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Ford Motor Co.'s Mustang is flexing its power in the race for best-selling muscle car.

Sales of the Dearborn automaker's pony car are up 55 percent in the United States through the first five months of the year, and it's outselling its biggest rival — the Chevrolet Camaro — for the first time since 2009.

Through May, Ford sold 56,571 Mustangs; Chevy sold 33,982 Camaros, according to Autodata Corp. The Dodge Challenger is in third place, with 30,166 sold. The Mustang's sizzling start to the year can be attributed to its 50th-anniversary redesign and a new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder that are attracting younger buyers, especially in Southern California.

If the Mustang's blistering sales pace continues — Ford expects around a 40 percent sales gain for June when results are tallied Wednesday — it will finish the year as the best-selling muscle car for the first time in six years. But analysts say its crown could be challenged when the redesigned sixth-generation Camaro goes on sale late this year.

"The newness certainly helps vehicles in this segment," Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book, said in an interview.

The deciding factor in the pony car segment — both this year and in the future — may not be the purists who crave V-8 engines and buckets of horsepower in cars that only leave the garage on weekends. More important are millennials — buyers through their early 30s — who prefer four-cylinders and improved fuel economy in a sleek, everyday driver.

Nationwide, 35 percent of Mustang buyers are millennials, Ford said. Last year, that number was 30 percent. In Southern California, young buyers snap up 40 percent of Mustangs sold.

Ford says the Mustang is selling particularly well in the important Southern California market. Sales there are up 117 percent, Ford said.

Erich Merkle, Ford's sales analyst, said, "It's done everything we've tried to do: maintain our traditional buyer, but be able to grow into a new buyer as well."

DeLorenzo said that's because younger buyers crave good fuel economy wrapped in stylish design. The Mustang's four-cylinder, the 2.3-liter EcoBoost is responsible for nearly all of its sales growth. It delivers 310 horsepower while getting 32 miles per gallon on the highway; the 2014 model's 3.7-liter V-6 produced 305 horsepower and got 31 mpg highway.

Chevy may be watching that trend, too. The 2016 Camaro, introduced in May on Belle Isle, will hit dealer lots next year with a standard 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers 275 horsepower and more than 30 mpg highway.

"I think that's critical," DeLorenzo said. "You're getting the horsepower of a V-6 but still posting some pretty decent fuel economy numbers. I think it was a smart move on Ford and GM to put a four-cylinder back in the mix."

Ford could feel some pressure from the convertible Camaro, too. Chevy hopes its drop-top will trump the Mustang by offering the segment's first fully-automatic stowed roof. Convertibles make up just under 20 percent of Camaro sales and 15 percent of Mustang buys.

All Big Three automakers still offer plenty of horsepower as options for those who crave it.

Despite the rise of four-cylinders, Ford says V-8s still represent 40 percent of Mustang buys.

The new Camaro has an optional 6.2-liter V-8 that is certified at 455 horsepower, making it the most powerful Camaro SS ever.

Ford's Shelby GT350 Mustang, due out this fall, will come with a 5.2-liter flat-plane crankshaft V-8 that will get 526 horsepower. It will be Ford's highest-revving V-8, topping out at 8,250 rpm. That could help the Blue Oval hold on to the crown in 2016, DeLorenzo said, because Chevy has yet to announce performance versions of the 2016 Camaro.

Dodge's 2015 Challenger Hellcat comes with a 6.2-liter Hemi supercharged engine rated at more than 700 horsepower. That could help the Challenger land the No. 2 spot by the end of the year, due to an expected dip in Camaro sales as customers await the new version.

"When you don't have a huge styling change, if you can do something like the Hellcat to draw attention ... that certainly is going to help Challenger get on people's shopping lists," DeLorenzo said.

Although the Mustang is in firm control in 2015, the race for No. 1 could be a toss-up next year.

"I think it's going to be really tight," DeLorenzo said. "Obviously, the Mustang is working. It will be interesting to watch the strategy with the Camaro. It's like the pickup truck wars in a microcosm between Ford and Chevy, but this might be a little more fun."

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

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