DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co. is gearing up to go head-to-head with the ’09 Dodge Challenger as its revitalized Special Vehicle Team in-house performance unit readies a new Mustang to take on its muscle car rival.

At this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Derrick Kuzak, group vice president-global product development, and Barb Samardzich, vice president-powertrain product development, told Ward’s they were prepared for the recently launched ’08 Dodge Challenger.

“They weren’t blowing smoke,” SVT spokesman Patrick Hespen tells Ward’s at a product event here. “The next Mustang SVT coming out will be very competitive with (the) Challenger.”

Ford needs to address the horsepower discrepancy between the Challenger and the Mustang. The ’09 Mustang equipped with a 4.0L V-6 makes 210 hp, while the Challenger SE and RT models powered by a 3.5L high-output V-6 produce 250 hp.

Similarly, the performance-oriented ’09 Challenger SRT8’s 6.1L Hemi V-8 churns out 425 hp, while the Mustang GT’s 4.6L V-8 produces only 300 hp.

There are specialized Mustangs that produce more horsepower, such as the Shelby GT500, which is powered by a 500-hp supercharged V-8, but these models are built in limited quantities and cost thousands of dollars more than a top-of-the-line Challenger.

Hespen declines to reveal when the new Mustang will debut, only that it will be in the “not too distant future,” as work already is under way on the vehicle. He also does not say whether the new Mustang strictly will carry SVT badging or be a joint venture with Shelby Automobiles Inc.

In recent years, SVT largely has been relegated to the background as Ford has struggled to right its foundering North American operations.

But rumors the performance division was long gone have been greatly exaggerated, as Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Jim Farley, group vice president-marketing and communications, have placed an emphasis on returning SVT to its previous stature.

The division has “big-time support from top management,” Hespen confirms. “Jim Farley is a big fan. He sees a need for SVT at Ford.”

Hespen says Farley’s interest in the division is far from personal, although the former Toyota Motor Corp. marketing guru owns a Mustang Cobra and is a self-professed “performance guy.”

Rather, Farley recognizes the division’s importance in producing halo vehicles for the Blue Oval brand.

“SVT quality is top-notch, as high as you can get within Ford, and customer satisfaction is tops,” he says. “And SVT products make the most money for Ford.”

SVT has evolved beyond its origins as a near standalone division of Ford with its own marketing and public-relations staff. The division still retains some autonomy, with roughly 60 engineers working from a location in Allen Park, MI.

The group is headed by Hermann Salenbauch, director of advanced product creation and SVT, while Jamal Hameedi is chief nameplate engineer, reporting directly to Hermann.

Kerry Baldori serves as SVT’s chief vehicle engineer and also reports to Hermann. Hespen describes Baldori’s position as “more nuts-and-bolts,” whereas Jamal is “dollars and cents.”

In addition to the new Mustang, the SVT team is working on a new pickup truck rumored to be a high-performance, off-road version of the F-150 and named Raptor.

Hespen says Ford is looking at selling SVT vehicles at all Ford dealerships. In the past, dealers had to be certified to sell SVTs, which required mechanics to undergro specialized training.

bpope@wardsauto.com