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Ford Mustang Is Not a Muscle Car It’s a ... (Fill in the Blank)

The Ford Mustang was the original pony car there's no question about that. And in its early beginnings it was easier to categorize than it is now. Today’s Mustang can be called a muscle car, a pony car, a sports car but can also unquestionably be called an icon.


One of the most tiresome, circular arguments I get in with my smart and intelligent readers is when I call the Ford Mustang a muscle car. Several smarty-pants (and I use that term affectionately) chime in and say well the Mustang isn’t technically a muscle car, you know. Yeah, yeah, I know. But if you poll the average (non-enthusiast) and ask what kind of car the Mustang is, they’ll likely say either muscle car or sports car. And the fact is, it’s not either technically, and yet it also sort of is. Confused yet? Let’s take a look closer and see if we can nail it all down.

Is the Ford Mustang a Muscle Car?

Loosely defined, a muscle car is an American car with rear-wheel drive fitted with a powerful (V8) engine. Most car historians trace the first muscle car back to 1949 with the Oldsmobile Rocket. This car was fast (for its time) with a V8 engine dropped into it. While the Mustang early on had a V8 engine in it (289 HiPo) many would say the Mustang didn’t become a muscle car until 428 Cobra Jet was introduced in 1968. That plus the Shelby modifications really put the Mustang on the map when it came to performance. And really, the late 1960s Mustangs were muscle cars by this definition. But as the Mustang evolved through the years, it lost its muscle, and didn’t really get back into that conversation until introduction of the 5.0 engine during the Fox Body era. Then it once again became a darling of the performance and muscle car enthusiasts.

Today, the purists (the aforementioned know-it-alls) will say that the Dodge Challenger is the last remaining true muscle car. And by those narrow definitions they’re technically correct. Although, today’s Mustang GT350 and GT500 have plenty of power and performance. With the independent rear suspensions of today’s Mustang GTs many would consider them a sports car rather than a muscle car. But if you want to call them a muscle car, I won’t split hairs and argue with you.

What Exactly Is A Pony Car?

Let’s be clear. The Ford Mustang is the original pony car. It created a new segment in the automotive industry. And throughout its rich history, year after year, for more than 55 years now, the Ford Mustang is a pony car. That has never changed. A pony car, by definition, is a low-slung highly stylized coupe or convertible with a long hood and short deck. That loose definition best describes the Mustang as it was designed originally by Gale Halderman and still applies today. The Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger are also pony cars. And these rivals have competed against each other for decades, with Ford coming out on top most years, including the last several years. Pony cars aren’t dependent on their engine performance; thus today’s Ecoboost Mustangs qualify as pony cars, but not as muscle cars. Small block V8s, big block V8s or six or even four-cylinder engines all qualify for the pony car category.

So, for simplicity purposes, all Mustangs are pony cars, plain and simple. There’s no disputing that.

Is a Ford Mustang A Sports Car?

The definition of a sports car is more generic, but some sports car characteristics certainly apply to today’s Mustang and even some of the 1960s era Shelby Mustangs too. They’re meant to be sleek, and performance oriented with aerodynamic designs and engineered as such. Sports cars combine sleek looks with high-power engines. Obviously, the Mustang fits into nicely. As noted, today’s Ford GTs most closely fit into the sports car category and compete against the likes the Corvette more than the Camaro.

So, for me, the Ford Mustang GT is a sports car, and honestly if you want to call some of the high-power Mustang coupes and convertibles of modern era a sports car, I won’t bicker with you about it. There are even many publications that throw the Mustang into the sports car ranking when doing comparisons. The easiest way to differentiate a sports car from a muscle car is in the handling. Muscle cars, like the Dodge Challenger are all about straight away, raw power and focus less on handling.

Red Ford Mustang Sports Car right side silhouette

A sports car, like the Chevy Corvette or the Mustang GT would do well cornering on a track, thus they qualify as sports cars.

So this hopefully clears up the debate, but likely just muddied the waters more. To summarize, all Mustangs are pony cars. Some Mustangs are muscle cars. And some Mustangs are sports cars. But all Ford Mustangs are iconic (except for the Mach-E). You know I had to get that jab in about the four-wheel drive, crossover pretending to be a Mustang.

See you in my next story discussing how much muscle the four cylinder Ford Mustang has.

Jimmy Dinsmore has been an automotive journalist for more than a decade and been a writer since the high school. His Driver’s Side column features new car reviews and runs in several newspapers throughout the country. In addition to being a nationally syndicated automotive columnist, Jimmy has been published in a compilation book about children growing up with disabilities, where he shared his own very personal experience. He is also co-author of the book “Mustang by Design” and “Ford Trucks: A Unique Look at the Technical History of America’s Most Popular Truck”. Also, Jimmy works in the social media marketing world for a Canadian automotive training aid manufacturing company. Follow Jimmy on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


Mike stewart (not verified)    January 30, 2020 - 11:42AM

The mustang is a personal getaway vehicle. The look and speed is entirely ones own choice.

Dean Ricci (not verified)    January 30, 2020 - 5:01PM

The Mustang is an American ICON. What it isn't is an SUV and Ford is doing damage to its ICON vehicle by slapping a running horse on an Electric SUV and calling it Mustang.

Erik Turner (not verified)    February 5, 2020 - 8:17AM

Actually the mustang for quite some time like it or not is a sports car. It's more European buy design like it or not, especially if you judge it buy the drivetrain and rear independent suspension. When you really look at the must it's like Ford wants to be more European than an American car Company.

Rusty Harrod (not verified)    January 10, 2022 - 7:28AM

In reply to by Jimmy Dinsmore

Mr. Dinsmore, you should be proud. You struck a nerve with the motor heads. A group of unrelated men so passionate about their love of the screaming V-8’s that America (definitely including Canada) does better than anybody. Salute.

Carlos Rojas (not verified)    February 20, 2020 - 9:36AM

While modern Mustangs may be called muscle cars, what they really are a bunch of steel and plastic of bad taste, suitable for butchers.

Steve Eldredge (not verified)    February 27, 2020 - 7:04AM

Your definition of a sports car:

"They’re meant to be sleek, and performance oriented with aerodynamic designs and engineered as such. Sports cars combine sleek looks with high-power engines."

By this definition, what is a Mazda MX5 and/or Fiat 124? How about the Alfa Romeo 4C? (only 234 horsepower)

Jimmy Dinsmore    February 27, 2020 - 8:50AM

That's the beauty of it. How do you define it? I wouldn't call the Miata a sports car, but it's certainly sporty to drive. It overperforms its output numbers. Same with the "Fiata" Spyder.

Mark Hayes (not verified)    February 27, 2020 - 11:54PM

I was at the Mustang Rally at Sturgis, SD last year & many of us owners think that the Muscle Car image ended in ‘14. Starting with ‘15 - we call them the Euro Mustangs because it has a low wide rearend somewhat similar to a Porsche 911. Aside from the ‘65 thru ‘73s. I like the ‘11 thru ‘14s the best. Massive HP, reliable, good gas mileage & still has that down hill look ..... with Brakes !! Unlike the 60 / 70s.

Kenneth Walters (not verified)    January 27, 2022 - 10:24PM

In reply to by Mark Hayes (not verified)

It is all good, we as consumers buy what we like. With that being said, I just bought a use one owner untouched 2011 Mustang GT 5.0. The Coyote Power plant is why I purchased this car. My philosophy is diffrent categories of Mustang owners..1. Purest buy one, do nothing and drive it on weekends. 2. Mototerheads buy one, as a project car. 3. Speed freaks buy one to race. 4. Attentin getters buy one, to look cool and get those attaboys. 5. Wemon buy one because they fall in love with the car they pick. By the way, and may wear their heart on their sleeve. Anyway you look at it, get one and call it your own. Mine I don't even call a Mustang, I call it the COYOTE!!!

Rusty Harrod (not verified)    February 29, 2020 - 9:29PM

I always drove the real muscle cars, ‘67 Firebird, ‘71 SS Camaro, even my ‘86 Trans Am and ‘95 Trans Am seemed like muscle cars. Second gear rubber with a factory automatic. But the new muscle cars just don’t seem as raw. An 8 speed automatic is way too smooth and I don’t want to shift gears every time I go to Walmart. Do they have a daily driver muscle car anymore for guys like me who want to comfortably drive around until some punk in a Honda revs his rice burner and I eat his lunch?

Ango (not verified)    April 13, 2020 - 2:23AM

This is so unnecessary discussion. Acceleration to 100 km/h in 4,2 sec sounds pretty sporty. That all. The name "ponycar" is such a ridiculous name it makes the Ford Mustang pathetic, unserious and toy-like. I will never call my Mustang for ponycar. I don't even want to hear this name anymore.

Jimmy Dinsmore    April 13, 2020 - 10:59AM

In reply to by Ango (not verified)

I understand your take, believe me I do. But as someone who covers the industry, we get stuck too often in labels. And if I call a Mustang a muscle car, some will come down on me. But I understand what your'e saying and agree with your premise. In the auto industry there isn't a "pony car" segment. They're either sports car or muscle car.

RICK SIDENSTRICKER (not verified)    February 13, 2021 - 9:10AM

It's a muscle car, performance car, sports car, personal car, gone in the blink of an eye car. It is not a taxi. It is not a family car. It is not a truck. It is not a station wagon.
And what it is, it excels at admirably. Period.

Craig skripek (not verified)    April 14, 2021 - 10:59PM

Ford Mustang is a pony car....not that you cant make them fast or handle well,
But there far from a sports car.

RICK SIDENSTRICKER (not verified)    April 15, 2021 - 7:08AM

In reply to by Craig skripek (not verified)

No need to "make them handle" if you know about Mustangs you can simply spec one out to your expectations.
An excellent educational opportunity.
An amazing car that is available at your Ford dealer.

Mark (not verified)    August 19, 2021 - 1:33PM

I don't know why this is so hard.

Pony Car. Is a sporty 2 door coupe or vert that is still practical. Not necessarily fast or great at the track, but fun to drive. Has seats for 4.

Muscle Car: car originally designed as family transportation but has since been installed with a high output high displacement engine. Great for quick acceleration times but not very good handling around corners. Can be 2 or 4 doors. Always has seats for 4.

Sports Car: Car designed to have the best performance in power and handling attainable. Always a 2 seater. Usually a convertible or with removable tops but can be a fixed roof too.

Matt R (not verified)    October 31, 2021 - 5:52PM

As an owner of a '65 A code convertible and a 2021 Mach-E AWD Performance, I don't have any problem with the Mach-E being a Mustang. Evolve or die, like the Camaro is going to do for a second time. "Purists" would have the Mustang cease production is opposed to evolve. Heck, my Mach-E out performs most "Mustangs" ever produced.

Terry Shell (not verified)    December 14, 2021 - 8:28PM

It along with the Corvette are yardsticks of which all else is judged. When you say you own a Mustang people go… you own a Mustang???!!! I’m sure it’s the same for a Corvette.

Rick Sidenstricker (not verified)    December 15, 2021 - 8:55PM

In reply to by Terry Shell (not verified)

Yes. Iconic. Along with the Camaro, Charger and Challenger. Yet each car is very different in execution.
Seek what you love, drive what you love. Let the haters hate.
It's a great time to love cars.

MattR (not verified)    January 10, 2022 - 12:52AM

Muscle cars don't exist anymore because even the Challenger can turn.

I hate to say it, but a lot of these definitions don't make sense any more. Turbo 6 cylinders do under 4 sec 0-60s. A Mercedes SL is a 12 sec drag car. A Camaro can do over 1 g on a skidpad.

Just how does one group cars, the equipment and the performance envelope to support "muscle" "sports" or any other description?