Much noise has been made about the 2011 Mustang since it was unveiled late last year at the L.A. Auto Show. Following on 2010’s sharp new look come two all-new engines, the 5.0 liter V8 and the 3.7 liter V6. These engines came as a response to both GM and Chrysler, which offered 400+ horsepower V8’s in their respective muscle cars for under $40,000.

By now, you’ve no doubt read many a review on the 5.0 engine and its 412 horsepower and 390 ft-lbs of torque. You’ve heard it compared to both Camaro and Challenger, and no doubt it came out on top. And I’d be lying if we said the 5.0 didn’t titillate me with its impressive variable timing technology and all new intake design. But I have come to expect great V8 engines from Ford. V6 engines? Not so much.

For over a decade and a half, the Mustang has been weighed down by an anemic 4.0 liter V6. That particular engine produced a paltry amount of horsepower (even by V6 standards) and turned the base Mustang into a very bland and uninspiring experience. So when I heard that the new 3.7 liter V6 would make almost as much horsepower as last year’s 4.6 liter V8, I knew I had to get behind the wheel and take this new car for a test drive.

After getting in touch with Ford, they set me up with a Race Red V6 convertible with the premium package. This meant leather seats, a Shaker sound system, and Ford’s highly coveted Sync system. All that is fine and dandy, but this is without a doubt the best looking Mustang since the original hit the market in 1964. It is sharp, edgy, and not overly retro. It is a very aggressive redesign that turns even the V6 into a formidable looking vehicle.

But let’s talk engines. The new 3.7 liter V6 makes 305 horsepower (down just 10 ponies from last year’s V8) and 280 ft-lbs of torque. This is quite a bit of horsepower for a base V6 engine, especially for a car that starts around $21,000. The car provided to us by Ford was a six-speed manual, also a new addition. The other option is a six-speed automatic, which earns the V6 Mustang a highway gas mileage rating of 31 mpg. All very impressive on paper, but how does it drive?

Turning the key, I was greeted by a surprisingly gruff and deep bellow from the V6 engine. This is thanks to the true dual exhaust system, now standard on all Mustangs, including the V6. This is the first hint that this is no plain-jane V6 Mustang. It sounds…mean AND it’s powerful. It’s like a bulldog puppy, not all grown-up but still full of fight.

There is a lot of power here, and the 3.7 liter engine loves to rev high with every shift. You never feel like you’re without power, no matter what gear you are in. The first three gears are quite short, yet very fun. Stomping the gas and lifting the clutch with the traction control on, the Mustang has a surprising amount of grip. It almost doesn’t feel like a rear-wheel drive car, at least until you turn the traction control off. Once that is off, it is easy to squeal the tires in first gear, chirp them in second, and even get a squeak out of them if you quick-shift into third.

The final three gears are definitely made for cruising though, and the 2011 Mustang V6 is easy to cruise in. 6th gear is all about gas mileage, but on flat roads there is just enough oomph to execute a passing maneuver. Drop it into 4th gear though and you’ll fly past that Grandpa in his Crown Victoria, all the while a sexy symphony of six cylinders filling your ears. The V6 engine is neither loud nor obnoxious, but just the right tone so you can hear it, even with the top down on the highway.

As for the interior, Ford really stepped it up a notch with the 2011 Mustang. Polished aluminum graces the dashboard, and the fit-and-finish is quite tight on these cars. The premium package has wide leather seats that accommodate even my big body quite comfortably. The cup holders could be better positioned (though they are quite deep for those Big Gulp drinks), but the HVAC controls are easy enough to use.

How about handling? Well, the Mustang is no lightweight, and the V6, despite its 280 ft-lbs of torque, sometimes finds itself lacking enough grunt to really get around the corners. Perhaps it is a case of “too many gears”, as a six speed transmission on a six cylinder engine means sometimes you’re shifting a bit too often, especially in the twisty roads. But considering that driving this car hard up and down some very mountainous roads, I was still able to get 25 mpg on average (according to the car’s computer). Not too shabby at all. But, in comparison, my 88 horsepower, 1989 Mustang got an average of 29 mpg during my long road trip, laden with all sorts of camping equipment. Is it as fast, as good looking, or as technologically advanced as the 2011 V6 Mustang? Hell no. But it did get better gas mileage!

At the end of the day though, nobody really buys a Mustang for gas mileage. Sure, Ford is making a big deal out of the 31 mpg rating and the 776 miles on a single tank of gas they got at Bristol Speedway. But what people really want out of a base model Mustang are good looks, comfort, and just enough power to keep them happy. The 2011 Mustang V6 delivers on all these fronts. It isn’t a compromise car, like previous V6 Mustang was. It is a fully fleshed out, refined automobile with a great engine, great looks, and great interior. That said, if you are hoping for a V8 killer…this isn’t quite it. But it is a damn fine performance car in its own right, a first for any base-model Mustang.