John Muir once wrote, “The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark,” and when you’re pushing 60, as I am, “the dark” isn’t just an abstract concept anymore – it’s quite real.
Thankfully, being a guy-of-a-certain-age also has its’ perks, one of them being the means to pack your bags and get the hell out of town at will, so while the good folks here in Denver were dealing with weather best described as “winter hell,” my lady and I were enjoying a couple of sunny days at Disneyland, and a lazy Sunday with absolutely nothing to do before our early-evening flight home. It was a perfect opportunity for a day trip, and a peek at the Hertz website revealed a perfect ride: A Mustang convertible. A few clicks later, we’d booked the car and a Lyft to John Wayne Airport to pick it up.
Fifty-eight years here on Earth have taught me that there aren’t many things in life more wonderful than experiencing wanderlust, and if you love cars, I hope you get the chance to find yours gazing down the long hood of a drop-top Mustang, with early morning California sunshine kissing your forehead, your love at your side, and nothing in front of you but eight hours of nothing to do. We toyed with hitting the tourist sights in L.A., but the breeze pointed us west, towards the ocean, and that’s the way we went – first to Huntington Beach, then down the Pacific Coast Highway.
As perfect car days go, one spent cruising top down on the PCH is one for the books – the weather and scenery are spectacular, and living all the weirdness and wonderfulness of southern California with someone you love is something you should experience. Unfortunately, I can’t quite say the same about our Mustang, which proved to be an alternatively delightful and cranky travel companion.
The Mustang in question was a 2021 EcoBoost Premium, with the same 2.3 turbo-four found in a wide variety of Ford products, mated to a 10-speed automatic. As you can see, the car’s as drop-dead sexy as the driver. In fact, I’d say this generation of Mustang is one of the best-looking cars you can buy for just about any price. As an old Jaguar ad once proclaimed, “gorgeous gets away with it,” and the Mustang’s looks make its inherent limitations – mainly, a non-usable back seat and a tiny trunk – a lot easier to overlook. But for a carefree day spent cruising in California sunshine, does that stuff really matter?
The Premium trim included ventilated “ActiveX” (read: Fake leather) seats, a big touchscreen with inscrutable HVAC controls (which thankfully weren’t needed), and selectable drive modes. The toggle switches on the console were a nice touch, as was the tongue-in-cheek “Ground Speed” marking on the speedometer. So equipped, our renter would retail for $40,515, per Ford’s build-and-price website.
The convertible top is a breeze to use – a single pull and twist on the lever behind the rear-view mirror releases the top, and it folds electrically behind the rear seats quickly and silently.
With the top down as the Almighty intended, the drive mode switched to “sport,” and “Green Onions” on the stereo, it was off to Huntington Beach, the town Jan and Dean made famous as “Surf City”.
To my surprise, the “Surf City” thing wasn’t just PR – no, there weren’t two swingin’ honeys for every guy, but there were plenty of surfers out there on that morning, riding waves in the frigid water. One surfer struck up a conversation with us.
“We don’t have this back home,” I said, and after no doubt noting our distinctly non-California-esque bodies and untanned skin, he guessed we were from Minnesota. When I told him we were from Colorado, he reflected for a moment, simply replied, “cool,” and hit the waves again.
The local surfer-dude vibe isn’t accidental. Huntington Beach proved to be a somewhat funky, laid-back sort of place – further up the beach, there was a playground, a grassy knoll with hammocks, and a church service led by a guitar-playing pastor. It’s the kind of place that a non-Californian like me would think of as “typical So-Cal,” but the day would prove that there is no typicality to this place at all.
Where next from Huntington Beach? We looked north on the beach, where you could clearly see the haze of Long Beach harbor, an unmistakable sign of Los Angeles’ nightmare sprawl, and decided to head to the clearer southward skies and Newport Beach.
The Mustang was proving to be a comfortable cruise partner on the PCH drive, but the segment to Newport Beach, which was done in moderate traffic, exposed some nasty character flaws in its powertrain setup.
On paper, the ingredients for solid performance are there – the turbo-four produces 310 horsepower and a not-inconsiderable 350 lb-ft of torque, and TTAC tests of the manual version of this car found it to be a legit performer. Even with the automatic, instrumented tests show EcoBoost Mustangs are capable of 0-60 runs in the low-five-second range, which should have made our renter a tad quicker than my own car, a Jetta GLI, and that car’s no slouch. But in traffic, the Mustang felt out of sorts and slow – there was always a touch of turbo lag, followed by the 10-speed trying to figure out its next move, which was almost inevitably to hold the current gear or upshift, even in “sport” mode.
Accelerating was distasteful for the gearbox, but decelerating made it downright cranky – it led to an unseemly “bucking” feel, not unlike the dreaded “Power Shudder” sensation you got from the old DCT units in the Focus and Fiesta, which pleased only class-action lawyers. Our rental had paddle shifters – a highly useful performance driving tool that, when executed properly (as they are in my GLI), provide about eight- or nine-tenths as much transmission control as you’d have with a manual – but the Mustang’s transmission just kept shifting no matter what, making the paddles into decorations. The transmission caused the Mustang to develop a split personality – a sexy, powerful, highly competent, and comfortable cruiser that wants to go fast and has the talent to do so, with an Eeyore transmission that tells it not to.
But just as the Mustang’s transmission was throwing us curves, so did the PCH – the friendly funkiness of Huntington Beach faded behind us, and we entered Newport Beach. In retrospect, I wasn’t quite prepared for the display of ridiculous wealth that unfolded in front of me.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent money. I grew up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in St. Louis, in a home that would go for a million bucks today (and if you’re familiar with St. Louis real estate, you know the kind of house a million buys), with two Benzes in the driveway at any given time. Denver certainly has more than its share of wealth on display as well. Money shouldn’t be a culture shock for me, but I was more than a bit gobsmacked by the ridiculous, over-the-top “Platinum AMEX” feel of Newport Beach – the squads of Range Rovers and Teslas, the Ferrari and Maserati dealers a few hundred feet from a McDonalds, the yacht marina just off the PCH, and the endless procession of $3 million stucco McMansions.
Imagine a Neiman-Marcus store transformed into a city, and you have Newport Beach. And like a Neiman-Marcus, the antiseptic, generic feel of it all was striking – everything was perfectly manicured, buttoned-down, designer. Every blade of grass trimmed, every hair on every head coiffed. You could feel the snobbery just driving down the street. The spoiled-brat kid at McDonald’s who took our order for Shamrock Shakes didn’t even thank us. She was probably upset that her mom and dad made her earn her own money when everyone else at the day school is getting two-grand monthly allowances (a point that my inner adolescent finds eminently fair). Would someone surf in Newport Beach? Absolutely, if there was a Botox clinic on the beach.
Looking back, if there had been anything in the Ferrari dealership to look at (there wasn’t), we’d have stuck around Newport Beach for a bit, but pretentious wealth isn’t our thing, and we were happy to leave the place behind. So was the Mustang. As the road opened up a bit on the way to Laguna Beach, our pony got a chance to show its cruising chops, which are considerable – it’s a relaxed, refined driver, and even with the lousy transmission and without the V-8, the torque makes it feels effortlessly powerful, as a car like this should be. The Mustang’s conversion from coupe to convertible is well executed – with the top and windows down, wind buffeting and cowl shake were minimal. Overall, our 20,000-mile-old Mustang was solid and rattle-free. I never got to open the Mustang up, but I did note that the chassis’ sinews were evident, and the steering had appropriate heft and decent feel. This is a big car that never feels big, and transmission issues aside, it can be delightful to drive.
The next stop on the PCH split-personality parade was Laguna Beach, which is probably just as monied as Newport Beach but doesn’t like showing it. It reminded me of a California version of Boulder – a place where people who have gobs of money think of themselves as unpretentious as they drop 10 grand on a trail bike or $300 on shoes made from responsibly sourced materials and hand-assembled by indigenous Costa Ricans (who generously donate 3.8 percent of the proceeds to climate-change protection). Still, it was a breath of fresh(er) air after the Nip-Tuck ostentation of Newport Beach.
From there, it was on to Dana Point and San Clemente, probably best known as the place where Richard Nixon spent his winters planning out fiendish payback against all of his real and imagined political opponents. San Clemente had its own “touristy” charm but still felt more down-to-earth than the places we’d been. In town, the roads get twisty and narrow, and despite being a big car, the Mustang handled it all with ease.
After a late lunch in San Juan Capistrano, it was time to start heading back toward town for our evening flight, and we decided to try out a little California Freeway Life on Interstate 5. Surprisingly enough, traffic was light – truth be told, I-25 on a typical Sunday afternoon in Denver is far worse. The Mustang proved to be an excellent highway cruiser, and with the top down and windows up, noise levels were low enough to hold a conversation at 75-80 mph. I tried some passing maneuvers to see if the transmission issues were an “in traffic” thing, but the gearbox proved its rock-solid consistency by being mule-headed at highway speeds as well.
With the coming of sunset, it was time to figure out some supper (which turned out to be dessert at the Cheesecake Factory), gas up our Mustang and get it back to Hertz and begin the regrettable process of going home. Transmission issues notwithstanding, the Mustang had proven itself a first-rate partner for our California adventure.
A couple of hours later, our 737 left the ground. My girlfriend put her head on my shoulder and dozed off, and as the lights of Southern California and our little PCH playground receded behind us, with nothing but the dark of the desert Southwest ahead, that Muir quote ran through my head again.
I’m not going to be here forever; the same may even be true of Mustangs. Whether you’re talking about your own mortality, or the mortality of pony cars – at least as we know them – the dark is out there. But it can be chased away for a spell, and cruising the California coast in a drop-top Mustang with your love is a great way to do it. Next time, maybe we’ll chase it away going north, towards Santa Barbara, or maybe we’ll check the mid-mod houses in Palm Springs.
But no matter where we go next, if we rent a Mustang again, it’ll have a V8.
The old journalism major in me was vexed by the transmission issues in our Mustang after I got home. Was our renter a bad apple? Did Hertz “de-tune” it to keep it from being abused? The latter seemed possible, and would make sense – a few years back, National was dumb enough to rent me a V8 Challenger while I was in Florida on a three-week business trip, and the first thing I did after leaving the rental agency was to perform the first of 148 lurid smoky burnouts I did during the trip. Clearly, it’d be smart to guard against dingbats like me.
So, in the name of journalistic fairness, I decided to test out an automatic Ecoboost Mustang from a local dealership. The one I tested wasn’t quite as bad as our renter, but it had many of the same behaviors – even in sport mode, it was quick to upshift, slow to downshift, and “bucked” when decelerating.
A bit of research indicates that this appears to be a known issue with this car, according to Ford forums. Perhaps some of our renter’s issues stemmed from a hard-knock life at Hertz, but this is a performance car, so I’d argue that hard driving should be “engineered in,” so to speak. If 20,000 miles on the clock caused the transmission issues our example had, how bad would it be at 50,000 miles? I’d say the best answer to that question would be to avoid the automatic model altogether.
At this point, you’re saying, “who cares – the Mustang to get is the one with a V8 and a stick,” and you won’t get any argument from me there – I drove one a few years back and it was great. But choice is always good, and if you want to save a few bucks, a manual EcoBoost model is a fine-driving car in its’ own right and an excellent performance value.
[Images courtesy of the author]
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