AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
by Matt Brogan

-by Josh McKenzie

As I stand at a rental car counter in downtown San Francisco I can’t help but build up just a few expectations of what’s to come on this adventure. After all, driving an iconic American muscle car across the southern belt of the US is a bit of a lifetime experience.

Soon enough I’m handed the keys to a 2009 Ford Mustang Convertible in black. It looks the part with its retro styling, muscular lines, long bonnet (sorry, hood) and short rear overhang. This is what a convertible should look like.

First impressions driving through San Fran are mixed. Although there’s a nice note from the exhaust with the top down, any thoughts about this being a “muscle” car are completely forgotten once behind the wheel. Apart from lacking in the power department, the Mustang rattles and shakes as we leave San Francisco’s city roads and belies its tough image – in fact it feels more like an ‘econobox’.

From San Francisco, California, our journey takes us through Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park and onto Las Vegas, Nevada. Whilst I’ll leave the expletives on the beauty that is Yosemite NP for the travel guide books, I will tell you that the drive eastwards from Yosemite via the Tioga Pass is both entertaining and spectacular.

Closed for much of the year due to snow, the Tioga Pass cuts across the Sierra Nevada mountain range and descends one kilometre down to a highway known as US395 over a very short distance – putting brakes to the ultimate fade test.

AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA

The US395 enables us to reach the famed Death Valley. With much of it lying below sea level, having steep roads leading into and out of the valley and also sporting some of the highest recorded temperatures in the western hemisphere, Death Valley is actually popular with both tourists and car manufacturers alike.

In fact, my arrival into the valley was met with 51°C temperatures (in the shade) and a sighting of the Suzuki Kizashi being hot weather tested. The Mustang didn’t falter in the heat either, its air-conditioning proving more than adequate and the fabric roof showing that it is well insulated.

We continue east from Death Valley through Nevada, Arizona and into New Mexico, visiting highlights such as Las Vegas (sleazy at best), Hoover Dam (a big wall that seems to attract tourists and traffic alike) and Monument Valley (spectacular). Driving through this small corner of the states, the scenery and terrain is varied and changes amazingly quickly.

But it’s the smallest of detours to various state parks and national monuments that become the highlights of the trip – forests in Arizona, colourful wildflowers in green meadows in New Mexico and wide expanses of blinding white sand resembling snowfields. My expectations are already being broken down …

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Then I realise that Miami, Florida, is no longer a good idea. One thing I missed in my travel guidebook was “hurricane season”. Hurricane’s Gustav, Hannah and Ike all displaced residents from Texas, Louisiana and Florida, making travel in that direction both dangerous and difficult. Out comes the wild card; we’re going back to San Francisco, but not the way we came. The convenience of your own wheels can’t be beat.

AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA

From here on in, the direction of travel is north. We make our way into Colorado and head towards the Rocky Mountains National Park. The main road through the national park, named Trail Ridge Road, is known to be the highest continuous paved road in the US.

Topping out at just over 3658 metres (12,000 feet), it’s a mix of switchbacks, off camber, varying radius corners and enough distracting views to kill a few inattentive drivers. At this height, the lack of oxygen in the air blunts the Mustang’s performance even further, with adequate acceleration and 80km/h speeds only being achieved with full throttle applications. This sorely disappoints as someone having fun in his Shelby Cobra passes me.

Further north and heading back towards the west coast we pass through the volcanic region of the Unite States. In Yellowstone National Park you’ll be faced with animal hazards on the road (that are as large as a pick-up truck), so perhaps it isn’t the best place to be impatient or spirited with your driving.

Nonetheless, driving through areas smelling of sulphur with rising steam and geysers makes the experience feel positively alien. Further west in Oregon, the volcanoes merely stand as beautiful, snow-capped mountains on a horizon littered with pine trees.

Our last leg back to San Francisco is south along Highway 101 through Oregon and Northern California. The locals ‘hollered’ about how amazing, beautiful and impressive the aptly named “Oregon Coastal Highway” is. I thought it was ‘nice’, which it was after having driven through onion farms on a dull Interstate two days beforehand.

AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA
AutoRoute: Driving the USA

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But don’t buy into the local’s adjectives. In fact, the most amazing sights along  US101 are further south in California. Here you’ll find trees over 100m tall dating back centuries. Many of these redwood forests also have scenic detours (one befittingly named ‘Avenue of the Giants’) that will have heads rolling back in convertibles.  It’s a relaxing way to end almost 8045km (5000 miles) of driving as we head back to San Francisco.

The Mustang

The Mustang I drove was in fact the current base model 2009 convertible. Its 4.0-litre, V6 makes a paltry 157kW at 5300rpm and 325Nm at 3500rpm. If you’re a little under-whelmed by these figures from a relatively large engine then join the club.

Figures like this would almost be acceptable if the engine was silky smooth or an aural masterpiece; at best you get a small burble from the exhaust at low revs and the rest of the time you’re feeling and hearing the engine’s pain when trying to get just a little bit of ground behind you. Luckily the five-speed automatic was on a mission to change up as soon as possible as this kept the noise low.

The lack of modern technology in the engine carries over to the Mustang’s suspension. A live axle rear set-up does nothing for handling or ride quality, and the ultimate grip levels that were available from the all season tyres were so low that tyre squeal occurred on the suburban streets at sensible speeds.

Inside the Mustang, the bare-bones approach Ford has taken continue. While it remains a comfortable place for an 8000 kilometre plus drive around the countryside, annoyances such as door trim falling off and a squeaking latch for the soft-top roof detract from what could’ve been just a simple and comfortable interior.

The poor build quality is also evident on the outside with plastic trim pieces that were hanging loose by the end of the trip. In convertible form, your extra money buys you a motorised roof, very little extra body bracing and a lot of scuttle shake.

So why do people buy this car then? Simple … it’s good looking, iconic and best of all, cheap!  With the manual V6 coupe starting at around US$20,000, Americans can buy a car that looks like the muscle car they want (the Shelby GT500KR) – but can’t afford. It’s a car that makes people look, point and talk. And if that makes you smile, like it did me, then it can’t all be bad.

  • Tom

    Mustangs are great cars, particularly the up coming 2010 model, which has significant improvments, even tougher styling, and an even nicer interior

    the best bit though, is in 2010 we will get that new 5L 400hp v8 ford has been spied testing, and thats going to be very fast in a relatively light mustang.

  • Mitch

    we should sell them the falcon 4.0l engine

  • OSU811

    Mitch is right, imagine a f6 engine with the 6 speed auto in a high performance model with brembo brakes and updated suspension. now that would be a nice muscle car!!

  • Tom

    Ford will debut its new 3.5L v6 ecoboost engines next year for the v6 mustang.

    They will have roughly 240kw.

  • Marc

    Speeding kills bears, hey? Well those damn bears need to slow the hell down then!

  • Joe

    WOW, awesome…my wife and I just got back from a 4 week driving holiday from the USA, we had a 2008 Mustang hard top from Hertz. Black also!

    Did LA – San Fran along Hwy 1, then to Yosemite, Vegas, Hoover Dam/Grand Canyon and then to San Diego (and then we flew to NY).

    I enjoyed the 2316 miles of driving thoroughly, and can’t get over how cheap fuel is over there!!

  • Joe

    Oh and one more thing….we had to skip Death Valley on the way to Vegas, because Tioga Pass (the only logical way to get to Death Valley from Yosemite, on the way to Vegas) was closed due to being snowed over, meaning Death Valley was a 250 mile detour :(

  • The Original Tom

    I like these kinds of articles, and I enjoyed reading the insights into the Mustang base model (enough to not ever want to own one).

    Somehow, though, this article left me wanting. It is like sitting down to a long-awaited epic movie, but having it finish in 90 minutes with the ending rushed. You can’t help but feel there could have been more to it.

    I would love to see more of this kind of thing, just more…full bodied, if you will. Anyway, that’s enough from this armchair journalist.

  • Sam

    Damn that was a long drive.

  • James

    Loved this article. Keep ’em coming!

  • Biggles

    @ Marc: You made me LOL!

    Nice roadtrip too, it’s a pity the car didn’t fare quite so well! Oh well, I guess what they say about American cars is true…

    One question though: which one of you boys was lucky enough to do this? One of my dreams is to travel across the USA in an iconic American muscle car, hopefully one day I’ll get to do it!

  • Shane

    Nice write up, we took a very similar trip in July but saw mostly Lake Tahoe, we even had the same car but in silver. It was a very fun experience, nothing like it in Aus.



  • Matt

    Hi Biggles,

    The trip and subsequent story were completed by our AutoRoute correspondent Josh McKenzie.

    Josh funds the trips himself and contributes his stories to the site on a semi-regular basis (also brought us the NZ South Island story).

    Many thanks for your comments.

    Cheers Matt.

  • Gibbo

    Nice article, I have always wanted to do a road trip accross America in a muscle car. Dont think I could settle for the V6 ‘stang tho… gotta have some thing with a V8 so theres something to listen to

  • Cupid Stunt

    I to have done part of that run from the Yosemite to San Fran some part are fantastic particularly the winding decent as stated giving the brakes a work over. Other parts are deadly boring. Highway 1 was the nice part for me.

    Nice article pity about the crap car. Should have done the Pontiac thing.

  • Robin Graves

    Did a weekender in December around Texas, but in a hardtop Mustang. No quality gripes, felt solid except for the live axle squirming around a bit, but the motor was asthmatic. It had leather seats which were nice and comfortable. I couldnt believe how closely spaced first and second gears were in the auto?

  • Constable Care

    my favourite is the 70’s mustang, awesome engineering.

  • MPS Carl

    I drove the hardtop version of that same car from Palm Springs via the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley back to LA. Yes I agree, the car is underwhelming and I never quite felt “at home” or comfortable in it. On the way back home, stopped off in Tahiti and hired a Citroen C3 manual to drive around in. I felt SO much better to drive than the Mustang…

  • Zorro

    What about the pricing! 20K gets you a large/medium size convertable with V6 to cruise and enjoy with the top down. What can you buy here for that money? Nothing to compare with that. Might have been a few quality issues, but then so has every hire car I’ve ever driven. God bless the U S of A!

  • zegot

    You can’t blame the build quality entirely on the people who assemble the car. I think Ford workers in America try to build well assembled vehicles, but the pressure is enormous by Ford to their suppliers to keep cutting cost. It has to show somewhere. It’s like a badly made model car kit, there’s only so much you can do if the parts are only designed to be “snap fitted” or poorly molded in the first place.

  • Old CarAdvice Reader

    I’ve been around California last year and the place was excellent. I read this in envy of how you drove a f***ing Mustang! :) Now I can’t wait to go back there and this time be in a Mustang.

    But I liked it over there, it was my first overseas holiday and I was incredibly surprised with how much the same it feels over there as it is here. Some people didn’t get me as to how I would like it over there, before I went I was told as if I didn’t know that people get mugged in LA and it’s really dangerous in America etc. Load of BS… I mean I’m not saying it’s safe over there but some people I know who haven’t even been to the U.S. kind of overstate the dangers over there. The trip in general was very close to being fantastic except the Hertz branch we picked the car up from didn’t have Mustangs. I was wanting a Mustang not caring if it will be a coupe or convertible but some how the car we specified was convertible and the only convertibles they had there were the most ugliest cars of all… The Toyota Camry Solara – It seriously defeated the whole reason why I wanted to travel by car. But oh well, hopefully better luck next time….

  • Bavarian Missile (.)(.)

    Drove the Hertz Shelby Stang down the Coast from San Fran and LA in 2007,compared to the BA GT we had at that time it made the Stang feel old . Good looking car but the underside we build it much better here in Australia.