Ford's Mustang hasn't got the biggest V-8 or the most power, but it does have longer legs than either of its two historic rivals, Chevy's Camaro and the Dodge Challenger.

The Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964 - not far off the half-century mark - whereas Camaro and Challenger have both been cancelled and then revived. Neither car has ever sold as consistently well as the Mustang.

Let's look at some of the reasons why - as embodied by the current version of Ford's perennial favorite:

WHAT IT IS

The Mustang is a large, rear-wheel-drive sport coupe/convertible that's styled to look like they used to build 'em, but with build quality that's fully modern. It comes in both V-6 and V-8 GT versions, with prices starting at $20,995 for a V-6 coupe and running to $35,995 for a loaded GT convertible.

(There are also ultra-performance Shelby/GT500 versions of the Mustang but these are very low production and cost 2-3 times the price of a V-8 GT. While they share the same basic body and are also Mustangs, they are so different functionally - and occupy such a different price point - that they will be covered separately in another review.)

WHAT'S NEW

Subtle but significant updates to the Mustang's exterior and interior as well as more power from the GT's V-8. Stability control is now included on all versions as standard equipment and Ford's voice-activated Sync media controller (more on this below) is an available option.

WHAT'S GOOD

History radiates from this car; it's a great way to relive the best parts of 1960s-era muscle car fun without all the not-so-fun parts of the 1960s car scene (including Soviet-style build quality and Third World reliability). V-8 GT has wonderful exhaust note. V-8 GT also costs about three grand less to start than the V-8 powered versions of Camaro and Challenger, its two main rivals.

WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

V-6 is underpowered compared with rivals, rude sounding and uses almost as much gas as the V-8 in the GT. V-8 GT version is much less potent than V-8 versions of either the Camaro or the Challenger.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The Mustang' s standard engine is a 4.0 liter, 210 hp V-6. On the one hand, this is almost as much power as the 5.0 liter V-8 in the 1980s-era Mustang GT produced. On the other, it is nearly 100 horsepower less than the current Camaro V-6 offers (304 hp) and 40 hp less than the current Challenger V-6 (250 hp) produces.

The power deficit wouldn't be so bad, though, if the Ford V-6 returned excellent gas mileage. Unfortunately, it doesn't. EPA hangs a dismal 16 mpg city and 24 highway rating around the neck of the Ford's V-6. Meanwhile, the Camaro's 304 hp 3.6 liter V-6 comes in with 17 mpg in city driving and a stupendous 29 mpgs on the highway. It's a staggering difference, especially in view of the Chevy's near-100 hp advantage.

The match-up looks better against the Challenger's V-6, which is also a fuel hog at 17 city, 25 highway - and unlike the Ford, is offered only with an automatic transmission. At least the Mustang V-6 is available with a five-speed manual - which takes up a lot of the 40 hp slack as far as sporty driving feel goes.

As far as the 0-60 numbers go, the V-6 Mustang isn't slow - as such. It'll do the deed in about 7 seconds flat. But in comparison with the Camaro extremely impressive 304 hp V-6, it's not even close - though once again, the V-6 Mustang can hold its own against the base V-6/automatic-only Challenger.

Things get better both performance-wise and gas mileage-wise if you choose the V-8 GT. Power is up to 315 hp (a noticeable 15 hp improvement over 2009), which drops the 0-60 time close to 5 seconds flat - while gas mileage, pegged at 16 city, 24 highway is actually slightly better than the 2009's 15 city and 23 highway.

That's the good news. The not-so-good news is the GT's 4.6 liter V-8 is physically a much smaller engine than either the 5.7 liter Hemi found in the Challenger R/T or the downright humungous 6.2 liter V-8 that's used in the Camaro SS. This means it has less "bottom end grunt" (torque) as well as a lot less peak power than either of its two V-8 competitors. The Camaro SS is a brutal car in comparison. Don't pick a fight with one unless you enjoy humiliation.

There is, however, an upside. Two, actually.

For one, the Mustang is lighter by several hundred pounds than either the Chevy or the Dodge, with a curb weight (for the GT coupe) of just over 3,400 lbs. vs. a fairly fatty 3,720 lbs. for the Challenger R/T and a downright porky 3,860 lb. for the Camaro SS. This slows both those cars down.

Also, keep in mind that three grand price gap between the Mustang GT ($27,995) and the Camaro SS ($30,745) and Dodge Challenger R/T ($30,860).

Three grand buys a lot of aftermarket speed parts. For instance, a supercharger kit. These typically add 75-100 hp to the baseline output. That would bring the GT's 4.6 V-8 to about 400 hp - surpassing the 5.7 liter Hemi in the Challenger and achieving parity with the Camaro's 6.2 liter V-8 for roughly the same total investment.

Granted, the car would be "modified" and this might affect the warranty. But the point here is that if you just like the Mustang better, you can match the performance of its two big rivals for about the same total cost.

Another possible way to even the score a bit is to choose the factory optional 3.73 rear axle ratio to make the most of the 4.6 liter's available power. Also available is a high-perofmance Track Pack that fits the car with very aggressive 19-inch "summer" tires and a firmer suspension for optimum handling.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

I've driven - and personally owned - several "old school" muscle coupes from the 1960s and early '70s - the era from which the current Mustang draws its inspiration. The engineers have done a brilliant job recapturing the feel of those cars (and that era), at least in the GT. The V-8's exhaust note sounds almost catalytic converter-free and you can make it "talk" (in manual models) by easing off the gas pedal in between gear changes (when exhaust reversions change the pitch of the sound). It doesn't accelerate nearly as forcefully (in stock trim) as either the Camaro SS or the Challenger R/T, but that does not mean it isn't a blast to drive.

That goes for its handling, too. With its old-school live axle rear end, American Graffiti-style burnouts, tire-barking 1-2 upshifts and that NASCAR-like solid/planted feel are standard equipment. It's by no means as razor-sharp as a BMW Z4 or Nissan 350Z but that is not what a car like Mustang - or the Camaro/Challenger - is all about. Look upon them as the road-going equivalents of a WW II-era heavy cruiser or battleship, big guns blazing, punching holes in the sky with their 16-inch guns. It's an experience that cannot be replicated by a modern sports car such as a BMW Z4 or Nissan 350Z. Those cars and others like them are superb at what they do - but none of them can do what a car like Mustang does.

"Soul" is hard to define, but the Ford has it.

STYLING & UTILITY

The current Mustang looks a lot like the Mustangs of the late 1960s and early '70s - and that is part of its charm. It's one of the few sporty cars on the market that isn't trying to be the latest thing. Instead, it reanimates classic themes, inside and out. The shell echoes the lines of Steve McQueen's Highland Green 1967 390 GT fastback. Oversize driving lights in the grille bring back memories of 289 Hi-Po Shelby GT350s. Pewter-silver finished trim plates tuck under a breadbox-style dash - with exact reproductions of the '60s-era fonts for the gauges.

One of the great things about these old school muscle coupes is there's a ton of room for the driver and front seat passenger - much more so than you'd find in a two-seater sports car such as a 350Z. There are also back seats. Granted they are about as useful for carrying adult humans as those sad little jump seats in compact-sized extended cab pick-ups. But like them, you can at least carry kids back there - even adults for brief (although uncomfortable) trips in a pinch. And the extra space effectively doubles as a second trunk - making these cars much more plausible as everyday cars than two-seater sports coupes.

The Mustang's trunk is also decently sized at 13.4 cubic feet (vs. 11.3 for Camaro) although neither car can touch the Challenger's body bag-capable 16.2 cubic footer.

This year, Ford has added its Sync voice-controlled media interface as an available option on all Mustangs, both V-6 and V-8 versions. Sync lets you call up a cell phone number, radio station, operate the GPS system ( and so on) merely by speaking the appropriate command. It will also download info from your PDA/cell (as well iPod or other digital media). Neither the Camaro nor the Challenger have a similar feature - though the Camaro does come standard with GM's OnStar driver assistance.

Right now, the Mustang is also the only one of the three contenders that's available as both a hardtop coupe and convertible; both Camaro and Challenger are reportedly going to offer this feature down the road (2011 for Camaro) but right now these cars are sold as hardtop coupes only.

QUALITY & SAFETY

On quality, the field narrows to two because the Challenger's build quality is noticeably inferior - even shoddy. I weep for Chrysler. I love the looks of the Challenger - it's a dead ringer for the 1970 model. But so is the slapdash assembly (right down to the obvious spot welds and what looks like paint-brush-applied body filler on the trunk seams) and sketchy reliability record of current Chrysler products in general. The Camaro's vastly better and from looking at both cars (Camaro vs. Mustang) they seem quite comparable as far as materials, fit and finish, attention to detail and so on.

The $3,000 price difference between the Mustang GT and Camaro SS and Dodge Challenger R/T can't be ignored, either. If your bottom line isn't focused on 0-60 times exclusively, the Mustang's much more affordable - and arguably the better bang for the buck, overall.

Crash test-wise, the Mustang scores highly, earning 5 stars in most categories (excepting rear-end impacts for the convertible, which got 4 stars). Stability control, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and side-impact air bags are standard on all trims.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Though it's not the most hard-core performer, the Mustang is arguably the most well-rounded of the latter-day muscle coupes. In fact, its overall civility gives it broader appeal - especially to women. The Camaro SS and Challenger R/T are mucho macho. Maybe too mucho - at least in terms of appealing to more than (mostly) under-35 males.

Indeed, that is one of the keys to understanding the Mustang's ongoing popularity. Horsepower (and 0-60 times) are certainly important, but they aren't everything. At least, not for most buyers. In marketing surveys (and as demonstrated by actual sales performance over the past 40-plus years now) women - who after all are half the potential buying pubic - generally like the Mustang, including the V-8 GT, whereas the Camaro and Challenger are very polarizing cars that appeal almost exclusively to young (and single) men.

That means not only that Ford will likely sell more Mustangs to women, it also means that Ford will sell more Mustangs to married men (and men with girlfriends), too.

Over-50s, meanwhile, also like the V-6 coupe/convertible - while almost none of this demographic has any interest in the snorting, intimidator-mobiles from Chevy and Dodge.

Which is why the Mustang's popularity (and marketplace viability) seems to never fade. And why there will very likely still be a Mustang in Ford's lineup five years from now.

Maybe even 40 years from now.

It's hard to predict the same sunny future for either of the Mustang's two main rivals.