Buyers of the new Ford Mustang are flush with powertrain options.

There’s the excellent 305-hp 3.7L V-6 and a pavement-pounding 550-hp 5.4L supercharged V-8 in the Shelby GT500; both uphold the Mustang legacy with glorious exhaust notes and thrilling off-the-line performance.

For some, the V-6 isn’t quite enough and the GT500 is just too much. Therein lies Ford Powertrain’s motivation in bringing to market a “just right” V-8 that perfectly blends neck-snapping might, everyday driveability and acceptable fuel economy.

For delicately balancing these contradictory goals so marvelously, Ford’s 5.0L V-8 earns its way to the 2011 Ward’s 10 Best Engines list in its first year of eligibility.

Cynics might suggest engines of this nature have fallen out of style, that a finite supply of fossil fuel makes burly V-8s completely irrelevant.

But such sentiments are not supported by sales data showing an unmistakable resurgence in muscle-car popularity with the success of the Mustang and its rivals, the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger.

Even if no one were buying the Mustang and its 5.0L V-8, we’d be hard pressed to pass it up.

For context, consider that its predecessor, a well-regarded 4.6L SOHC V-8, earned four consecutive Ward’s 10 Best Engines awards until 2008. With 319 hp, 330 lb.-ft. (447 Nm) of torque and a specific output of 69 hp/L, the 4.6L V-8 defined the Mustang GT experience and delivered horsepower-per-dollar better than any car on the road.

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Ward’s 10 Best Engines

Arriving a mere three years later, the new “Five-Oh,” with dual overhead cams, trounces its older sibling with 412 hp, 390 lb.-ft. (529 Nm) of torque and an impressive 82 hp/L. Plus, a higher compression ratio (11.0:1) allows the new V-8 to operate at higher thermal efficiency and extract more mechanical energy from each combustion stroke.

Another sophisticated addition is Twin Independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT), which Ford is using for new engines big and small. Ti-VCT uses camshaft torque and oil pressure to adjust valve opening and closing events in microseconds in adapting to driver inputs. The result is improved acceleration, low-end torque and fuel economy.

The engine breathes easier than its predecessor, thanks to its 4-valves-per cylinder heads and a carefully tuned intake and exhaust system. And a deep-sump steel oil pan enables sustained high-rpm runs and the convenience of 10,000-mile (16,093-km) oil change intervals.

As for fuel economy, Ward’s editors never saw the highway EPA rating of 26 mpg (9 L/100 km), partly due to a week of power-band exploration. Hopefully, a version with cylinder deactivation is on the horizon.

But few 5.0L buyers are shopping MPG. Admittedly, this engine is politically incorrect, but so are chocolate volcano cakes, red meat, Michael Vick and Bill Maher, and they’re not going away, either.

We need a safe haven for the occasional decadent V-8, and the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list is up to the task for those with relevant new technologies.

Embrace your inner muscle car and enjoy the Five-Oh, as long as the EPA deems it street-legal.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.