Mustang will not suffer through a mid-life crisis, as did Thunderbird, says Ford Motor Co. designer Mark Conforzi.

The model's next generation will remain true to the vehicle's roots, assures the lead member of Mustang's design team.

“We do want all our vehicles, in all cases, to be contemporary,” he says. “We don't want old-fashioned cars. That was key when we developed the ('02) Thunder-bird. It is modern, but it salutes the past.”

Comparing the current Mustang to its 1965 progenitor, “there's a relationship there,” Mr. Conforzi says. But the original '55 Thunderbird bore no resemblance to the '97 model that sparked the nameplate's hiatus.

“The last one had no relationship at all. That was not good. We had quite a few years that we're not proud of,” he says of the Thunderbird's questionable design evolution.

When the new-generation Mustang debuts in 2004, it will be unmistakably Mustang, Mr. Conforzi says. “We're going to build on its character.”

That means it will remain in the muscle car genre — with a good dose of style. A source tells Ward's the interior will feature accents inspired by a major California-based fashion accessory company.

If popularity is any measure of the public's affinity with a vehicle, Mustang has struck a chord. AutoTrader.com reports Mustang is on the minds of many visitors to the e-tail web site.

“All our searches are tracked, and Ford Mustang happens to be the most popular car on our site the last couple of months,” says AutoTrader.com Chief Executive Officer Chip Perry.

Ford sells nearly 175,000 Mustangs annually.