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No more retro for Mustang as it prepares to turn 50

Has retro finally run its course?  Much like Hollywood studios, automakers like to bet on sure things, and showrooms have plenty of examples of how everything old can become new again, like the latest reincarnation of the Volkswagen Beetle, and the revival of the Chevrolet Camaro.

But Ford, which scored a huge hit with the old-is-new ’94 Mustang remake, and which subsequently created a studio specifically to develop more retro design opportunities, is apparently ready to step into the future.

An all-new version of the original pony car – dubbed Mustang III by Ford insiders – will debut just in time for the nameplate’s 50th anniversary, in mid-2014.  And it will have a lot more in common with the widely acclaimed Evos concept that Ford unveiled last autumn than with the current Mustang.

And the changes will be far more than skin deep.  Reflecting both the desire to start marketing Mustang beyond North American shores, as well as the need to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards, insiders report the new model will offer an array of advanced high-mileage engines.

Ford has further impetus to re-think the Mustang basics.  Long the dominant player in the pony car segment, Mustang has taken a beaten from the reborn Camaro, which is now solidly outselling the Ford offering.

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There’s no question Ford wants to hit a home run when it re-launches the new Mustang for 2014.  Introduced by former President Lee Iacocca at the New York World’s Fair, the original was an immediate success, demand quickly outstripping supply and setting off a race by Ford’s competitors to come up with a response.

Over the years, the big battle has been between Ford and Chevy, the GM division eventually dropping the Camaro due to sluggish sales.  But the 2010 revival has clicked with consumers and Camaro last year outsold Mustang 88,249 to 70,438.  Through March of this year, the gap has closed a bit, Chevy just 1,800 ahead of Ford – the latter maker hoping to reverse its fading fortunes with the updated, 650-horsepower Mustang Shelby GT. That will give it a 70 hp advantage over the ZL1, the most powerful Camaro ever launched.

But in reality, while such high-performance versions might offer a halo to the two brands, most customers opt for less sporty V-6 offerings.  And industry analysts say that trend is almost certain to continue in the face of rising fuel costs – and a U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard set to reach 34.5 mpg in 2016 and 56.2 mpg by 2025.

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And that’s likely to mean a variety of big changes to just every detail of the next Mustang.

Like aerodynamics.  Expect the remake — likely to be marketed as a 2015 model — to deliver a much more wind-slick pony car.  The good news is that by reducing wind resistance Ford should be able to enhance performance, as well as fuel economy.

The same goes for weight.  As TheDetroitBureau.com reported last year, recently-retired global product chief Derrick Kuzak set a mandate of trimming the weight of the average Ford vehicle by about 700 pounds.  That’s good news considering that recent generations of the Mustang have gotten heavier and heavier as the maker loaded up all sorts of new hardware, from airbags to infotainment systems, never mind those big V-8s.

Switching to an all-new platform and body could also enhance the appeal of the Mustang overseas, where it has never been much more than a niche player.  But CEO Alan Mulally, as part of his One Ford strategy, has made it clear that whenever and wherever possible, Ford products will be sold in as many markets as possible with only the most minimal variations.  The new Fusion, for example, has about 80% of its parts and components in common with the European Ford Contour.

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And like the Fusion, the Mustang III project appears to be relying on the basic shape of that Evos concept car – minus the four gull-wing doors shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show.  Images circling the automotive community – the one shown here produced for PopularHotRodding.com– suggest the new Mustang will even get the Evos/Fusion grille, itself clearly influenced by Ford’s former Aston Martin division.  But the flared rear shoulders, swept C-pillar and other details envisioned by artist Sean Smith show that Ford could still maintain key, classic Mustang cues.

Other widely anticipated changes will likely include a long-overdue switch for a “live,” or solid, rear axle to a fully independent rear suspension – much as GM endowed the new Camaro with.  While Ford has earned kudos for what it has accomplished with the old “stick,” it clearly can take things a big step further with an IRS.  And by increasing sales volumes it should be able to minimize the cost penalty.

As for powertrains, Ford may still find use for the current V-6, which surprised the motoring world with 30 mpg fuel economy and 300-plus horsepower when it debuted a few years back.  But the world is moving in a very different direction, and Ford isn’t content to play fast follower.  It has been rapidly expanding the use of its new turbocharged EcoBoost line-up which, Mulally has promised, will be available in 80% of Ford’s North American vehicles in a few years – and even more of its overseas lines.

Anticipate a 2.0-liter, inline-four EcoBoost, which would give the current V-6 a run for its money.  Meanwhile, there have been long-standing rumors of a V-8 EcoBoost project.  That could yield Shelby-style performance with even better mileage than the current Mustang GT’s relatively modest 5,0-liter eight-banger.

Somewhere in the middle might be a high-mileage, twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost, similar to the one in the current Taurus SHO – at least if the fuel economy advantage would offset the price penalty for this sophisticated powertrain.

How far might things go? There are even rumors of a Mustang hybrid. And considering that even Ferrari is toying with such technology why not Ford?

One of the challenges Ford faces will be marketing the next Mustang in different parts of the world where its competitive set might be markedly different.  That could mean anything from the Camaro to the BMW 3-Series, with the latest Hyundai Genesis Coupe thrown in for good measure.

There’s no question it’s a risky venture.  Ford came close to making a complete paradigm shift once before.  About two decades ago, it was ready to switch to a front-wheel-drive model that was little more than a renamed Ford Probe – a short-lived sporty coupe.

When word leaked out it triggered a tidal wave of opposition from traditionalists and led Ford to stick with the familiar pony car shape two generations had already grown up with.

Will a new Millennial generation be more accepting? If this artist’s guesstimate of the new Mustang III is on target, Ford won’t abandon the historic Mustang look entirely. And might some significant performance enhancements, such as the independent rear suspension, win over older Mustang loyalists?  Or will they flee to Chevy showrooms?

Ford will soon find out if the stories leaking out of its Dearborn, Michigan headquarters prove on target.