Test Drive

2016 Ford Mustang Convertible GT Review: The Best Sports Car For The Money

And how one simple package makes it even better.

My first encounter with the Moses complex was in a McLaren 650S. It didn’t matter who was in front, car fan or handicap license plate, because the bright orange paint job, low-slung roof, and the howl of the twin-turbo V8 was enough to make any car ahead of me pull over to allow for a pass. It wasn’t until I got behind the wheel of a Competition Orange Mustang GT months later that it dawned on me, maybe the phenomenon has something to do with orange paint jobs. I could only imagine how the process went down.

While experimenting with which of the six gates I had to place the shifter in to get the car to spring forward at a tap of the throttle, the bellow of a blipped 5.0-liter V8 Coyote got drivers in front to check their rear view mirror. The orange color accented by the black fabric convertible top was unique in itself, but set apart from the pedestrian GTs by the $1,995 California Special package, this Mustang looked ready to blow its head gaskets in fury. Blinkers flashed, lanes opened, cylinders screamed, transmission tunnel heat engulfed driver, and the whole matter was painlessly over in seconds for the poor suckers eating my fumes. Partaking in that event once or twice was enough to confirm that yes, this is the exactly the same car lusting teenagers imagine.

But as an analogue machine in a digital world, it’s not for those who are learning the art of driving. That’s because possessing the power to part the road is intoxicating, but it’s even more exhilarating when you have a 435 horsepower tantrum under your right foot. However, as those of us that aspire to be good human beings learn when young, great power comes with great responsibility. That’s why it was refreshing to find that Ford added a few anger management strategies to the Mustang to prevent absolute power from corrupting absolutely. The most apparent addition is the independent rear suspension, a godsend to any previous generation Mustang owners who've hit a bump and felt the rear axle lose its bearings.

There’s also the line-lock feature so newbies to the hobby of making clouds with tires can do so without plowing into a Cars and Coffee. To entice Europeans, the cabin has been redone as well. Plastic buttons have been replaced with metal switches reminiscent of what you’d expect in a fighter jet and the bolstered front seats had attractive leather accents and could be heated or cooled to keep the occupants snug. Still, despite the upgrades, there is absolutely no hiding the Mustang’s unrefined Americana flair. Kick the throttle midcorner in second gear (with traction control on, mind you) and the rear end happily wags its tail before the system catches the bad behavior.

Hit a bump and the tremors that rumble through the body serve to remind that the Mustang is a flawed mortal and not a polite robot like Europe’s sporting options. When driving the car on long stretches of road, it’s easy to note that the engine heat leaks through the firewall and transmission tunnel because as a car for the working class hero, no deserving driver should be afraid of the elements. On initial impression, it seems like the lessons in etiquette that Ford gave the pony car before its trip to Europe weren’t enough to subdue it, but that’s a good thing. For those of us that hit adolescence with a lust for unrestrained muscle cars, those rude characteristics are something we’d pay a premium for, especially in today’s age of antiseptic automobiles.

Just how much attitude does this car have? Well, let’s just say that I learned all of these interesting tidbits about the Mustang within the first hour of its delivery to my door. When putting in a request for the car, the only things I knew about it were the make, model, and the fact that it would be in my possession over Labor Day Weekend. This meant it would be my travel companion for a 381-mile trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to see family. When it arrived, all I saw was the manual shifter, convertible top, and “California Special” badges. Is there a more perfect car to traverse the Golden State with? Doubtful, and with a price of $47,380, there’s hardly another car that will deliver the performance and head turning looks for less.

The Mustang has always been known as the blue-collar man’s sports car and as such, it sacrifices some refinement. Unlike a BMW M4, the Mustang isn’t a car that can hit the track and then deliver a comfortable ride home after the workout. The clutch alone ruins that prospect. Even with a shifter as smooth as butter, the third pedal is stiff enough that it becomes a chore in heavy stop-and-go traffic. Leaving San Francisco I encountered highway roadblocks made up of hundreds of cars trying to get out of town for the weekend. Waze estimated that I lost an hour or two shifting from first, into neutral, and back into first when the car in front of me moved a few inches.

Despite the loss in time, I was determined to make it to Los Angeles fast to show my family how this whole writing about cars thing is going. It’s being able to complete that fantasy, the one where you’re late but behind the wheel of a powerful machine, that makes a car like this worth the headache. What best characterizes the Mustang, aside from its looks and lack of refinement, is the engine. This is a car built entirely around its V8, and once the roads cleared up, it was finally time to become intimately familiar with it. Suddenly my source of amusement switched from watching an overheating Lincoln smoke away in the traffic jam to rowing gears not so gently down the highway.

California’s Highway 5 is notorious for being one long and boring stretch of road. It was long alright, but I never experienced that sense of boredom that everyone kept talking about. That’s because I was busy being king of the Labor Day traffic rush. In sixth gear, my average mpg rose, which was helpful because it never climbed above 8 mpg in San Francisco traffic. Of course, that final drive ratio was seldom paid a visit. Time was better spent using the V8 snarl to remind other drivers not to camp in the passing lane. When that got tiring, it was nice to lie back and let the 12-speaker Shaker audio system sing. Changing channels was easy because unlike every other modern infotainment system, this version of Ford SYNC 3 had no lag to it.

Once you could see Los Angeles on the horizon, I stayed alert because LAPD is used to dealing with my breed every day. Sure enough, when pulling up to the hotel where my family was staying, I was followed into the parking lot by a police officer in an SUV. I put down the top, intent on opening extra headroom so my parents could sit in the cramped rear seats, all while the officer’s stare burned a hole into the back of my head. I looked at him and he was still staring. Before finally driving out of the parking lot, he cracked a smirk and said, “nice car kid.” To be fair, his remark was not so much a statement on the Mustang itself but on the California Special package that festooned it.

In Hollywood, there are scores of V6 and four-cylinder EcoBoost convertible Mustangs that Hertz gives to the tourists so they can get the “real” California experience. But when parking this ‘Stang right next to another Mustang at an obscure LA restaurant, a group of teenagers elected the orange California Special for a Snapchat photo op. If anything, it’s nice to know that all it takes is $1,995 and some orange paint to turn into a Hollywood rock star. Oh, and since you asked, don’t worry, my family was happy to see me. They were just a little worried about my safety. It must have been because of that damned orange paint.

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Ford Mustang Convertible
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