Ford Mustang's global challenge

December 4, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

More important than beating GM and Chrysler for hometown bragging rights will be establishing the 2015 Mustang as a model that can win hearts and open wallets overseas.

By Doron Levin

An ad for the 1964 Ford Mustang

An ad for the 1964 Ford Mustang

FORTUNE -- Every automaker has its bread-and-butter models, the ones that sell in volume and at high enough prices to generate sufficient cash to run the entire company. For Ford Motor Co., that's the F-150 pickup truck.

But Ford's (F) heart and soul, if not its wallet, is the Mustang. The sporty two-door debuted in 1964, gained prominence at the New York World's Fair and made the career of Lee A. Iacocca (who nonetheless was fired from Ford in 1978).

Mustang will enter its sixth generation next year with its 2015 model. On Thursday, Ford will start what promises to be a lengthy publicity campaign with a press conference to reveal what the new "pony car," as the type of vehicle is called, will look like. Ford is banking on Mustang outselling GM's (GM) pony car, the Chevrolet Camaro, and Chrysler's Dodge Challenger.

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But a much more important goal than beating GM and Chrysler for hometown bragging rights will be establishing Mustang as a model that can gain global recognition for Ford in Shanghai, Munich, and Riyadh. In those cities, teenage boys (and quite a few girls) are more likely to dream about Audi A5s, BMW 4 Series, and Subaru WRXs. Mustang can strengthen Ford's blue oval, a brand that's still stronger at home than abroad.

Mustang's exterior is sure to feature a muscular, macho flair, denoting a racing machine for wannabe buyers with new-car budgets as low as the mid-20s. The new vehicle's most interesting technical advancement, Ford already has confirmed, will be an independent rear suspension. The new system, already conventional on most cars, replaces the solid axle on previous Mustangs. By dividing the rear axle, vibration is isolated and minimized when one wheel hits a rough patch or pothole.

"This is the first big change in Mustang since the 1990s," says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kbb.com, the website for Kelly Blue Book. "The car has stayed true to its original format and has been in production for 50 years. That's a pretty amazing record."

The current version weighs about 3,300 pounds, fairly heavy for the models pitted against it by foreign carmakers. Thus, many analysts are speculating that the new Mustang may weigh as little as 3,000 pounds, which would constitute serious slenderizing.

For a short time in the 1990s, Ford considered switching Mustang into a front-wheel-drive two-seater, more in keeping with the trends of the time. But purists, hobbyists, and fans raised a ruckus, badgering Ford executives to maintain the original 2+2 rear-wheel-drive format. The executives relented; the car they were going to call Mustang was renamed Probe.

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Sure, pony cars might be regarded as a relic of a bygone era. Yet Mustang plays a role so central to Ford's last half-century that it would seem a travesty not to modernize the car and keep it in the stable. Lots of variants are sure to follow the model's appearance in dealer showrooms this summer, such as Cobra, GT350, and others.

And don't be too surprised if the lighter 2016 model catches on in some unlikely overseas locations. The prosperity of the 1960s that brought Mustang within reach of average American consumers has spread overseas.

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