Leaders Of The Pack
The redesigned Mustang, Corvette and Porsche 911 remind you of how legends are made—and reborn
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – When three kings of the road deliver great redesigns within a few months of one another, it's a gift an auto enthusiast can appreciate. When the kings are named Mustang, Corvette and Porsche 911, however, you don't have to be a gearhead to get it. You just need to be alive enough to have ever dreamed of a car, and a time of your life, that got away.

The resurgence of these models is all the more meaningful because they had been tarnished a bit. The Mustang and Corvette were downright shabby for much of the '70s and '80s. The Porsche always retained its majesty but recently lost just a touch of its classic good looks. These new models, though, will make your heart flutter. If you want one, forget about getting a deal. You may not be able to put a price on love, but your dealer can: It's list, at least for now.

Recently I had the chance to drive this trio in their dream environments—the Mustang in southern California, the 'Vette on a Detroit test track and highways and the Porsche on the German autobahn. Here's what I found.

Ford Mustang Base price: $19,410 to $24,995 As tested: $27,570

The Mustang of 1964½became the fastest-selling new car in history, and later versions became muscle-car icons. Then came '70s abominations like the Pinto-based Mustang II. Years of corporate neglect followed; the car hasn't had a top-to-bottom redesign since 1979. The news that Ford was setting out to recapture the Mustang's magic wasn't necessarily reassuring to boomers carrying a torch for the original pony car—not after the botched retro Thunderbird proved nostalgia alone isn't enough to make a car great.

Mustang lovers needn't have worried. The all-new 2005 model is a far more convincing blend of past and present. Driven in and around Los Angeles, the Mustang's bravura styling drew nonstop stares. Classic 'Stang design cues are all there: the fastback profile that instantly recalls the '67 model; the shark snout and galloping pony badge; the three-bar tail lamps and deep-dish retro gauges. Unlike the T-Bird, the Mustang looks retro yet relevant. And the attitude is pure Detroit bad boy.

So is the engine. Hit the gas and the GT's all-new 300-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 announces its caveman nature with a guttural roar and a whiff of tire smoke on its way to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds. The exhaust is expertly tuned for a blue-collar rumble; even the base Mustang's 210-hp V-6 sounds a surprisingly hearty note for an engine of its size.

A hugely improved five-speed Tremec manual shifter has a nice chunky mechanical feel, while the five-speed automatic accommodates performance or laid-back driving. Steering feels a bit loose in the straight-ahead position, and turn-in could be sharper. Yet the car hugs turns with aplomb and feels more settled, its hindquarters less prone to hop and bop over bumps.

The street-fighter look belies the newly civilized ride and interior. A stiff new structure banishes shakes and rattles; a six-inch-longer wheelbase helps expand the once claustrophobic interior. And the cabin's layout vastly improves the former contortionist relationship between driver and controls. The cabin is quieter too, though L.A. freeway bumps still transmitted modest noise inside. Front seats are well bolstered to hold you in place, but they're a bit soft. In Mustang tradition, the back seat remains a penalty box. Despite retro flair inside, some cabin bits seem of middling quality, but the car's base price of less than $20,000 softens that gripe.

The Mustang doesn't pretend to be a sports car in the league of the 'Vette, which costs double. But it's still a heap of high-testosterone fun, sliding its tail with ease when you try out your Steve McQueen "Bullitt" impersonation.

Chevrolet Corvette Base price: $44,245 to $52,245 As tested: $48,605

The Corvette's 51-year history is chock-full of classics, notably the Sting Rays of 1963-67. It also, regrettably, includes the overblown disco 'Vettes of the '70s and early '80s. The 1997-2004 C5 rebuilt Corvette's reputation as the world's best sports car for the price. The new C6 is less of a leap, but it takes a great car and makes it better, stronger and faster. Testing the car over GM's snaking Milford Road Course, I was struck by the C6 Corvette's clear gains in power, handling and refinement.

Exterior changes are more an expertly done nip and tuck than a full makeover. Chevrolet's designers cut a welcome five inches off the length, an inch in width. Exposed headlights replace the pop-up lights that trace back to the Sting Ray. The lines suggest that this is still a brute, but an elegant one. There's a suggestion of Ferrari up front, and the C5's chunky butt—its least appealing feature—has been modestly reshaped to break up the former blank wall of aerodynamic plastic. And finally, the once cheesy interior is acceptably refined for a car that costs 45 large.

Climbing aboard is easier, with the front roof pillar and windshield angled further from the door opening, and the seats more supportive. The handsome convertible model also adds a power-folding feature to its soft top. As before, surprising fuel mileage (19 mpg city/28 mpg highway), cavernous luggage space and expected outstanding resale value are practical icing on this cake.

The performance story starts with a larger 6.0-liter pushrod V-8 with a giddy 400 hp, up from 350. (Next year's special Z06 model should hit 500 hp.) The 0 to 60 mph run flashes past in 4.2 seconds with the new, shorter-throw, six-speed manual shifter. Top speed is a license-shredding 186 mph, up from 175. It sounds great too, emitting the lusty exhaust note that the C5 lacked.

A new generation of Goodyear run-flat tires pays real dividends in performance and comfort. Driven back-to-back with the C5, the new 'Vette grips harder to circle the road course at higher speeds, yet the tires are quieter and smoother riding. Moving both cars to the highway, I found a markedly quieter cabin, thanks to 15 added pounds of sound-absorbing material.

Downsides? The new standard keyless entry is a pain, with manual-transmission drivers forced to pop into reverse to shut off the ignition. And the four-speed automatic transmission, while acceptably quick and smooth, inexcusably lacks a useful manual-shift function. Quibbles aside, the Corvette has raised its already lofty bar for sports-car value, delivering six-figure performance for less than $50,000.

Porsche 911 Carrera/Carrera S Base price: $70,085 to $79,885 As tested (Carrera S): $83,560

The 911's 41-year run is notable for its remarkable consistency, with Porsche refusing to bow to trends or compromise on engineering and performance. Yet for many Porschephiles—myself included—the outgoing model went too far in softening the exterior's shape. Even Porsche executives now admit a correction was called for.

Consider it done. The new 911 restores the slimmer waistline and voluptuous hips that make a 911 a 911. Owners will no longer fret that you can't tell the difference between the 911 and the cheaper Boxster when viewed from the front. Traditional round headlamps are back too, hailed by nostalgic fans around the world. The changes are hardly radical, but the 911 looks gorgeous just the same. The interior gets a welcome makeover as well, with more leather, better seats and sharper instruments befitting such a pricey car.

Performance is brilliant, naturally. For the first time since 1977, the 911 coupe offers its flat-6 engine in two sizes: the Carrera's 3.6-liter with 325 hp, or the Carrera S' 3.8-liter with 355 hp. If you can swallow the 10-grand premium for the S model, do so: It feels and sounds more potent from idle to red line; 0 to 60 mph is cut to 4.8 seconds vs. 5.0 for the smaller engine. On a rainy stretch of the German autobahn, the Carrera S purred to an effortless 250 kmh (155 mph), my common sense kicking in before the car's 182 mph top speed. The steering ratio automatically adjusts to boost agility on curves and ease of handling around town.

The S model's other big additions include beefier brakes and Porsche Active Suspension Management. Optional on the Carrera, the system lets you choose settings for comfort or performance, using sensors to firm or soften shocks on the fly. While handling and grip are spectacular, the system didn't feel as intuitive and driver- friendly as the Corvette's optional active handling.

That said, the Porsche remains the ultimate sports-car personal trainer, alert to your driving strengths and forgiving of your weaknesses. Yes, its price approaches fantasyland, but a happy reality is that the 911 consistently holds its value better than any other sports car.

Three rides on the wild side

Besides a piece of history, here's what else you'll buy