American Traditions, Hot Rods, and Horses; Desert blast in a Mustang Review by stevegolf

By diyauto
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16 minute read

The Mustang is among those rare vehicles that are integrated into a country’s identity and folklore. It is one of the few that can be identified by pretty much everyone, not just car enthusiasts. It is so engrained in our psyches that just the name “Mustang” conjures images of neon diners, snarling cars flying through the air, and the sound of booming V8s echoing through the night. It is also one of the few iconic cars that is actually affordable to the common man. It is not like Ferrari in Italy where everyone has their merchandise but nobody can buy the actual car. Everyone knows someone with a Mustang, and even the previous generations haven’t been hit with classic car inflation like many muscle cars. Almost anyone can pretend to be Steve McQueen.

So when I was browsing through the car rental site for my upcoming trip with my wife to Phoenix, which would include a blast through the desert and up the mountains into Sedona, there was only once choice that made any type of sense, a Mustang Convertible. Compared to a Nissan Altima or Chevy Malibu picking the Mustang seems obvious, but for a car guy there is still some trepidation. It is a “secretary special” V6 version after all. For a car forged in the era of big displacement V8s the V6 versions have a stigma as being soft wannabes. A car for poseurs who want the look but can’t afford the real deal. So as the shiny Oxford White Mustang rolled up to the rental counter I could feel the envious glances of the sad sacks packing their kids into the Hyundai Accents they foolishly wasted their money on. But I wasn’t as giddy as I thought I would be and could thank years of people looking down their noses at these cars for that. Thankfully over the next few days and several hundred miles driving this thing this “Hero car” as Clarkson put it would change my mind. 

Thankfully Ford has really turned their game around over the past couple years, even within this 5th generation of their most iconic car whose production started almost 50 years ago. In 2010 the exterior of the S197 mustang was significantly refreshed, but it still had the 4.0L SOHC V6 which made a depressing 210 Hp. The car’s handling was as underwhelming as its engine. Thankfully in 2011 Ford updated the suspension, added an LSD, and installed a DOHC aluminum 3.7L V6 which makes 305 Hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. To put that into perspective, that is more horsepower than any of the “non-special edition” Mustang V8s up to this point. Even the legendary 5.0 from the Fox body generation only broke 300Hp after some aftermarket massaging. This is no longer the neglected step brother of old, like the SN-95 V6 Mustang whose horrid wheel gap and overbite front bumper made it look like a totally different car when placed next to a Terminator. 

I was thankful for the beefier engine, since straight line acceleration is one of the classic Mustang attributes. The car wasn’t a rocket around town but had plenty of pick-up to drive aggressively. Some of the missed potential may be due to the transmission which never wanted to go over three grand unless I was on a freeway on ramp. There is a “sport” mode which made no discernable difference. Oddly the manual gear selection is done with a button on the side of the shift lever. Most manual shifting autos at least try to imitate some type of manual action to simulate the fun part of manual driving, often by pushing the shifter up or down or using F1 style paddle shifters which would be out of place on a Mustang. Those buttons made it as fun as turning on your rear defroster, that is if they actually worked. My guess is they turn sport mode and manual shifting off for rental cars to protect them from hooners which is understandable but disappointing. The throaty V8 burble that is the Mustang trademark is absent but the engine doesn‘t sound bad, you can tell it was toned down for the broader customer base of the V6. An aftermarket exhaust would fix that. 

not my photo

The first night we went to the “Los Wild Nights” Hot Rod show and Pinup contest. Not wanting to be “that guy” I parked past where the pavement ended next to some regular commuter cars. There were some beautiful cars there, mostly hotrods. It was cool go to a car show associated with that so-cal rockabilly/kustom scene which isn‘t as present in Detroit. I always liked reading the “Car Kulture Delux” magazines since I was in high school, and low Detroit iron from the first half of the last century with a Mexican blanket over the seats normally captures my attention more than a modern exotic. Most of the people there wore black car club T-shirts and were heavily tatted, and it was a friendly and diverse crowd. One of the few places you’ll see someone with a Mohawk drinking beers with a James Dean look-alike. 

Of course many of the cars had interesting back stories. A particularly well done hotrod was started over 50 years ago by the owners father and grandfather. It was recently finished, only a month before his grandfather passed. Unlike many situations like this where the car is completed posthumously, his grandfather actually got to see and drive it before he departed. An example of how cars can be so much more than machines or modes of transportation. This is a breathing piece of art that created memories and brought family together.

We left the parking lot to the walled off courtyard for the concert and pin-up show. The outdoor furniture there seemed way too classy for the strip club that the courtyard was attached too. Several beautiful ladies with colorful dresses and equally colorful tattoos graced the stage for the contest. I stupidly left my camera in the car by this point. Most were from the group pinup angels which raises money for the troops overseas, you can check out their website here: They seemed like a fun group of gals, but I was glad I already had my own pinup to take home. Afterward several rockabilly bands took the stage and got the place moving. It was a good crowd and everyone was enjoying themselves. The whole greaser, Kustom scene may seem odd to some people but these different subcultures make being a car enthusiast fun. We are passionate about same thing, and its expressed in ways as diverse as we are. 

The current mustang also does a fantastic job of combining the old with the new and is one of the best retro-inspired designs currently out there. It is instantly recognizable as a Mustang both in the details like the tail-lights and the rear fender crease as well as it’s overall “attitude”. However it doesn’t seem derivative at all, it stands on its own as a very good looking modern car design. This is especially true after the 2010 refresh which for the exterior was more of a revolution. The clunkiness carried over from the third and fourth generation was gone and the lines and details were polished. The panel gaps closed and the surfacing became more refined. It no longer seems like Ford is chasing the Europeans as far as exterior fit and finish and design sophistication. It also does the DRL and accent lighting right. While Lexus has chinzy LEDs that look like they could’ve been bought at pep boys, the red glow of the taillight trim and white headlight bars are subtle and actually look good. While the V8 version is brutishly handsome the V6 looks like a welterweight, no longer a 98 pound weakling. 

The next morning we started off on our trip to Sedona. The two convertibles I’ve owned previously (69’ Midget and 90’ Miata) are of different eras when it comes to top design. On the Mustang you have to undo two levers up front and push a button and it retracts automatically. It works great, and the top is well insulated and has real glass in the back. There is no automatic convertible top cover that conceals the folded top like many modern European cars have, and it doesn’t need it. It’s a convertible mustang for christsakes, its not that pretentious. Feeling the warm morning Phoenix sun cruising under a canopy of palm trees the Mustang felt like the perfect place to be. 

Not my pic

We blasted out of Phoenix down Highway 60 where I had some time to take stock of the interior. I was slightly put off by the large flat plastic panel in which the last generation Ford switchgear is nestled but quickly got used to it. The previous Mustang I drove was an SN-95 (4th gen) who’s interior felt like being in a plastic blow molded playhouse and had a shifter throw about a foot long. This interior is miles from that but could use a refresh to catch up with Ford’s new offerings. The panel gaps near the bottom of the IP were big enough that it looks like it would flip open to reveal an ashtray. And there oddly isn’t a real place to rest your right elbow on the center console, just a square of plastic that is softer than the surrounding panels. An actual arm-rest would’ve been nice for long cruises. The gage cluster is obviously inspired by the classic mustangs with its deep hooded speedo and tach which look really good. A screen in between the binnacles lets you pull from a surprisingly deep well of information, showing info like intake and trans temp as well as the standard MPG and range. It has all the bells and whistles you could ask for and despite my niggling gripes, was a nice place to be. It felt good holding the leather wrapped steering wheel, looking up from the jewel like gages and seeing the long hood pointing straight towards the horizon. 

As we turned onto 89 and headed up the mountain the tall saguaro cacti turned into brambly trees. The temperature dropped 10 degrees and the grass turned a ghostly yellow. The Mustang had plenty of passing power, even going uphill. It also felt surprisingly good road holding wise. This would come in handy because once we got into the mountains we’d hit the best road I’ve ever driven on. Highway 89 is a two lane road that takes you up 4000 feet into the mountains. There are too many curves to count, most of them banked, and literally cling to the side of the mountain often with a deadly drop just past the guardrail. The scenery looks down into the valley and is breathtaking, although you rarely have enough time in between turns to look. It was here I found the biggest surprise about the new Mustang, it is actually fun in the curves. 

I had a blast flying from turn to turn. The Mustang feels surprisingly neutral with little body roll. The seats run out of bolstering before the car felt like its going to start leaning. During the drive we passed a couple Dodge Avengers poking along cautiously. I had flashbacks to driving one to big Sky Montana and how terrifying it was. The avenger had tons of body roll, and its weight would shift suddenly and unpredictably. Awful handling combined with zero feedback made it horrific to drive up that mountain. I felt lucky to have a capable partner in the Mustang. The only part that didn’t want to play was the transmission, which found the highest possible gear and stayed there. I put it in sport mode and tapped frantically at the shift button but it was futile. The engine lolled lazily under 2000 RPM while the rest of the car hustled around the bends. There was torque on hand but not enough to fully exploit the situation. If the car was a manual it would have been perfect. 

On the downhill portions, gravity was a much stronger motivator than the power train. It was here that I really appreciated the brakes. They were linear and strong, no evidence of fade even though they were working hard. In a lesser car this road would seem treacherous, constant blind turns, craggy rocks on one side, sheer cliffs on the other. Some of the turns are banked so much you can feel oncoming trucks leaning over you. But the Mustang inspires confidence and you are encouraged to keep pushing it. The lazy transmission and my wife giving me the “look“ kept me from really wringing it out. The V6 felt like it had plenty of power in this situation, while the 400+ hp of the GT would increase the potential for loosing control and shortly after, dismemberment. I may have been having a “size of the ship vs. motion of the ocean” moment, but I was having too much fun to care.

We had lunch in Prescott and took another break in Jerome. It seems like the only buildings in Phoenix are under 20 years old and are attached to strip malls, so it was nice to see some actual historical buildings in Arizona. Both towns were fairly touristy, with lots of shops selling turquoise jewelry and Indian “artifacts” but we were glad to have checked them out. Jerome was particularly neat, an old mining town built into the side of the mountain. We stopped at the Merkin wine store, whose name means “pubic wig”. This would be odd if it wasn’t owned by the singer from Tool. There were a lot of nice cars in Jerome, and plenty of bikes, people stopping after enjoying the drive. 

On the final stretch into Sedona my thoughts turned to actually buying one of these. There were many nice cars out that day, and I did some daydreaming about how the drive would’ve been in my Miata or my old M5, but there is something that just feels right about driving a Mustang through the desert, with actual mustangs running free through the scenery alongside you. Its big nose sucking in the dry air, the surprisingly colorful landscape flying past. It obviously would be at home on Woodward Ave. but the athleticism in the mountains convinced me it would fit in anywhere. There are a lot of cars that would’ve been faster and more fun on Highway 89 but not many that have over 300 Hp, start in the low $20s and look as iconic. 

That night we drove up a hill by the airport where we could watch the sun set across the alien landscape of red cliffs and plateaus. Situations like this give you a sense of your place in the world. People awkwardly held tablets to record the natural light show on a landscape that took eons to create, you think about the people that stood gawking in the same spot back before the words Arizona, America, or the English language even existed. 

In the comparatively minute sliver of time the automobile has existed there are only a handful of vehicles that have been built across actual human generations. That can possess a rich history full of stories and traditions to draw from. You can drive a car your grandfather owned and buy a modern version that exists for the same purpose and has the same mystique that drew him in decades ago. The Mustang is one of those vehicles. Through most of my adult life the only new Mustangs that caught my attention were the high dollar special editions, the Terminators or Shelby versions. Finally the base versions of the Mustang fully possess the spirit of the original; a great looking, fast, affordable muscle car. One I dreamt of purchasing to carry out those Mustang traditions, which include burning some rubber just like Grandpa used to do.