Defying Detroit's wisdom, Ford has designed a new Mustang that's good, fast — and cheap.

The time-honored recipe for the American muscle car goes like this: Take a small chassis, style the body with a touch of snarl, drop in a big engine, and watch it fly from the starting line and off dealer lots with impressive velocity.

Ford has followed this recipe to near perfection with the 2005 Mustang GT. For a base price of $26,405 (all prices include destination charge) for the GT Premium, or $28,925 with an optional upgraded interior and sound system, you get 300 horsepower and a zero-to-60 time of 5.1 seconds. And it's all wrapped in sleek, muscular sheet metal with fastback styling that evokes the Mustang's glory days of the 1960s. It's a pleasing package that defies one of Detroit's time-honored maxims: Good, fast or cheap; pick any two. The new Mustang is all three.

To be sure, the Mustang isn't the Schwarzenegger of the muscle-car world nowadays. The 2005 Pontiac GTO packs a whopping 400 hp, up from 350 horses on the 2004 model. And the Goat sports a six-speed manual transmission instead of the Pony's five-speed. (Driving the automatics available on both cars is like drinking wine spritzers instead of wine. Both water down the experience.) But the GTO has some offsetting drawbacks.

It's more than 300 pounds heavier than the Mustang, tempering its horsepower edge. Despite the belated addition of hood scoops this year, the GTO's styling still inspires more yawns than wows. And the GTO's base price of $33,690 is about $7,300 higher than the Mustang GT's base price — although when the cars are comparably equipped, the price gap narrows to about $5,000.

Ford gained this price advantage by cutting corners in the right places, mostly. Yes, a six-speed manual transmission would have been better — and likely will be available on a high-performance version of the Mustang GT at some point. An independent rear suspension is also possible. But the Mustang's solid rear axle handles corners quite well, and you don't expect a boulevard ride in this car anyway.

These tradeoffs reflect the thinking of Hau Thai-Tang, the Mustang's chief engineer, whose personal story is as iconic as the car's. In April 1975, at age nine, he fled Vietnam as a refugee. He did the rest of his growing up in Brooklyn, where the family car was, alas, a Ford Maverick. Engineering the first new Mustang since 1994 has "exceeded my wildest dreams," he says. "This car embodies freedom."

Unless, that is, you're in the backseat. An average-size adult can tolerate it reasonably well for a half-hour's ride, but not much longer. The backseat does, however, make room for the capacious trunk.

The Mustang's interior suffers from a few minor annoyances. For one, the car doesn't offer heated seats, even as an option. And the map pocket is awkwardly placed. But these flaws get lost in the pure fun of this car. It accelerates both with authority and with a well-tuned growl. The styling is both faithful to the Mustang's heritage and contemporary enough to please. The manual transmission isn't silky smooth, but it's got the right feel for a muscle car. The same goes for the Mustang's ride and handling; the car rumbles and rambles without feeling out of control.

The 2005 Mustang also comes in a six-cylinder version, which has 210 hp and a base price of $19,570. But with the V-8 priced so affordably, why bother with the six? The convertible, which will be priced about $5,000 higher than the hard-top, goes on sale this spring.