Auto Route USA: Mustang at White Sands

AutoRoute: Driving the USA

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-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.

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.

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.

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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.