What It Is
A two-door, four-seat musclecar for anyone needing a daily adrenaline boost.
Powerful V-8 sounds like Thor gargling Listerine.
Balky shifter, nonexistent visibility, and there's a legitimate sports car under there somewhere.
It's not perfect. But neither is America.
I first visited Los Angeles in 2006 with my parents to USC and a number of other fine institutions of higher learning. No hedonistic Jim Morrison stuff ensued. We took the campus tour. We got stuck in traffic. We visited the beach, briefly, and we saw the Hollywood sign through binoculars that cost a quarter, my father hustling my dear fragile mother past the freaks in front of the Chinese theater. But the only memory of Los Angeles -- right after I had made up my mind and written off the city as less a city than an outcropping of flat buildings and bail bondsmen -- was when our rental Ford Focus pulled up to a light somewhere between Wilshire and Normandie and in the lane next to us was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life, in a baby-blue Ford Mustang, a small dog perched on the door sill.
Black, shoulder-length hair, with an impeccable sheen and straight as Wilshire Boulevard itself, leading to a white tank top that exposed a perfectly sculpted shoulder (I couldn't see anything else) and the kind of big sunglasses pretty girls wear to cover up their prettiness. She didn't even pretend to notice me, and why would she? She didn't seem to notice anything at all. She might have been waiting for a crummy light on a crummy street corner, same as us, but there was a certain aura around her simply not giving a damn inside her loud, powerful car.
Well, I'm not a girl, and I don't own a dog. But I still acknowledge the cultural zeitgeist of driving around Los Angeles, a city whose thematic soundtrack comprises Joe Strummer and Iggy Pop (in spirit if not in native birth), in a Ford Mustang with nothing short of a vee-bloody-eight underneath its long, long hood. There's something righteous about it. And as failed and failing writers go, I'm still trying to determine which one of those I am. But in a 2013 Ford Mustang GT California Special, red on red like a swollen tomato, with a style package designed to reflect the fashion-centric characteristics of its namesake, it doesn't really matter.
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What We Drove
A $40,000 Mustang might have been the pitch line of a Ponzi scheme even 10 years ago, but it's a brave new world we now live in. Hence, our 2013 Ford Mustang GT Premium California Special, which came in at $40,475. The GT Premium itself starts at $34,300, netting you the 420-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8 , but add a 3.73 limited-slip differential ($395), a heated seat/mirror package ($650), and an electronics package with voice-activated touchscreen navigation, satellite radio, and dual-zone climate control (a hefty $2,430), and watch that money whizz on by.
The last part of the equation is the California Special package ($1,995), which transforms the GT into something that'll liven up the Shoney's parking lot: a new billet grille with thin chrome strips and a retro Mustang logo to the left; new front and rear bumpers; side scoops; rear spoiler; fog lights; 19-inch black and aluminum wheels; and California Special badging on the side stripes.
There's one thing that the Mustang will teach prospective owners: temper your expectations. It's especially true inside. The interior, while it won't maim you with pongee sticks or Ebola, is still built to a cut-rate, cutthroat price, all the better to ensure that a Mustang is inexpensive enough to fall into the hands of every man, woman, and man-child across these Great States. It is a cacophony of darkness and hard plastics, with wide gaps between the unevenly fitting plastic panels. Like most Fords, there's no place to stash phones, or much else for that matter. The seating position isn't low, but the cowl line goes up to somewhere around your neck. Cool to look at from the outside, but you'd need Stretch Armstrong limbs to hang an arm out the window, the preferred driving style of Mustang owners since the Johnson administration.
Visibility? Not in this car. That tall hood (standard on California Specials) and heavily-lidded instrument panel gives the impression of being in a particularly long parade float. Entire cars disappear underneath the rear window. That hulking spoiler -- also standard on the CS -- eliminates another precious two inches from the back, until you can only see the light bars of police cars that are chasing you for inevitable parking lot donuts. Hey, nobody said it was easy looking this good.
At least the radio is loud: a Shaker 500 system with 6 speakers, loud and crisp but lacking in subtlety, much like the rest of the car itself. The seats -- with suede inserts and contrasting stitching, a CS exclusive -- are supportive, a good combination between heavy bolstering and pudgy-glute repository. The touchscreen navigation system is snappy and responsive. To my disappointment, I didn't even get a chance to rant about SYNC, because it actually worked. And I love ranting.
To Ford's credit, it does trot out some beautiful retro touches. For example, the gauges are wonderfully old-school, big, round and deep with tall numbering that deserve their own Lalo Schifrin soundtrack. In a bid to appeal to trendy-obsessive types, there are a million and a half lights to play with: gauge lights, ambient footwell lighting, and something called a "halo light" that rims the gauge numbers and can be customized to any possible combination of garish, visibility-slaying colors. Purple and lime green, maybe? You can even set your own colors, for Rembrandt types. All of these can be controlled from the steering wheel. May God have mercy on the poor dumb soul that gets creamed by an 18-wheeler because he was trying to change his halo lights to "Ice Blue."
Lastly: when you unlock the Mustang, an illuminated logo of the horse glows from underneath the side mirrors, right in front of the door. It is, in a word, awesome, like a Bat Signal to commence shenanigans.
The Grocery Run
Occasionally I'll drive around town and I'll see a toddler in a car seat, which just happens to be strapped to something cool -- a bright orange Dodge Challenger, for instance, or an Audi TT convertible, or a 1967 Galaxie 500XL that would probably get the owner kicked down to Social Services. And I'll think: damn, that kid is going to be cool someday. Want your kid to be the prom king someday? Well, here's some consumer advice: it is entirely possible to fit a car seat in the back of a Ford Mustang. Put on your Ray-Bans now.
Though the front seat might squeeze out any living, breathing passengers to accommodate. To wit: the aggressively sculpted rear seats eke out what little headroom is already back there, but will have to require extra finesse to secure a car seat to the LATCH points. Ample trunk room lies behind a tall deck: the trunk floor rises upwards near the back, to accommodate various stiffening bars and axle components. Larger strollers won't fit easily.
But the entire interior is claustrophobic -- the heavy, black roof feels like it's closing in on you, and the beefcake pillars do little to alleviate it. I did fit a six-foot friend (not a toddler) back there out of no ill will or malice, but eventually pulled over when I grew tired of his neck complaints. Entire cars disappear below the trunklid, compounded by that infernal spoiler, the installation of which is one of those unapparent cool idea/bad idea dichotomies like getting a tattoo in Cabo. Ford may have anticipated this: the rear headrests flip down with an audible thunk, which thereby reduces visibility to peering through a mailbox instead of a P.O. Box.
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The Weekend Fun
It was Cody and Kevin's last weekend in Los Angeles, and one of those momentous occasions where the stars align and the waves crash at exactly the right height, the right intensity -- no finer car to say goodbye to Los Angeles than in a car I had said hello to in the first place. "Can you believe," said Kevin, who I had gone to college with, moving back east with his best friend, "that we've been out here this long and we've never been to the beach once?"
I picked them up in their Hollywood apartment, the Mustang grumbling all the way down Sunset. "Dude, this is sick," declared Cody, having picked up the regional vernacular, "if I were to get any car today it'd be this one. This thing is awesome."
Indeed, rolling down Venice Boulevard we got a fair share of onlookers -- though it might have been from six-foot Cody trapped in the back seat.
For a car seemingly crafted from a single piece of iron, the shifter felt mushy and weak: neutral is bizarrely narrow and the overall feeling, when clicked into gear, is one of uncertainty. It reminded Keith Buglewicz of "old short-shift kits, which basically took a decent feeling shifter and ruined it by making it a guessing game."
The Mustang uses a solid axle in the rear, a form of rear suspension mostly limited to trucks these days. This "live" rear axle design has always been a source of contention for the Mustang: drag racers love 'em, but those who loathe the Mustang pillory it for using such old-school technology. Here's the thing: the fact that Ford has made live axle technology handle the way it does is a testament to American ingenuity, and the fact that Ford is still sticking with live axle technology is a testament to doggedly foolish American perseverance. In reality, it stays planted for the most part, but you'll feel the rear end shudder around over uneven surfaces.
"It needs to be 25-percent smaller, lighter, and lower," said Associate Editor Jason Davis, a statement that found resonance among our staff. Big cars are cool -- nothing imparts a feeling of heft more than a big V-8 that can swallow pumpkins in its air intakes. But there's no reason why the Mustang should be this large. The Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro have excuses: The Challenger's built on an old Mercedes-Benz borrowed when Chrysler was owned by Diamler; the Camaro's story is similar, sharing its underpinnings with the Chevrolet Caprice police sedan. But the Mustang? Any car that can be optioned with enthusiast-driver candy like Recaro seats, dinner-plate Brembo brakes, a Laguna Seca sticker and a $2,495 "Track Pack" deserves more than just straight-line excitement. There's a legitimate sports car under there somewhere, frustratingly hidden underneath all that bodywork.
The day that the Mustang is designed around a V-6 and deserves a V-8 -- instead of designed around a V-8 and begrudgingly cast off with a V-6 -- is a day the sports car world gets far more interesting.
I've haven't lived in California long enough pretend to comment on the city like one of its rare native denizens, or draw any conclusions from anything I haven't heard from New Yorkers. But what a wonderful state -- full of contradictions and ironies, as different across the spectrum of humanity as our species can achieve. It's a strange, sometimes terrifying state where everything seems perfect and yet, nothing is: a place where day laborers line up for minimum-wage work outside $700,000 homes, bought on credit in sinking mortgages, where Bugatti Veyrons share the same 405 traffic jam as rusted-out Datsun B210s and all are the more equal for it.
The Ford Mustang reflects the DNA of the American people: a working man's romantic glimmer of excitement, gussied up to look more expensive than it is. The Ford Mustang GT is a little too gimmicky, a little rough around the edges, and too big for its own size...kind of like Los Angeles itself, come to think of it. But it's also loud, brash, and as subtle as Mickey Rourke in the Viper Room. Foreigners should be required by law to rent one when they visit.
Kevin and Cody moved back to Philadelphia that week, where the beaches aren't as good. If they ever come back, may there be a Mustang awaiting them at the Hertz counter. Bright red, with a V-8, maybe a convertible this time. And -- of course -- directions to the nearest body of water.
EPA City: 15 mpg
EPA Highway: 26 mpg
EPA Combined: 19 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 304 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent
"If you need a fixin' for speed, there's nothing that can touch it for the money. If you need a practical daily driver...at least the seats are really comfortable. That's probably the only practical thing about it." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"This car is right up there with my favorites that we've had in so far. More often than not, I found myself running out of space on the road to let it sing to me properly. While it's not the biggest muscle car currently available, it still feels big. Still doesn't have the hips like the Challenger and Camaro though." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"While seating capacity prevents me from ever calling the Mustang my own, this is the first Mustang since the original that I'd consider owning. The steering is sharp, the power is tremendous, and the car goes and stops in the opposite way you expect a big American musclecar to." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director