Let’s fall in love with four-cylinder Mustangs

Ford Mustang II jack baruth

What was the worst Mustang of all time? It’s a question that divides Ford fanatics almost as sharply as the corresponding “best Mustang” topic, and in both cases there are more than a few legitimate candidates for the title. If I had to pick the all-time dog among ponies, I would probably cast my vote for the 1995 “SN95” V-6 automatic convertible, a completely breathless flexi-flyer with a serious weight problem and a distinct inability to show its cheesy retro taillights to a rental-spec Taurus sedan. My Baby-Boomer pals like to complain about the Mustang Grande, a Brougham-ized take on the already-oversized late first-gen cars, which was frequently equipped with the 1-barrel “Thriftpower” six—that thing had all the characteristics of a slug, up to and including a tendency to immediately dissolve upon contact with road salt.

Given a chance, however, I think most automotive enthusiasts would call out the four-cylinder Mustang II as the All Time Worst, and not entirely without justification. The first year of the compact-class Mustang came as a massive shock to everyone, dropping future auction-floor superstars like the Mach 1 in favor of a glorified Pinto without a single bent-eight on the options list. If ever there was the automotive equivalent of Jimmy Carter throwing up his hands and telling Americans to put on a sweater, this was it. Yet the buyers’ response to the 2.3-liter Mustang was far more enthusiastic than their election-year rebuke to President Carter; the sales decline of 1970–73 was reversed, and then some, by a veritable tidal wave of showroom-floor traffic. Without the 1974 Mustang II, there would be no Mustang today, the same way there is no Barracuda or Javelin today.

To its credit, Ford worked hard, and quickly, to bring the Shetland-sized pony back up to speed as the fuel crisis receded, but the car was never truly quick and it was posthumously considered to be a bit of a punchline, particularly once “5.0” badges started appearing on wicked-fast Fox-body Mustangs in the mid-’80s. The old four-banger Mustang IIs were buy-here-pay-here specials in my youth, plying their sad, smoky trade for fast-food workers and desperate single mothers with rusted-out rockers and watery taillights. Two decades after the Mustang II’s introduction, one could be forgiven for not even being aware of the car’s existence; Ford’s advertising of the period did its damndest to apply a Cybil Shepherd soft filter to those mysterious years between the first-gen GT500 and the ‘84 GT.

1985 Ford Mustang SVO
1985 Ford Mustang SVO (Ford Motor)

Even in the era where Vanilla Ice was rollin’ in his five-point-oh, however, there were four-cylinder Mustangs doing the dirty work of keeping the assembly lines running and the engineering bills paid—and I’m not talking about the Euro-cool SVO or the kitschy Turbo Cobras. The 2.3-liter “Lima” engine gained twin spark plugs in 1991, enabling it to barely crest the 100-horsepower summit, but it was never anything more than what tech people call a “minimum viable product,” designed to carry secretaries (note to the younger crowd: the term “secretary” is an outdated reference to the corporate position now known as “administrative assistant”) and elementary-school teachers to their jobs until trade-in time.

As a Ford salesman in the ’90s, I was confronted with more than a few of those trade-ins. Calling a four-cylinder automatic third-generation Mustang “molasses-slow” would be a kindness, but it did display a certain bit of vigor in that critical leap from 0–30. I don’t recall any of the owners complaining; in fact, more than a few of them said that the SN95 V-6 didn’t have the “zip” of a four-cylinder Fox, largely because the new car had acquired a sort of ponderous inertia to go with its subterranean seating position.

The sheer weight of the SN95, “New Edge” facelift, and fifth-generation S197 Mustangs absolutely precluded the use of anything less than a six; the S197, in particular, had a 1973 Grande-ish heft to it. With the new model, however, the 2.3-liter Mustang has returned, this time yclept “Ecoboost” and lifted to a robust 310 horsepower by way of a turbocharger.

1997 Ford Mustang convertible
Ford
1997 Ford Mustang convertible

Last night I had dinner with a BMX-racer friend who bought an Ecoboosted ’Stang earlier this year. It’s his gateway-drug enthusiast car, the same way those stick-shift four-banger Telnack-era early Foxes were for the late Boomers back in 1979. He likes the modest little ’Stang and he likes the idea that he could tune it for more power in much the same way a Subaru WRX or Volkswagen GTI could be tuned. He knows it’s not as fast as the mighty “Coyote” or “Voodoo” V-8s, but he is still in his 20s, and he knows that his insurance company would send him a breakup text were he to take delivery of, say, a GT350R.

Prior to the introduction of the Ecoboost, Ford had no real way of reaching a customer like my friend. The V-6 Mustangs are nice enough, and they are remarkably quick now, but they lack a certain cachet with the younger buyer, who considers them to be rental cars. Not surprisingly, there’s now a turbo four-cylinder Camaro as well, and for the same reasons.

When my friend is in his 40s, his kids will no doubt ask him, “Why didn’t you buy the Voodoo?” the same way I have trouble understanding why my father settled for a 307-powered Camaro RS convertible upon his return from Vietnam when there were so many faster and wilder options. He’ll have to shrug and tell them what my father told me: “It seemed like a reasonable choice at the time.”

2019 Ford Mustang EcoBoost
Ford
2019 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

That’s the strength of the four-cylinder Mustang, both in 1974 and 2019: it takes people who need to make a reasonable choice and turns them into pony car pilots instead of econocar owners. Voltaire, who lived in a period with no “cheap speed” options at all except for running down a steep hill, once wrote, “We should not let the best be the enemy of the good.” Yes, the 1968 Shelbys were brilliant, and yes the ’93 Cobra R was wicked, and my God, is the current GT350R an E-ticket ride to surpass anything this side of a Ferrari 488 Pista, but the four-cylinder Mustang has always served a necessary supporting role to these superstars. Without it, we wouldn’t have the chance to own and drive the V-8 pavement rippers of our dreams.

In the future, therefore, I suggest that we treat the modest-mouse four-cylinder models with a little more respect and affection. And if you know someone who is looking for mid-price transportation, don’t forget to recommend that Ecoboost model to them. We should not let the best Mustangs be the enemies of the good ones—and the good ones, nowadays, are very good, indeed.