How do you mess with an icon?
In redesigning the Mustang, Ford Motor tried to build on success by making the sporty car look more powerful and menacing and giving it a throatier exhaust.
When the 2010 Mustang is unveiled Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show, it will be billed as a pumped-up muscle car. More aggressive snout. Flared fenders. Beefy rounded corners.
Mustang may need the brawn: The next-generation car faces a street fight against newly revived and also nostalgia-driven muscle cars from the other two of Detroit's Big 3. Chrysler's Dodge Challenger is just now fully rolled out. General Motors' Chevrolet Camaro arrives in March.
Ford design chief J Mays says Mustang is up to the task.
"We managed to make it look smaller than Camaro or Challenger," he said by phone. He argues that the new kids on the block are "wrong-size cars for the times in which we live."
Of course, some might argue any muscle car is wrong for the times in which we live. With an optional V-8 that has 315 horsepower, the new Mustang will be no fuel-sipper. But Ford sort of views Mustang as a brand icon it can't live without.
Earlier this year, Ford's North American chief, Mark Fields, said that many people know the automaker for just two things — Mustang and trucks. As Ford poured energy and marketing dollars into SUVs and pickups and, for many years, let once best-selling cars such as Taurus wither, Mustang basically held up the car side of the garage.
Forty-five years after introducing the Mustang, Ford has never been without one. It remains a halo for the brand, the kind of car that attracts buyers to showrooms to look, even if they buy something else.
"It's Ford's image. It's the essence of Ford," says Jim Hossack, a consultant for AutoPacific. "It's more important than just the number of units."
Ford sold 83,557 current-generation Mustangs through the first 10 months of this year, Autodata says. While that's down nearly 30% from last year, Mustang still managed to outsell Ford's Taurus by a 2-to-1 margin. Mustang, however, was outsold by the Focus compact by a like multiple.
A major part of Mustang's success hinges on generating warm feelings among Baby Boomers who grew up on the car. The median age of current buyers is 44.
For its 2005 redesign, the car went fully retro — hearkening back to the late-1960s models.
Now, "We wanted to take it to the next level," says chief engineer Paul Randle. "Aggressive, muscular and athletic."
Designer Mays, who loves to apply small quirky touches to models, says the Mustang will have a few "we knew would put a smile on the face" of any devotee. For instance, the LED taillights will flash sequentially to indicate a turn.
As it has done with the current version, Ford has signaled it will keep the car fresh by offering myriad special editions.
Carroll Shelby, the 85-year-old legendary race-car developer, says he can't wait to start modifying the new Mustang.
"It's a great step forward," Shelby says. "It's a great platform for us to do what we do."
Fans who have seen the car say they love the new look.
"Awesome car," says Steven McCarley, incoming president of the 13,000-member Mustang Club of America. "Retro feel, hot-rod looks, but, to me, more aggressive."
He already owns 1966 and 2008 Mustangs. Will he buy the new one? "If my bank will tell me I can afford it," he says.