2015 Mustang declassified: How Ford's global focus gave the world a better pony car

The latest Mustang is the first that's been designed to appeal to a truly worldwide audience. This is the story of how Ford designers and engineers balanced international desires with American heritage.

Steve McQueen with a holster on his hip. A snarling panther poised to pounce. A massive fist punching through a pane of glass, somehow without a single cut. This seemingly random collection of decidedly macho pictures is meant to invoke a state of mind. An aura. Many cars start out with inspirational mosaics like this, but few have a scrapbook quite this testosterone-laden. Perhaps that's because few have the aggressive lineage of the Ford Mustang.

For 50 years now, Ford's pony car has been the anthropomorphic embodiment of machismo. (That is, if you ignore the Pinto-based second-generation, which many would instead file under "castrato.") Lately it's been looking better than ever, with a series of refinements to the fifth-gen, first introduced in 2005, resulting in a look that is clean and modern while still capitalizing on the (now-dwindling) retro muscle craze. It's also faster than ever, with a reborn Boss 302 showing the world that an American muscle car with primitive suspension can perform on tracks both straight and twisty.

All that changes in the new 2015 Mustang. The exterior, though familiar, is radically refined. The suspension, completely new front and rear, finally relegates the live axle to history. International versions, destined for dealers all around the globe, will see the introduction of a right-hand-drive model for the first time. And, if that weren't enough, a four-cylinder, turbocharged EcoBoost engine can be fitted beneath that long, low hood. Jacques Brent, Ford's marketing manager, calls this "evolution, not revolution," but it's hard to categorize this as anything short of a rebirth for a sports car that was flirting dangerously with relic status. A fast, loud, aggressive, and respected relic, but a relic nevertheless.

Birthplace

We're standing in the cavernous design studio housed inside Ford's Product Development Center, part of the company's sprawling complex just outside of Detroit. This building is the place where the new models are born and shaped. In rooms lined with photos of Blue Oval concepts of yore, designers and engineers toil away to craft and carve out cars that won't hit showroom floors for years. Access here requires special permissions, of course, though you needn't check in at the front desk to have your interest piqued. Preproduction test mules cruise through the snowy December streets nearby, each covered in silhouette-ruining black fabric.

Make it past security and you'll find hallways that are wide, offering plenty of clearance for pushing around full-size mockups. Likewise, the studio itself feels more like a hangar than creative space. It's the selection of photos staged all about that bring your eyes down from the vaulted ceiling. It isn't just '60s film icons and crouching felines plastered to the walls. Hundreds of photos of classic Mustangs form a massive array, charting the progress from a clean 1964 ½ convertible, through the fire-breathing Trans-Am cars of the late '60s, touching only very briefly on the Pinto-based second-generation, before moving through to what we knew yesterday as a modern Mustang.

Now, everything changes. Well, perhaps not everything, but the 2015 Mustang introduced today (but not hitting dealers until late 2014) is certainly a massive rethink of a storied formula. There's the styling, which is dramatic and progressive to say the least. There's the independent rear suspension, a detail that means nothing to most but an awful, awful lot to some. There's the new tech inside the car, including adaptive cruise control and, finally, keyless ignition. However, to find the biggest changes, you need to look beyond those purposeful fender flares. You need to look at the changing shape of the company that built them.

One Ford

Current Ford CEO Alan Mulally took over in 2006, just after the current-gen Mustang hit dealerships. That car, like those before it, was a thoroughly American machine intended for a thoroughly American market. It was the antithesis to Mulally's first major directive: One Ford. He set an internal deadline of seven years for the company to shift away from its approach of creating specific cars for specific markets. It was that approach which previously saw the North American market making do with a second-rate, mediocre Focus while European buyers were offered a very different, and far superior, car of the same name. Mulally wanted one Focus for the entire world, and of course it had to be good.

Seven years later, most of the company's offerings have been unified and globalized. This, finally, is the One Ford Mustang, and as such it's the first Mustang truly designed to go toe-to-toe with the best the world has to offer. It will, for the first time, be offered in a right-hand-drive model for use in places like the UK and Australia. It'll be the first Mustang sold (legitimately) in places like China and Norway. This, according to Susan Lampinen, group chief designer of colors and materials, caused the entire design and engineering team to think more seriously about the whole package, particularly the interior.

Doyle Letson - Chief Designer Interior

The current car, Lampinen says, has a "molded color and dipped plastic look." These are things that do not inspire a feeling of quality. That had to change for 2015. "When we first were designing it we didn't know we were going global. When it began, it was major pressure, it's a really important product... But then once we did decide to go global with it, I stepped back and thought, 'Is the China market going to be okay?' I thought about the European market... They expect a really high quality."

Putting aside any hurt feelings about the perceived acceptability of lower-quality interiors in the US, this improvement is immediately tangible inside the car. The look is simple and sophisticated, maintaining a solid feeling of heritage despite the large, centrally mounted touch screen plus all the buttons and knobs needed to disable traction control and tune the optional 12-speaker sound system. The shiny bits are actually chrome-plated, not just painted plastic, and the dramatic "wing" that sweeps across the dash is a single, continuous piece of brushed aluminum -- available in one of three shades to suit the buyer's proclivities.

This is one of two interior concepts the interior design team, led by Doyle Letson, dreamed up. He categorized the "A" interior as "evolution" while the aeronautics-themed "B" option was more of a "revolution." The final interior is admittedly closer to A, but with some elements of B mixed in to keep it fresh. It's a very nice place to be, dark and purposeful yet functional and comfortable. There's a central storage area for your phone, complete with a USB port for charging. The central cupholders have been moved to the side, making more room for the driver's arm, while little details are everywhere. "We perforated the leather in the seats to create a negative area that looks like racing stripes," Lampinen said proudly.

Joel Piaskowski - Design Director Exterior

Details abound in the exterior as well, like the cut-outs in the nose that present the look of a discrete front spoiler. The headlights, much smaller and more angular than before, feature three so-called "signature lights," a not-so-subtle nod to the creases found on the original Mustang's nose. It's the overall shape of the car, though, that's striking. "When the design team knew we were going to design a new Mustang, the sketches came out of the woodwork," said Joel Piaskowski, design director for the exterior of the car. Indeed, photos hung on the wall show a series of radical mutations, each idea run through the so-called "Mustang filter" before gradually evolving into the car you see here.

The Ford Evos Concept Cameron Spencer

The aggressive, sucker-punch of a nose is extended and profiled, showing clear inspiration from the Evos Concept, which debuted at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. The hood, now even longer than before, swells slightly before meeting the A pillar. The B pillar hides behind glass, blacked out to disappear, and the C pillar sweeps into a wider, flatter deck lid that may make some think of a Nissan GTR. Finally, the rear of the car has a distinctively sloped profile that's almost reminiscent of the 911.

That was indeed one of the cars that provided inspiration to the team, but not when it comes to looks. When setting the bar for 2015 Mustang handling, Ford's engineers aimed high and again looked globally, targeting the Porsche and the BMW M3. To truly compete with these storied autos, a new suspension package was needed -- though that turned out to be a bigger project than anticipated.

Internals

While Jacques Brent describes the perceived handling shortcomings of the previous car as a "perception issue," he concedes this was an area requiring more attention when expanding to a global market. "Braking, steering, handling becomes much more important for these people than pure, outright power." Going independent in the rear was in the cards from the early days of the project, but interestingly the changes to the front came much later.

Dave Pericak is the car's chief engineer. "We didn't intend to change the front suspension in this vehicle at all. We intended to have a carry-over front suspension. But what you find in today's car, with the solid rear axle, the front suspension is not the limiting factor. The limiting factor is going to be the solid rear axle. But when you put this world-class rear suspension in, the front became the limiting factor." So, they swapped out the front, too, making room for bigger brakes and bigger wheels -- two things that should make many Mustang fans very happy.

Will it be as good down the quarter mile? We're guessing the upgraded 5.0-liter V8 should more than make up for any loss in traction caused by disconnecting the rear wheels. Motor upgrades there are largely predictable, including some borrowed from the current Boss 302. It's the 2.3 liter EcoBoost motor that will really help the new Mustang compete globally. Today's V8 makes 15 MPG in the city. The new one should do slightly better, but that still won't fly in a place like Norway, where gas prices exceed $10 per gallon.

Ford isn't talking numbers, but the diminutive EcoBoost unit, with its twin-scroll turbo, should push average consumption closer to 30 MPG, making the car a far more practical option abroad. And, with its lighter weight and smaller volume, the Mustang with the littlest motor should be the one with the greatest handling. Indeed, don't be surprised if the EcoBoost model turns out to be the global sales leader, quickly burying any remaining bad feelings left by the turboed Mustangs of the '70s and '80s.

And that's a big part of all this, an elephant lurking as discretely as possible in the corner, that this new Mustang isn't designed to be cheap and fast. It's designed to have global appeal, which means efficiency, and those Mustangs of the past designed for efficiency have been universally awful. Global appeal also means refinement instead of outright speed, yet this is meant to be the everyman's supercar. Jacques Brent says it still is: "Mustang has always been one of those products that has been attainable, and we hope and plan to keep it that way. We're not changing the recipe."

Neither, though, is Ford quoting an MSRP. While this international focus will almost certainly result in a 2015 Mustang that's at least slightly more expensive to buy, it looks to have created a car that will be vastly more satisfying to drive and, ultimately, to own. If indeed Alan Mulally retires in 2014 as expected, this One Ford Mustang certainly looks be a fitting send-off.

About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

ARTICLE DISCUSSION

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

Hot on CNET

CNET's giving away a 3D printer

Enter for a chance to win* the MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer and all the supplies you need to get started.