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If you haven't driven a pony car in decades, you're in for a pleasant shock. Cars like today's Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger aren't brutal-handling shipping containers for hoary V-8 engines. They're no longer cavemen. Yes, they're brutally fast, and now, great handling isn't just on the menu--it's a main course.
It's especially true with the 2012 Ford Mustang. No longer a rehashed icon, or a throwback, the Mustang's dragged itself down the quarter-mile into modern times in some amazing ways. There's still a live axle in back, but no mainstream Mustang has ever handled better or accelerated faster than today's V-8 'Stangs--and it's almost true of the V-6s as well.
To the heritage recipe, Ford's trimmed out the Mustang's proportions over the past six years. It's leaner, and more aggressive, and can be customized with all the hood scoops, paint schemes and decal packages you need to fondly remember that night in high school, or college, or detention. The cockpit has the upright dash and big, beautiful gauges with color-shifting lighting and metallic trim, a good blend of Sixties style and today's touchscreen sensibilities.
Entry-level buyers will get a 305-horsepower V-6 that can turn in 0-60 mph times of about 6.0 seconds--and fuel economy of up to 31 mpg on the highway when teamed with a reluctant-shifting automatic six-speed. It can carry its own weight against the likes of the Nissan 370Z, at long last, and against the Camaro V-6.
The V-8 catapults into a whole other performance category. The 5.0-liter V-8 thumps out 412 horsepower, with six-speed manual or automatic transmissions pushing power to the rear wheels. The live-axle suspension has never been in better tune: the Mustang rides quite well for a sporty car, and much less of the rumbly, jumbled handling of the pre-2005 versions. Electric power steering isn't of the darty variety; it's quick and suits the rorty, rev-happy V-8 quite well. Opt into the supercar-strength Shelby GT500 or the race-ready Boss 302, and you're going even faster, spending more than $40,000 to get there.
As before, Coupe and Convertible editions can be had with either powertrain. The Convertible has a reasonably tight, power-operated soft top, but the body structure isn't stiff enough to make the most of the suspension improvements. We prefer the glass panoramic roof if you want to let the sunshine in--but recognize there's nothing quite like the full top-down driving experience in something like the Mustang GT, where your attitude is sure to be sunny even if the weather outside isn't.