I don't know about your neck of the woods, but summertime on the California coast means that you're pretty much guaranteed to see dozens and dozens of rented ragtop Mustang convertibles packed with tourists making their way slowly down some of the best driving roads in the nation. I'm beginning to think that the Pacific Coast Highway and the Ford Mustang convertible were made for each other.
To put this hypothesis to the test, I hit the coastal highways south of San Francisco in a 2016 Ford Mustang GT California Special. And just when I thought it couldn't get any more on the nose, my example arrived in a San Francisco Giants-esque bright orange-and-black color scheme. Alrighty then, let's play tourist.
California Special edition
What's so special about this "California Special" edition? Well, nothing performance-related, this is basically a visual and styling upgrade. The package adds California Special badging inside, outside and in the engine bay. It features a selection of black trim bits; we've got 19-inch black wheels, black stripes, spoiler and hood accents. Up front, there's a unique grille and in the cabin there are suede inserts on the seats and door panels.
Motorized convertible top
I was eager to hit the road, but this GT is a convertible so I first took some time to explore the motorized ragtop.
The Mustang's top drops with the twist of a release at the top center of the windshield hoop and the touch of a button, lowering in about 13 seconds and rising back up in about 16. You can control the entire motorized operation from the driver's seat and the Z-fold top mostly forms its own cover when retracted, but leaves some of its hardware exposed through two sizable gaps at the corners.
Ford has included a pair of plastic trim bits that you're supposed to snap into place to clean up the look of the retracted top, but I'm not going to get out of the car to fiddle with them whenever I want to put the top down and again when it's time to close up and, I'm guessing, you won't either. I left them awkwardly flopping around in the trunk all week. You'll probably want to toss them into a closet somewhere.
After a few days logged behind the wheel, I began to understand why I see so many rented Mustang convertibles clogging the Pacific Coast Highway every weekend. (Well, V-6s, not GTs.) With the top dropped, the front seats don't experience a whole lot of buffeting from the wind, even at highway speeds. (I can't speak for the rear seats, but with so little legroom back there, I'd wager the winds would be the least of your troubles.) The 'Stang offers a pretty comfortable ride and an unobstructed view of the world around the car.
Coulda had a V-8...oh, wait. I do
Beneath the "Special" garnish and the Competition Orange paint -- not my favorite hue, by the way -- is the standard, but awesome, Mustang GT Premium trim level.
The GT is packing a 5.0-liter V-8 engine making 435 horsepower and a flat 400 pound-feet of torque. My example was even equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, a gearbox that feels pretty good whether you're cruising, creeping through traffic or hammering it home. It's not a perfect shifter, but does pretty well as a jack-of-all-trades.
Other available engines include the base 3.7-liter V-6 (300 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque) and a 2.3-liter EcoBoost I-4 option (stated at up to 310 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque). And, in addition to the standard manual transmission, all three engines can be mated to an optional six-speed SelectShift automatic gearbox with paddle shifters.
For the GT, zero-to-60 mph happens in about 5 seconds, if you drive like I do and tend toward preserving the clutch. The officially quoted 0-60 time is 4.7 seconds, which is already down from the GT coupe's 4.5. That motorized top and its extra weight dull the Mustang GT's performance edge just a hair compared with the hardtop. You're unlikely to notice such a small difference in straight-line performance.
If by some chance you are stressing about 10ths of a second, then you should probably be looking at the 526-horsepower, 429-pound-foot Shelby GT350R, not a grand tourer-cruiser like this.
Burnout mode: Initiated (Electronic Line Lock)
All 2016 Mustangs feature a rear-wheel-drive power train configuration with available torque and traction balanced and optimized by a standard rear limited-slip differential and a new rear independent suspension.
The GT's drive and traction control systems feature four modes that adapt the performance to the task at hand. There's sport, normal, race and snow -- yes, the more tame GT convertible features a potent race mode that makes it a potent-enough performance toy for enthusiast track days and casual autocrossing.
The GT models even feature a standard Electronic Line Lock feature, a sort of instant burnout mode aimed at warming up the rear tires for maximum grip in preparation for a quarter-mile launch in the most spectacularly smoky way possible. When activated via an in-dash menu, the system momentarily keeps the front brakes locked while leaving the rear wheels free to burn out the tires without burning out the rear brakes.
Line Lock works well when followed up with the launch control system, which can only be had on models equipped with manual transmissions, to get off of the line with maximum quickness by momentarily holding engine at the perfect rpm while you drop the clutch for a launch.
The Mustang GT comes standard with a 3.31-ratio rear differential, but 3.55 and 3.73 rear axles are available as options. These higher ratios net the GT a bit more straight-line acceleration at the expense of a few miles per gallon on the highway.
This pony prances
This newest generation of Mustang isn't content to just be a straight-line machine. It also offers a variety of features that enhance its ability to go around bends, as well. For example, the electronic power-steering system, which helps the Mustang squeeze an extra mile or so out of each gallon of gasoline, features three settings for steering effort (sport, comfort and normal) that can be adjusted independently of the drive modes.
Then there's the new, independent rear suspension, which really transforms the Mustang's handling when compared with the previous generation.
You can really feel the extra grip on the rear end while cornering. The old 'Stang did pretty good with its live axle, but this generation's new setup is a revelation. It's so much more planted, which allowed me to get on the throttle much earlier and much more aggressively after an apex than before. Rather than kicking the tail out or skipping its rear over midturn bumps, this new GT's extra grip allows the rear wheels to drive its nose deeper into the turn with so much more control. I think Ford's got itself a proper driver's car here.
Only, the Mustang is pretty big for a driver's car. It's got a lot of nose out front and a very upright, high front end that made accurately placing the position of the front corners a bit tricky for someone of my height. This may not be a problem for taller drivers, but I had a hard time clipping those apexes accurately and was pretty nervous negotiating tight quarters and narrow lanes.
In addition to the restricted sight lines, there's also the matter of mass. At 3,825 pounds, you're throwing quite a bit of mass at the laws of physics whenever the GT convertible is chucked into a corner. I'll admit that can be a lot of fun, but this is just another reason why you'll probably want to lean back in your seat and relax when piloting this Mustang on public roads. Plus, a nice side effect of the more pliable rear end is that the Mustang is simply more comfortable on the highway, even when you're not testing the limits of its rear-end grip.
Sync 3 infotainment, Shaker audio
So nothing about the GT Premium cabin really screams "premium car" to me. Frankly, it more modestly whispers "high-end economy car." For the money, it's not disappointing.
On the positive side, there's the Sync 3 infotainment stack at front and center, which is head and shoulders better than anything Ford's been doing in the dashboard for the last half-decade. It's got smooth animations, easy-to-understand organization and a wide range of cool apps. You can order Domino's Pizza from the dashboard via one of the dozens of Sync Apps; that's got to be the most awesomely 'Murican tech feature I've ever seen.
At the time of my testing, Sync 3 didn't feature Android Auto or Apple CarPlay integration, but newer 2017 models have since been upgraded to support these technologies.
My example was also equipped with the optional Shaker premium audio system, which isn't the best I've tested, but whoa-boy is it loud. I was hearing bass lines in songs that I didn't even know were there with the top down on the highway. This is definitely a must-check box on this Mustang's options list.
On the negative side, Mustang models are fairly devoid of driver aid tech. My example got a blind-spot monitoring upgrade as part of the Shaker package and featured a standard rear camera. Additionally, forward precollision braking and adaptive cruise are optional, but not equipped. There are no lane-keeping assistance, automatic parking or really advanced driver aid system tech options.
The Mustang GT convertible will run and run hard if you ask it to. It'll do sweet burnouts with its line-locker mode and hole-shots with launch control and it won't complain. But that's not really what the convertible variant is all about. It just wants to trot, to cruise and for you to enjoy the drive and the wind on your face. There's some switch that's thrown in my brain when the top slowly peels back that just makes me feel all right with taking it easy.
The Mustang V6 Fastback -- the coupe, that is -- starts at $24,295. That's pretty affordable for a 300-horsepower sports coupe. The convertible is a bit pricier, starting at $29,645 for the V6 model, still pretty reasonable.
This 2016 GT Premium convertible comes fairly close to fully loaded at $41,895, which is a slightly more bitter pill to swallow. For that kind of money, the power's good, the features are fine, but the level of fit and finish in the cabin seems to be lacking. We've also got an additional $1,795 on the bottom line for the 401A equipment package that adds the Shaker premium audio, memory -- adjust driver's seat, BLIS blind-spot monitoring, $1,995 for the California Special appearance package and $795 to add navigation to the Sync 3 system. With a $900 destination charge, you're looking at $47,380 as tested.