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Ford’s big gamble: Will the next-generation Mustang boost the iconic nameplate?

With 2014 quickly approaching, there are even more rumors starting to circulate about the 2015 Ford Mustang. Is this what it will look like?

Ford sources are being really tight-lipped about the car. In fact, I couldn’t even get a PR contact at the company to go on record confirming a new model – which is funny considering that just about everybody on the planet knows there’s one in the works.

Still, with speculation that the future Mustang could possibly feature everything from a multi-link independent rear suspension to a 350-horsepower four-cylinder EcoBoost engine as recently reported by Road & Track, the car definitely has us buzzing at Digital Trends.

Of course, even the information rolling out of the icons of the automotive press should be taken with a grain of salt.  But one thing’s for certain, this new Mustang definitely needs to be a hit – and whether or not it will be still remains to be seen. Over the past few years, Ford’s pony car has been losing market share, which to put it bluntly means that the popular Mustang isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be.

According to sales numbers from January 2013, Chevrolet shipped 4,925 Camaros, outselling the Mustang by more than 1,300 units. Ford has been losing the battle with Chevy for the muscle car title for three consecutive years, according to an Auto Evolution report.

The January numbers even had the Dodge Challenger clamoring at the heels of Ford’s pony car, selling only 111 cars less than the Mustang.

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C’mon, be honest: when’s the last time you whipped out your phone to take a pic of a “new” Mustang? And chances are if you did, it was heavily customized.

Stemming the tide won’t be easy, considering that the next-gen Mustang will not only have to contend with the Camaro and Dodge Challenger, but also with the growing popularity of cars like the Nissan Z series, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and others now available to a new generation of buyers in the affordable performance segment.

In addition, the Mustang celebrates it 5oth Anniversary next year, so it’s the perfect time for a new and spectacular golden anniversary model. And it had better be impressive since the Mustang could also lose a few sales of its more premium top-of-the-line versions to consumers considering the all-new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.

Sure, the future Mustang, also known as the s550, is guaranteed to lure in a lot of buyers at launch, most cars with this kind of legacy usually do. However, the true test of Ford’s new pony car will come in how well it sustains that momentum in the years to come.

This we do know: the new Mustang will likely have the power to meet future expectations with rumors that, in addition to a turbo variation and a big four-banger, the engine range could also include a new 5.0-liter Coyote V8 with up to 450 horsepower, according to the Road & Track report. What’s a Mustang without a Five-Oh option anyway?

After all, performance is a significant part of the DNA of the Mustang’s bloodline and not pushing to improve on those numbers at all simply wouldn’t make sense – especially for Ford, which has new engine and powertrain technology at it’s disposal. And it’s high time the Mustang’s rather hammer-simple rear-wheel drive powertrain got a modern upgrade.

Still, appeasing just the performance car buffs won’t be enough for the Mustang to reclaim its iconic status.

2015 Ford Mustang Renderings Rear Angle

These days, the success of any new performance car in the two-door segment hinges on a vehicle having as much European or “global” appeal as it does street cred – even when it comes to iconic American nameplates. These cars do get sold everywhere. Just take a close look at the all-new Dodge Viper GTS and the new Stingray for reference, both of which have more Ferrari-like styling cues now which are really evident from the side and rear profiles.   

The challenge for Mustang is that to date, the most significant spark the car has gotten among new buyers was the debut of the current generation in 2004, which featured styling strongly reminiscent of some of the car’s more classic visual cues. If the future model deviates too far away from this design, classic “old school” Mustang fans will likely hate it – and if it’s not cutting-edge enough, it might have trouble pulling in new customers. That’s going to be a serious challenge for Ford.

It’s the kind of Catch-22 that could kick the Mustang into overdrive or send it off to that feared status of “hey, nice rental” forever.

Of course, it’s not like Mustang hasn’t faced similar challenges in the past. 

After launching in 1964, the first generation roared out of the gate, giving birth to iconic Mustang nameplates like the Shelby GT500 and Boss 302. But the second generation, defined by the dreadful Pinto-based design and its 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, quickly became the car that just about everybody wanted to forget – including Ford.

Though the “Fox” platform has had both its fans and critics, the third generation Mustang was marked by some significant tech enhancements including the addition of the new SVO model featuring a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a 225-horsepower V8 engine and the SVT Cobra.

Mustang also saw the addition of Electronic Fuel Injection across all engine models in the pony car’s third generation.

During the fourth generation run, the available horsepower in the Mustang shot up to 300-plus with the 4.6-liter dual-overhead cam aluminum V8.  It ushered in a new era for the pony car as Ford pushed to build on the Mustang’s performance capabilities with a new stiffer platform and independent rear suspension on the SVT Cobra model, though the IRS technology never quite panned out back then.

Ford’s Passive Anti-Theft System (PATS), the use of an electronically coded ignition key, also became a standard feature on all Mustangs during the fourth generation.  Still, the exterior styling of the car during this span never quite evoked the kind of passion that the car had when it was first introduced in 1964 – despite how hard Ford tried with some of the outlandish colors – like school bus yellow.

In fact, before the introduction of the fifth generation Mustang as a 2005 model, I thought Ford’s pony car might be in jeopardy of losing its iconic appeal for good. But the new retro design and boost in the area of performance including the rebirth of the Shelby GT500, gave the Mustang new life among old fans and news ones alike.

Technology improvements over the past couple of years such as suspension updates, an optional track pack and SelectShift automatic, which allows the driver to pick between fully automatic mode and manual, have substantially enhanced the performance elements of the Mustang even more.  

It’s suspected that while the next gen Mustang’s six-speed transmission will carry over from the current model,  the line-up could see an eight-speed automatic in the future.    

In addition to the turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 450 horsepower 5.o-liter Coyote V8, the next-gen Mustang engine line-up for the U.S. is expected to include a base V6 engine, which likely won’t see much if any boost from the current 305 horsepower.   

Considering some of Ford’s most recent global designs, the speculative renderings circulating might be a pretty good indication of how the new model will look, which seems to have its fair share of fans and critics based on some of the car forums discussing the new design.

As far as in-car technology features, I expect the new Mustang to top any other vehicle in the segment, which will likely include a much improved MyFord Touch infotainment system and the capability to share everything from lap times to text messages.

The 2014 model is even available with a 4.2-inch LCD screen that features Track Apps, which allows the driver to monitor performance measures such as g-forces, shows acceleration times in quarter-mile and 0-60 increments, and displays braking times, complete with automatic and countdown starts. Hopefully, Ford will find a way to build on this  type of driver-centric technology in the new model.

Still, it’ll take more than a few hot new in-car technology features to help make the Mustang a winner.

With racing legend Carroll Shelby now sadly gone, there has been talk that Ford might discontinue using his iconic name on the car, which could present additional challenges when it comes to the appeal of the new Mustang – although the Shelby company, which is still in operation by his family, could likely continue to produce up-rated versions of the car.   

Saying that the Mustang is approaching a critical crossroads as it’s 50th birthday arrives is putting it lightly, and whether the next-generation of the pony car will give the nameplate the boost it needs to sustain its iconic status remains to be seen.

What do you think the next Mustang will look like? What features would you like to see? Leave a comment below: