Car Corner
Mustang vs. The World

March 1, 2004
By Scott Lewis

As promised last month I will take a look at all the Mustang's competition and see how the Mustang stacks up in a world full of very good sport coupes.

The Challenge

Ford clearly has its collective head stuck in the sand if it thinks the Mustang stands alone because the Camaro and Firebird pony cars are long since gone. This month I am going to take a look at the current cars on the market that I feel a potential Mustang buyer has to select from if the Mustang is not up to the task of providing world class performance, comfort and image. I will do my best to look at cars on the market now, as well as some cars that are close enough to production that they may be on the market around the same time as the Mustang.

Keep in mind that the Mustang is a youth market vehicle. Many college level kids should be interested in them. These people tend to be single and don't need a lot of people carrying capabilities. So I will be looking at a couple of two seaters that are in the same price/performance arena as the Mustang in GT (or higher) trim. Although the Mustang is a youth market car, which means it needs to be affordable, Ford also positions the Mustang up market when it gets into the $30K range. Once you go up market you have to be prepared for the other cars in that price range. One last note: with the heavy retro theme to the new Mustang they will invariably attract an old buyers looking to get a Mustang because they used to own on from the 60s. These people have more money to spend. It is hard when you have a car that reaches so many types of buyers. Let's see how the Mustang stacks up to the competition.

O.K., yet another note: the prices below are taken from the manufacturer's web sites. I list the base price for the model, but for the price range I started a little above the base price (when was the last time you saw a car with no option on a lot) and then used the manufacturer's web site to "build a car" with most of the available options to get the top of the price range. I used the current Mustang price as an estimate for the new Mustang, so they may go up when it hits the streets in the fall.

Base Mustang vs. Coupes

We'll start by comparing other coupes that are in the price range of a V-6 Mustang.

Mustang Coupe
Base Price (est): $18,660
Price Range (est): $20-25K

Let's start with the largest Mustang population. More than half of the current generation Mustangs are base V-6 models. So, it is fair to compare this version of the Mustang to other sporty coupes with V-6 engines. Here is where Ford really drops the ball. They think of the Mustang as purely a V-8 Muscle car that provides the most performance for the buck. The GT is that, but it is not the volume seller. So let's see what the market has to offer someone thinking about a base Mustang. With an upper limit of $25K we are not directly including convertibles here, but they do have some influence.

Honda Accord Coupe
Base Price: $19,400
Price Range: $21-26K

The Accord is a great coupe. It has a first rate interior and a silky smooth V-6 engine putting out 240 hp. You can get it with a 5 speed automatic or a 6 speed manual. In top of the line EX trim the Honda has a leather interior with a V-6. Priced in the low to mid 20K range this is the car that most closely matches the V-6 Mustang. The Accord is truly a world class car. It is tight and handles very well with an independent rear suspension (IRS) that the Mustang lacks. Add to this Honda's reputation for quality and reliability. The Mustang has only three things going for it against the Accord. 1) Its retro styling, 2) it is rear wheel drive which is preferable for a performance oriented car, and 3) it will be available in a convertible. If we eliminate the convertible for the moment, and look at the Honda's performance with its 38 horsepower advantage, it is only the retro theme that really does anything for the Mustang. The Honda is a better car in virtually every way. The Honda will also hold its value in the used car market far better than a Mustang, especially a base Mustang that will be popular with the rental fleets.

Mini Cooper S
Base Price: $19,899
Price Range: $21-26K

You may think I am a little nuts here, but the Mini has a lot in common with the Mustang. It is a four passenger coupe that has the performance and retro theme to go head to head with the Mustang. The S version of the Mini sells in the low to mid 20s, which is a bargain compared to the Mustang GT in the mid to upper 20s. The Mini Cooper S is priced in a way that a comparison to the base Mustang is fair. In that regard, the Mini has what the Accord lacks... retro style and character. Yes, the Mini is a very small car and is front wheel drive. But it is just as useful as the Mustang for people and cargo carrying. It is extremely fun to drive, gets a lot of attention, and looks like a car from the 60s with a modern twist. Sound familiar. If I were in the market for a youth oriented coupe I would consider both of these cars. The Mini, as part of BMW, comes with 3 years of service... free. This is something the American car makers have yet to capitalize on. BMW is not stupid. It knows that it is not going to make a killing off of selling a youngster a low 20K car, and having to provide free oil changes and such. But when that kid grows up, gets a real job out of college, and is spoiled by the BMW dealer service, you can bet he is going to think hard about moving upscale to a more expensive BMW. I'll bet that a Mini Cooper S will beat a V-6 Mustang in any performance category. That being said, it is almost feasible to compare the S to a Mustang GT. The GT will beat the Mini in a drag race, but in traffic the little hot-shot Mini will excel. I went to BMW's Mini site and started building a Mini Cooper S. I started packing every option on, until I started to see that there were way too many options. No one would put them all on. So I stopped when the options seemed frivolous. 25-26K should buy you an overloaded Mini.

Toyota Solara
Base Price: $19,635
Price Range: $21-27K

This is the same thinking that puts the Accord coupe up against the Mustang. Certainly the base V-6 Mustang does not sell on performance. And good thing, because even the stodgy Toyota has 23 more horsepower. OK, so the Mustang GT will never be shopped opposite the Solara, but the base Mustang will. If I test drove both cars I would wonder why Ford can't get the same level of fit and finish, not to mention reliability in there two door coupe. And Toyota just unveiled the convertible version of the Solara at the Chicago Auto Show in February. The Solara convertible is direct competition to a V-6 Mustang convertible. Watch out Ford, your car better be a good one.

Acura RSX
Base Price: $20,025/$23,320
Price Range: $20-24K

This is a bit of a stretch, but I think it applies. The youth market is all over this little VTEC wonder. In Type-S clothing the RSX has a leather interior and 200 screaming hp. It will surely beat a base Mustang in the performance category for about the same money. Let's not forget that you get Honda's reputation for reliability, fit and finish as well. The aftermarket is all over the RSX, as they will be for the Mustang. For the price difference between the RSX Type-S and a Mustang GT you could buy enough aftermarket performance goodies to put the Type-S in direct competition with a Mustang GT. Don't be fooled if Mustang GT drivers come up against RSXs on the street.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Chrysler Sebring, Mitsubishi Eclipse
Price Range: $20-30K

These are old competitors to the Mustang, especially in V-6 trim. However, this is where the Mustang should shine. Each of these cars are in desperate need of a make over. Only the Eclipse comes close to providing the driving pleasure the Mustang should easily be able to provide. And the Eclipse is probably the only four passenger car the Mustang will be compared to that has a smaller back seat. Finally Ford takes some of the competition.

Mustang GT vs. 2 and 4 seaters

Remember, Ford pushes the Mustang as a performance car. Although they do a good job of positioning the base Mustang Coupe as a normal car (keeps the insurance companies happy), make no mistake about it the Mustang GT and its high powered versions are performance machines. Let's see what we're dealing with as competition to a high performance coupe.

Mustang GT/Mach I/SVT Cobra
Base Price: $24,185/$29,760/$35,370
Price Range: $25-$40K

You can break this down a thousand ways from Sunday. Mustangs are all over the price map. But to get an IRS you have to spring for the SVT Cobra at more than $35K. Even the Mach I doesn't get the IRS. At almost $30K base price this will be a tragedy for the new Mustang. Hopefully Ford will at least put the IRS on a Mach I (assuming they make a Mach I) and not save it solely for the SVT. SVT Cobras are in low production numbers and dealers tend to charge over sticker for them. That puts the top Mustang in heavy competition. Even in the low $30K range the Mustang has some stiff competition as we will see below.

Nissan 350Z
Base Price: $26,370
Price Range: $28-35K

I know the 350Z is a sports car with only seating for two, but a single guy or girl looking at the Mustang GT can't overlook the performance that comes with the Nissan for close to the same price. The plus for the Z car is a level of refinement that I just don't see making it into the brutish Muscle car from Ford. With 287 hp and a 6 speed manual I will bet the 350Z is within a whisker's of the performance numbers a GT will lay down. Sorry Ford, but if you think this is not a car to look at you are wrong.

Infiniti G35 Coupe
Base Price: $31,550
Price Range: $32-35K

If you don't believe the 350Z is competition for the Mustang GT than here comes the G35. It is a two door, 4 passenger coupe with 280 hp. Not bad. The Infiniti is far more luxury oriented than the Mustang. That means you can think of the G35 as over priced competition, or that the Mustang has to be loaded down with options to match what you get in the G35. I would be willing to bet that equally optioned these cars would be within 2 to 3 thousand dollars of each other. Once the Mustang steps up to the 30K range a couple of grand for the level of fit and finish, refinement and luxury the G35 gives over the Mustang is too hard to ignore. If you are shopping in the high 20 to low 30K range, you probably will appreciate the class the Infiniti brings to the table in this comparison.

Mazda RX-8
Base Price: $27,200
Price Range: $28-32K

Well, if the 350Z isn't competition for the Mustang, what about the RX-8. It has the back seat, and it is a sporty coupe. It is priced in the upper 20K range putting it head to head with the Mustang. The RX-8 has gotten rave reviews for its balance of performance with civility, something I really want to see in the Mustang but fear won't happen.

Pontiac GTO
Base Price: $32,495
Price Range: $32-33K

The Muscle Car is back. The GTO is a Muscle car. Ford even touts the Mustang as a Muscle Car, especially the Mustang GT, and its higher horsepower versions like the Mach I & SVT Cobra. Priced in the low 30K range, the GTO has the all important IRS that the Mustang lacks in GT & Mach I trim. That gives a big advantage to the GTO. You would have to step up to the SVT Cobra Mustang to get an IRS at a price much more than the GTO. The GTO's horsepower is more then the Mach I but below the SVT. Reviews of the GTO all seem to agree, that GM did a great job making this car a civilized Muscle car. Something an older person (befitting the price range) would appreciate. The only thing the Mustang has for it over the GTO is the looks. The new GTO doesn't look anything like its namesake from the 60s. But which is a better car. I see a real comparison test here.

Audi TT Coupe
Base Price: $33,970
Price Range: $35-42K

O.K. I am reaching with this one. With all wheel drive and a 250 hp V-6 the little Audi sure would make for a nice ride. The only reason it doesn't compete against the Mustang is price. The TT starts at close to the SVT Cobra base price. With all wheel drive and the V-6 the TT is going to cost at least $40K. Even with dealer gouging the SVT could be had for less than the V-6 TT. But the TT offers a huge level of refinement and sophistication that the SVT Mustang lacks. After all, how many people think "$40K for a Mustang?" I'll bet the Audi holds it value a lot better than a Mustang too. Clearly this is a stretch of a comparison, but the Audi is in the price range of the top tier Mustangs while offering luxury, refinement and status that the Mustang lacks at this price. I think it is fair to compare them on that alone.

BMW 3 Series
Base Price: $36,800
Price Range: $38-45K

Except for price, the is a natural comparison to the Mustang. In fact, Ford has hinted that the SVT version of the new Mustang will compete directly with the M3. If the Mustang would get the IRS right from the start and provides a smooth power delivery, it actually has a chance of being a bargain Bimmer. The 330Ci is a two door, four passenger car like the Mustang. If the Mustang gave as nice a ride (which it would need the IRS to do) as the BMW, then why not compare them. American cars have always been compared to foreign cars... for a lot less money. The Cobra went head to head with Ferrari for a lot less money. Why couldn't the Mustang go up against the BMW coupe? They could even make an upscale version of the Mustang to do just this. After all, the bulk of the R&D has been spent. Get that IRS in the Mustang with a truly smooth power plant, and load the Mustang up with luxury and refinement. I think it could be done.

Base Price: $44,535
Price Range: $45-53K

If you don't thing the Mustang is competition for the Corvette then you need to come out from under that rock you've been living under for the past three years. Ever since the Camaro SS left the planet the SVT Cobra has been pining at the Corvette's heals. Ford would like nothing better than to steal Corvette sales for the SVT Cobra Mustang. The current Cobra has 390 hp to the standard Vette's 350 and the Z06 Vette's 405. The 2005 Corvette is getting 400 horsepower standard, and I bet an SVT edition Mustang will have at least 400 hp as well. Let's not forget the possibility of a Shelby version of the Mustang. The original Shelby Mustangs went head to head with the Corvette in SCCA racing in the sixties. A base Vette is just under $45K. That puts it about $10K over a SVT Mustang. Is the Corvette worth $10K more. Yes, but I can't afford $45K to prove my point. The new Corvette will only compete with the very top Mustangs (SVT & ?Shelby?). I think the Vette is far more refined than the Mustang. And once the Mustang gets to the $40,000 level (which a Shelby version surly will reach even before dealer gouging) I have to start thinking "$40k for a Mustang. Are you nuts, its just a Mustang!"


If you take a good look at all these cars you see you have a very wide range of cars to choose from. But Ford does this with the Mustang. How many cars out there have a price range from under 20K to over 40K. A stripped V-6 Mustang will probably base out at about 20K, it may even squeak under it so Ford can advertise it for "under $20,000." But the SVT Mustang convertible will hit $40K. And lets' not forget that Saleen and Roush will probably build some specialty versions of the Mustang that will sell for much more than $40K, and Ford could even build a Shelby since Carroll helped with the Ford GT supercar. 

Ford has brought this on themselves by letting the Mustang fill so many ends of the market. The Mustang really does have serious competition at many price points. Especially the V-6 Mustang. There is no reason not to consider the Accord and Solara as direct competition to the V-6 Mustang. Both those cars will beat the Mustang in performance while providing a reputation for refinement and quality Ford lacks. And when Ford dumps tons of V-6 Mustangs into the rental business, it will make the Mustang seem common and/or cheap.

I will admit, the rear wheel drive V-8 Mustang is a unique thing. There really aren't many V-8 rear wheel drive four passenger cars out there, except the GTO. But people will compare cars with similar performance in the same price range. Ford used to win at this. The Camaro and Firebird were better performers than the Mustang, but the Mustang sold where those hard core performance cars didn't. If Ford is not careful they will fall into the same trap. The Mustang GT could be considered too hard core versus more refined cars that are fast enough. The G35 immediately leaps to mind. An Infiniti dealer willing to deal on the price of a G35 will be more attractive than a Ford dealer thinking he has the next best thing to sliced bread gouging prices.

So, can a well optioned 20K car be worth it when compared to true mid 30s cars like the G35, TT and 330Ci. I don't think so. It is brute horsepower that will sell Mustangs in the 30K range, and the vast majority of Mustangs will be 20k something V-6 and GTs. I could easily see spending a little more for the European and Japanese cars above, or else go with a nice Accord or Mini at the low to mid 20K range.

Ford is trying too hard to get people to buy the Mustang because they are Mustang fans already... and that Camaro and Firebird fans will have no choice but to come on board. It is a shame they didn't put a little more time into refining the Mustang and letting it compete head to head with some world class coupes.

That said, I still like the looks and the heritage enough to wait until I test drive one before making up my mind. The Mustang is still in the running... barely. Let's hope a test drive shows a marked increase in the platform from the current Mustang.

Retro alone will not sell the Mustang for long. If it is not significantly better than its predecessor it may join the Camaro and Firebird in the history books. That would be a shame.