the best number we could achieve was 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km), still good for a 300-plus horsepower car.

The V-6 is good, but the Mustang GT, with its 5.0L V-8, inspires newfound appreciation for Ford’s engineering prowess.

When word leaked Ford was developing a new 5.0L engine for the Mustang, blogs and automotive message boards lit up with enthusiasts looking for information. The original 5.0L was an automotive icon, bowing in the ʼ79 Mustang.

’11 Ford Mustang GT
Vehicle type Front-engine, RWD 4-passenger coupe
Engine 5.0L DOHC V-8
Power (SAE net) 412 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 390 lb.-ft. (529 Nm)
Compression ratio 11.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 107.1 ins. (272 cm)
Overall length 188.1 ins. (478 cm)
Overall width 73.9 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 55.8 ins. (142 cm)
Curb weight 3,653 lbs. (1,657 kg)
Base price $29,645
Fuel economy 18-25 mpg (13-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Nissan 370Z
Pros Cons
V-6 boasts 31 mpg on highway Actual mileage just OK
Clean, functional interior Interior needs update
Great handling Sheetmetal largely carryover

This fervor was both a blessing and curse for Ford engineers. While appreciating the enthusiasm, they say the scrutiny was taxing on the program.

Whatever hardships the engineering team had to endure were worth it: The new 5.0L is a monster.

Producing 412 hp and 390 lb.-ft. (529 Nm) of torque, the “Five-O” gives the pony car an entirely different personality. Idling at a stoplight, the 5.0L is ever present, as the firing of the eight cylinders gently rocks the car.

Step on the accelerator and you’re pushed back in your seat, but never feel out of control. The exhaust note builds on what the V-6 started, with a guttural, almost animalistic sound pouring from the tailpipes that like the previous generation is surprisingly addictive.

Both engines come mated to either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. The manual shifts smoothly and is well-suited for either engine.

But that’s not to sell the automatic short, as shift points are nearly imperceptible and the “hill mode” feature on the automatic improves drivability on downhill terrain.

One gripe on the manual, however: Expect to develop a thick calf on your left leg if you opt for this transmission, as the clutch is extremely stiff.

The pony-car segment is noted for raw, unadulterated power in straight-line acceleration, but the new Mustang performs well in the twisties, too. Unlike muscle cars of the past, it is a true sports car.

Surprisingly, many of the newfound handling attributes come courtesy of electric power-assisted steering.

We were skeptical about adding EPS to a performance car, as the technology has left many vehicles numb to the touch. But Ford engineers worked wonders, tuning the system like a fine instrument.

Ford also enhanced the chassis with revised damper tuning and spring rates, as well as new lower control arms and stiffened stabilizer bar bushings.

The GT comes with a more robust suspension than the V-6, although one could argue the lighter base model is the sportier of the two.

The car’s front/rear lift balance also was adjusted, giving it a “planted” feeling at high speeds, although the new car rides on the same D2C platform that first was introduced on the ’05 Mustang.

The new model integrates all the familiar styling cues, although headlamps, lower fascias, fenders and grille have been tweaked for a smoother look. Mustang loyalists will be pleased, as will those new to the car.

One neat touch is the LED taillamps, which fire sequentially for turn indication, a nice nod to the Mustangs of the ’60s that first included this feature.

Interior updates include chrome-ringed gauges and dual-vane air vents. Although changes are minor, the interior is comfortable and the switchgear intuitive. Still, it would be nice to see more substantial interior upgrades.

With pricing for the base V-6 and GT starting at $22,145 and $29,645, respectively, the new Mustang provides plenty of bang for the buck.

The vastly improved models show Ford is not resting on its laurels or the Mustang’s rich legacy. The ’11 Mustang should redefine the muscle-car segment with its improved handling and exhilarating performance, all while offering the fuel efficiency consumers today expect.

American muscle-car lovers have suffered through many lean years due to volatile fuel prices, but today’s market is a virtual treasure trove of emotive sheetmetal, modern safety features and vastly improved chassis dynamics, with the all-new Mustang leading the way.

With stellar V-6 and V-8 offerings, the ’11 Mustang delivers a potent 1-2 combination. A punch in the jaw never felt so good.

bpope@wardsauto.com