There are more Mustangs on the road in Tampa, Fla., than anywhere else in the country, so Paul Randle and his team headed south.

The Mustang chief engineer gathered about 40 of the vehicle line's key team members - those responsible for everything from product development to personalization to marketing - and flew from Dearborn to Florida to interview nearly 70 performance car owners last month. In addition to those pulling up in Mustangs, participants included owners of competitive-make vehicles such as the Dodge Charger, Pontiac GTO and Mitsubishi Eclipse.

External customer clinics on the Mustang are coordinated annually by Ford's 6-Sigma Center, but this is the first time since the launch of the 2005 Mustang that the team included competitive-make owners as well. To ensure that owners would be candid with their opinions, the team presented itself as a market research group and didn't indentify themselves as Ford employees.

"We wanted to find out why people purchased the Mustang and what else they'd shopped for," says Ronnie Ahmad, project specialist, 6-Sigma Center. "We added competitive-make owners to the mix not only to find out why they hadn't chosen a Mustang, but also to see if Mustang owners would stand tall when talking about their vehicles versus the others during the panel discussions."

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Stand tall they did. Overall, Mustang owners were found to be very satisfied with their ownership experience. Far more complaints came from competitive-make owners. Based on this and a wealth of other findings, Ahmad says the new approach paid off: "It was way beyond our expectations."

Participants were paid $120 for the hour-and-a-half experience. Upon arrival, each group of a dozen or so owners filled out a brief survey before sitting down for a videotaped panel discussion. The talks were led by a moderator who used the survey responses as a jumping-off point, and viewed live behind closed doors by the Ford team.

"It was very interesting to hear the pride in Mustang owners' voices," says Ahmad. "One woman said that having a Mustang is like having a Transformer - her car makes her feel like a superhero."

Mustang Vehicle Integration Supervisor Dean Nowicki says the experience opened his eyes to how much of an "impulse purchase" the Mustang seems to be. "We heard a lot of, ‘I saw it, I wanted it, I bought it,'" Nowicki says. "One person brought her old V6 Mustang to the dealership for an oil change and left in a new GT."

Underscoring why Mustang owners are extremely passionate, the car has recently garnered accolades for quality and safety. Last year, the iconic pony car came out on top in three major consumer surveys sponsored by J.D. Power & Associates. All three - the Initial Quality Study (IQS), the Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, and the Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) - named Mustang as the leader in its mid-size Sporty Car segment. In addition, the 2008 Mustang convertible became the first sports car and the first convertible to earn the highest possible safety ratings in new-car tests performed by the U.S. government. The Mustang coupe also earned five stars in frontal crash tests for both driver and passenger, in side impact for driver and in rollover tests.

In Tampa, after each of the five panel discussions, participants retired to their cars for a walk-around focused on TGW (things gone wrong) and customer satisfaction issues. The information gathered will help the Mustang team make decisions about future features, as well as help immediately address any areas of concern.

"It was great to have a multifunctional group there, because we each picked up on something different when hearing the various responses," says Jackie DiMarco, Mustang business manager. "Later, as we're talking about which actions to take, our minds go to the images of the customers who made particular comments. This personalizes our decisions and helps us remember that everything we do is for the customer."

That idea delights Linda Davis, who participated in the clinic as the first owner of a 2008 Mustang convertible outfitted in the Warriors in Pink package designed in support of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. "I've been completely satisfied with my Mustang since buying it last July," Davis said. "I was happy to sit alongside other Mustang owners and hear similar comments. If clinics like this help Ford, I'm pleased to participate."

Customer clinics have led to key product edits in the past. For example, comments from Ford Edge owners resulted in the resolution of glare from the instrument panel, and Ford Escape owners helped identify the need for better communication about the vehicle's reversible cargo mat.

"A vehicle team needs to have a visceral understanding of their customer, and we'll never get that just by looking at GQRS numbers," Nowicki said. "It's great to review numbers - we do that all the time - but when I can look in a customer's eye and see the emotion as they talk about their car, that's exceptional."