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2011 Ford Mustang GT

Now, that’s a relief.

For a while it appeared as though both the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger — with their more potent engines — were going to dine on the carcass of the Ford Mustang. But seemingly from out of nowhere, Ford’s pony will strut its stuff with punchier and more fuel efficient powerplants that should keep this war horse as spirited and relevant as ever.

In this herd, it’s muscle that matters and those who have it tend to lord it over those who don’t. The Mustang’s 210 horsepower 4.0-liter V6 was, on paper at least, simply no match for the 250-horsepower Challenger SE’s V6 or the 304-horsepower Camaro V6.

Similarly, the Mustang GT’s 315-horsepower 4.6-liter V8 sounded potent, but had no hope of fending off the Camaro SS’s punchy Corvette-based 6.2-liter V8 with up to 426 ground-pounding horsepower. The Challenger R/T and SRT8 also came to play with 376 and 425 horsepower, respectively.

Now it’s a whole new ball game.

This spring, the blue-oval automaker replaces its underperforming powertrains with some fresh hardware. The new base engine will be a 305-horsepower 3.7-liter DOHC V6 with 280 pound-feet of torque, which, if you’re paying attention, produces peak horsepower numbers that are within striking distance of the 4.6-liter V6.

The new V6 delivers its peak power at 6,500 r.p.m. and can be pushed to 7,000 r.p.m, a level that goes beyond most non-racing engines. To quote a Ford powertrain engineer, the 3.7 “loves to be pushed hard”.

An accompanying dual-exhaust system that sings a sportier song is totally in keeping with the car’s character and significantly increased output.

But what about fuel economy compared to the previous V6? Nearly 100 more horsepower and highway fuel economy that shoots up four m.p.g. to 30.

Further V6-model adjustments include changes to the speedometer and tachometer to reflect the revised power and rev limits. There’s also a standard limited-slip differential that transfers engine torque to the rear wheel with the most grip when conditions becomes slippery. In addition the front fascia has been altered for improved aerodynamics, the front and rear suspension settings have been adjusted to help the Mustang handle in a more precise manner, and larger front and rear disc brakes have been installed.

An optional V6 Performance Package adds a performance-rear-axle ratio, 19-inch wheels (18s are standard), firmer Mustang GT suspension and a sport mode setting for the stability control that allows the car’s rear end to slide out a bit when accelerating or while turning quickly.

The soon-to-arrive 2011 Mustang GT is being treated to a new 5.0-liter (302-cubic-inch) double-overhead-cam V8. This is big news for Mustang fanatics, who will likely recall that this particular engine displacement began with 1968-model-year stallions (with the camshaft in the block, of course) and remained until 1996 when it was replaced by a 4.6-liter SOHC unit.

The new 5.0 revs to 7,000 r.p.m. and cranks out 412 horsepower and 390 pound feet of torque. Compare that with 315 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque from the 2010 GT’s 4.6-liter V8. Highway fuel economy increases to 25 m.p.g. from 23, even with a gain of nearly 100 horsepower.

Both new engines are now fitted with six-speed manual transmissions, or optional six-speed automatics.

Additional improvements for 2011 feature added structural rigidity and sound insulation on all models and an optional Brembo-brand brake package for the GT that originates from the Mustang-based Shelby GT500.

The sheer power of the new Mustang engines might only match those of the Camaro, but the Mustang is smaller and weighs a bit less. Even still, the base weight of the V6 climbs by about 350 pounds to 3,750. Interestingly, Ford also reports that the GT coupe weighs about 150 pounds less than the V6 coupe, although there’s no explanation as to why.

Regardless, the upcoming Mustang’s significantly improved power supply ushers in a new era of one-upmanship reminiscent of the 1960s and early 1970s when performance was all the rage and on- and off-track competition was at its peak.

The Mustang and its competitors might not be the same, but some things just never change.