Originally answered on Quora.
Q: Why are Mustangs made fun of worldwide, even though they are most likely the best selling American muscle car?
A: Mustangs are not derided worldwide as much as they are in the United States. The criticism is limited to the years when Ford took their eye off the ball and ignored the competition.
Exempting enthusiasts who souped up their cars, the Mustang is a “pony car” and by definition not a real muscle car.
Ford pioneered the “Pony Car“ class of automobiles. The term, coined by CarLife magazine editor Dennis Shattuck, “an affordable, compact, highly styled car with a sporty or performance-oriented image.”
Per Wikipedia, these were the defining characteristics of a pony car:
- Basic two-door, four passenger car.
- Stylish and sporty long hood, short deck, and "open mouth" styling
- Affordable base price (under $2,500 — in 1965 dollar value)
- "Off-the-shelf" mass production components
- Wide range of often lucrative options to individualize each car
- Youth-oriented marketing and advertising
So there you have it, the reason the Mustang is sometimes derided is because at inception the focus was on image and not performance.
Stock Mustangs were mundane vehicles sporting 2.8L six cylinder engines and a three-speed transmission. You could increase the price of your purchase by up to 60% by adding options that included air conditioning, a V8 engine, power steering and a host of other accessories.
When people talk about the Mustang, it’s with a reverence and nostalgia attributed to the first generation of cars built between 1965-1973. These cars became iconic because of Hollywood’s inclusion of Mustangs in movies like Steve McQueen’s Bullit. For many, the chase scene between McQueen’s ‘68 Mustang fastback and the villain's Dodge Charger over the hills and through the street of San Francisco is the stuff of legend.
Of course, like most movie cars, the fastback Mustangs used in Bullit were modified. In this case, Hollywood car builder Max Balchosky modified the Mustangs for jumps and hard landings. Later generations of Mustangs were also used in memorable movies like Diamonds Are Forever, Gone in 60 Seconds, Bull Durham, War of the Worlds (remake) and I Am Legend.
The downfall of the Mustang happened as it evolved from showcasing “speed and power“ in favor of bigger, heavier designs like the Mach I. In 1969 to aid sales, new decorative and nonfunctional options became available. This included functional and nonfunctional air scoops, cable and pin hood tie downs, rear wing and front spoilers.
The Mustang grew “fat and lazy” and then we were treated to abominations like the smaller, more fuel efficient Mustang II which was based on the explosion-prone Pinto. Third and fourth generation Mustangs built between 1979-1993 and 1994-2004 were, in my opinion, lackluster.
For the Fifth Generation starting with the 2005 model year, it’s not surprising that Ford designers went back to the design cues of the first generation to rekindle the nostalgia and romance of the original Mustangs.
For the Sixth Generation Mustangs, 2015-Present, Ford finally upgraded the fifth generation design to one that is more reminiscent of its image and legacy with both the stock and Shelby GT350 models.