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San Francisco, Day Two: Exploring more Bay Area wonders

Ross Ballot June 29, 2018 Featured, Road Trip 4 Comments

No set plans: Two days exploring the San Francisco Bay Area in a rented Mustang GT

Some things are hard to explain. Take, for example, an intangible like the connection between car and driver. But break it down and you can begin to build a picture of what goes into “the feeling”: things like the road being transmitted through the steering wheel to your fingertips, the engine’s willingness and responsiveness to your foot’s commands, the engagement of the clutch and the directness of the shifter, and how the chassis communicates the road to your body. Move to more of a grander scale, and you begin to try to describe a driving experience in a way similar to how you would a car.

Luckily, I had the perfect instance in which to do so: Mustang GT, California roads, stir and serve as desired. It’s not so much the car and the roads as it is the experience: the way in which weather, road, machine, and vibes all come together can bring about something that toes closely to all-consuming zen. It lifts up your soul, restores faith in the ability to enjoy things for the sake of enjoying them, and provokes the enthusiast part of your brain that basks in the glory of adrenaline.

Throw the San Francisco roads, a rented Mustang GT, and two free days into the same pot, and, short of some kind of catastrophic failure, it’s a recipe for certain enjoyment.

The prior day was pure excellence. The burger at Alice’s, the Mustang’s ever-present eight-cylinder symphony, the views afforded by driving in areas that would otherwise go unexplored; it was truly a magnificent thing for my East Coast eyes– yes, and soul– to behold. But it wasn’t over yet: I had another day of adventure ahead of me, and the Mustang was still eager to do its best to convince me of its sports car inclinations and its Grand Tourer backbone. What did Day Two entail, and what were my final impressions of the 2018 Mustang GT Premium after two days of driving it in every manner from standstill traffic to full-fledged canyon carving? Read on to find out.

Day Two

With the shining sun and the mellow vacation feel of a day with no set plans, it’s easy to awake with a multitude of things consuming one’s mind. But on this certain day, it was two main focuses that were consuming me: the promise of adventure, and the promise of doing so in a Mustang GT.

In very few places can the Ford sports coupe, what with its roaring pipes and classic long-hood/short-deck fastback styling, not just blend into the scenery but rather be totally absorbed into the normalcy of the surrounding area. And yet, such a place exists in NorCal, with areas so affluent they serve as a constant reminder that in sunny California the Mustang GT is very much a common rental car in every regard. Parked in a shopping center lot in the heart of Mountain View, even cars with slapped-on AMG badges and Porsche crests can hardly catch your attention (but that didn’t stop me from oogling a BMW i3 and laughing heartily as a Prius’ front lip was destroyed via slamming into a curb), but it detracts from the aura of the ‘Stang from afar. This doesn’t make it any less exciting though, since, as you all know damn well, the fun happens when you’re in the driver’s seat.

Healthy Cali-style breakfast downed and an iced coffee in the cupholder, I unintentionally set my sights, the destination for which was based purely on a Google Maps search for a challenging-looking stretch of tarmac, on a road I had originally glossed over. After a short highway stint it was with nearly anticlimactic abruptness that the road tightened, pitched skyward, and introduced a hundred-foot- drop-off just astride the oncoming traffic’s lane. After briefly flattening out and, with what should have notified me of the upcoming hill’s intensity, a parking lot filled with bicyclists and motorcycles, my morning exploration route quickly became among the narrowest, most challenging sections of paved roadway I have ever covered.

Within the first technical section a welcome sight began to occupy my mirrors: an NC Miata, roof down, matching my pace; a hooning companion in a vehicle of a very different variety yet with a driver equally intent on enjoying the car and its capabilities. It soon became a practical display of each car’s respective strengths and weaknesses: the Mustang putting lengths on the little roadster on the straights, the Miata reeling in the pony car any time the steering wheel turned past forty-five degrees.

Marred by an apparent unofficial, unsanctioned bike race being held on the road itself, our uphill run rate was slowed and broken in the name of safety. There’s two ways to drive on a road like this: one of them reckless and careless of the well-being of others; we call this the wrong way. The other takes it back a couple notches so as to enjoy the scenery and to make certain human life is valued over momentary, fleeing enjoyment, only prodding hard against the car’s limits hard when sufficient pedestrian-free zones allow you to do so; this one, obviously, is the right way.

Knowing that no amount of risk to safety is worth the amount of fun that can be had, I planned careful passes around the bicyclists only when there was ample room to do so and, equally importantly, when visibility on the tight twisties allowed. This was to the severe detriment of my pace, but in all fairness the Mustang, what with its weight probably closing in on four-thousand pounds loaded down with fluids and with me in it, was not exactly a svelte sports car perfectly-suited to the rough surfaces and ultra-tight corners on Mt. Hamilton Road as was the NC Miata behind me.

And though the toned-down clip at which the road was covered might have been a bit of a bummer, as I certainly would have loved to see what the Mustang is capable of closer to its limits when totally out of its element as it was on such a tight track, it made those brief moments of “giving it hell” exhilarating and worth savoring.

The summit and main attraction of Mt. Hamilton Road is the Lick Observatory, which, coincidentally, I had originally chosen not to pursue since the Observatory itself was closed on the day of my visit. But after playing around on Google Maps while already out in California and identifying it as what looked to be a serious challenge of a drive, I then found myself taking in the views from yet another incredible observation area (the other being the famous Griffith Observatory outside Los Angeles which I had visited very recently), this time from the parking lot of the very much closed Lick Observatory.

Mustang cooling off– or at least trying to under the strong hot NorCal sun– the Miata’s owner exited his car and, naturally, we struck up a conversation. It turns out he is a Tesla software engineer and we had a nice little chat about California, cars, and everything in-between. I say it time and time again, but there’s nothing like the car enthusiast community.

Anywhere you go, anywhere you look, you can find somebody with whom you have something in common, even if you’re from a different country, work in a different industry, and share no other common ground.

After a lap of the vicinity filled with ample time to take in the mountain views and pollution-free air, I got back into my rental, turned right out of the lot, and headed downhill the opposite way from which I came up. Here, with no bikers to hinder my pace, the road and the Mustang came into their own. It made immediate sense why our own Bradley Brownell called this, “one of my favorite roads.” It’s consistently challenging, continually rewarding in the views it provides and finesse of driving the technicality of the layout demands.

I knew from my prior day’s blast in the mountains that the Mustang was predictable and controllable, but here, on the down and away from the Lick Observatory, was where I found out just how much so. The Mustang is truly easy enough to go fast in that anybody could do it. Point the front tires, consider how much throttle to give it, plant your right foot– and go. Though I’d like the suspension to be a bit stiffer and with better rebound control (and yes, I recognize this was a beat-on rental car, but it’s something I’ve experienced in each of the ~6 S550 Mustang GTs I’ve driven), it’s a supremely easy car to make good time in. Even oversteer– the little of which I’ll admit to exploring on the hairpins– was easy to induce, but only if you want it, and it’s easy to modulate.

And, as ill-suited as the motor is to a road like this, what with the fun part of its power in the almost-unusable part of the powerband, it makes beautiful noises and provides enough punch and, yes, controllability, to make it a nice partner to fulfill all the wants of your speed-craving desires. A beauty, that 5.0 truly is.

Thankfully Ford has uncorked the five-liter for the 2018 model year, a very necessary change from the far-too-muffled lack of noise that the 2015-2017 cars were stuck with. Aside from looking “the part,” the quad pipes do quite a bit to improve the car’s character, for as we all know, much of a muscle car’s attitude comes from the noises that emanate from its tips.

Better yet, Ford is finally offering a multi-mode exhaust on higher-option GTs, taking cues from GM’s brilliant NPP dual-mode unit (which I previously said was the best single option I’ve ever experienced on a car), allowing you to choose how much volume you get based on the driving mode and mood you’re in. Muscle car “toys” truly do keep getting better and better.

The steering though…there’s still something unnatural about it that I don’t love. In the same vein as what I complained about the first time I drove the S550, even in Sport+ there’s a numbness and disconnect that doesn’t quite prohibit fast driving from coming comfortably but rather that takes away that final bit of confidence on a consequence-ridden road like this. It doesn’t so much make it less enjoyable as it does detract from how well you mesh with the car, and for me, it’s just *that* far from being exactly what I wanted it to be on the front of steering feel.

Chevy does a better job of communicating the road to your fingertips in the Camaro, without question. But nit-picky as I might be, I was still largely content with the Mustang’s performance and I still had a ways to go on my journey to further hone those feelings.

By the time I had turned around at low-ground dead-end, driven back up the section I had just tested the Mustang’s braking competence down, crossed the top and passed the Lick Observatory once more, it had become supremely clear that this road was not well-suited to a car the size and weight of the Mustang. Or, rather, it was evident that the Mustang was very poorly suited to this kind of road. As much as you want the Mustang to shrink around you when driving in a spirited manner, and as much as does to a certain extent, it still cant hide sheer heft.

Though the controls– steering, shifting, and so on– are tight enough so as to allow you to blend seamlessly with the machine’s doings, there’s no overcoming the car’s weight and the physics that come with the territory of hustling such a dimensionally large and physically heavy vehicle down a road better suited to cars like the Miata that had so easily followed me uphill just a little while earlier.

Elevation and twisties in both the figurative and literal rear mirror, it was once again time to test the Touring aspect of the GT’s nomenclature. With a fifty-mile, nearly one-and-a-half hour long transit section from the bottom of the Mt. Hamilton Road to the hotel at which I was set to pick up my fiancé en route to San Francisco proper, I once again was reminded of why the Mustang makes such a great do-it-all car for the person who wants something fun and evocative yet comfortable and reserved enough to drive long distances.

Getting up to highway speed is supremely easy: even in the softest of Drive Modes, prod the throttle lightly and suddenly you’re at cruising speed. Staying there is equally thoughtless, with the Mustang’s high-speed stability garnering a descriptor of “excellent” and its composure running in the left lane over long-ish distances nothing short of relaxing relative to other cars on the market.

Windows down and air conditioning on in true California style, my fiancé and I made straight for the Golden Gate Bridge and, for the first time for both of us, crossed the huge metal structure more “to say we did” than for any other justifiable reason. And how great it was that we had: pulling off to the right-hand inland side we stopped at one of the scenic Vista Points, fighting other tourists and the overcrowded lot for a place to stop and take in the view of the city from afar. Looking across the 101 to the west and far above our own altitude we noticed another Vista Point– one much more appealing. We made for the high ground, and the “good decision verification” kept coming; though the pull-offs were too crowded to park in every instance except one, the road still afforded a perspective of the city that none other could provide.

Incredible, it truly was; and as astounded as we were, it got even better as we continued onto the one-way track that led through the Marin Headlands and towards the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

Low speed limit perfectly in line with the serenity of the secluded area, the Marin Headlands is a mix of inland, lowland strips set below towering mountains and higher, above-the-sea spots giving way to unnervingly steep downhills and cliffs that open directly to the ocean. Few things I’ve seen rival the sheer tranquility that does this area, and it’s what I’d call a “mandatory stop” for eager explorers visiting the San Fran area.

The Mustang soaked up the slow cruising admirably, paying no mind to the unbelievable scenery surrounding us, though both my fiancé and I noted once again that a sunroof would have been a nice addition so as to open the cabin up a bit and allow us to enjoy the California coast that much more.

Here, up in the hills just north of the bridge, having shortly beforehand been driven like a wannabe-race car, was further evidence of just how soft and touring-focused the non-Performance Pack-equipped Mustang GT is. The suspension is supremely comfortable, floating over potholes and undulations, and the car rides with near luxury-like composure on the open road. Though it makes for a great rental car and one most would find pleasant in daily driver usage, this personality acts very much to its detriment on the road I spent my morning on and proved itself frustrating to the point that suspension components would need to be changed should a real driving enthusiast purchase one with intent to drive it the way Ford advertises it to be done so.

I have no doubt the Performance Pack 1 and 2 cars improve drastically on this, as I’m certain the GT350(R) does as well, so plan your purchase accordingly. Again, this is a car of mixed intentions. The comfy suspension made easy work of the city of San Francisco itself and the highway on which we cruised during the last few hours of our last day, and again we returned back at our hotel comfortable, relaxed, and impressed by the Ford’s ability to coddle considering its performance merits.

It was very shortly after a fantastic California vacation that I flew back across the country to spend time with a Mustang GT, to drive the SF Bay roads, and to hang with my fiance during her downtime when not in a work conference. In my care, 350 miles or so were tacked on to the odometer of this 2018 Mustang GT from space E3 (or was it supposed to be D3?), and I have a hard time thinking of a car I would have rather done it in.

Versus the Mazda6 on which we did nearly double the mileage, the main difference is that I meshed with the Mustang and the roads on which we traveled in a different kind of way– a way that was much more rewarding and enjoyable. Not only were the roads better suited to my driving, but the car was as well. And what a trip it was.

But as much as this trip was about seeing and experiencing new things, that was only part of it: in reality, I was doing recon so as to see if I would want to buy a Mustang of my own. And after all that I experienced, all that I saw, all that I learned, that answer was a resounding no.

See, at the end of my time with a 2018 Mustang GT Premium, I do largely agree with future ‘Stang owner Greg Kachadurian’s take on an identical car: aside from a few minor quibbles (transmission, over-softness, no sunroof, and the pathetic gas tank), Ford has built a fantastic all-around Grand Tourer that has enough of the mean, “I can kick your ass” demeanor you want from the brand’s signature ponycar without sacrificing livability or comfort. I’ve driven many S550 Mustang GTs at this point, and this is by far the best yet when looked at as a “complete package.”

But as good as it is, there’s just something “lacking” in how I connected– or rather, how I didn’t connect– with the newest ‘Stang; as fantastic as it is, it just didn’t stir my soul the way I hoped it would. It has to be something in how composed it is, how too-easy it is to drive fast, or how it goes about all its business without a fuss. I don’t want to say there’s something “clinical” about it, but it all felt very…detached, or sedated. That’s not to say it’s a bad car, because it truly is fantastic: it’s comfortable, has great heated and cooled seats, Sync has evolved into a solid infotainment system, the changeable ambient lights are still a neat party trick, the trunk is nice and big, and it both looks and sounds mean as a Mustang should. But, ultimately, the Mustang just doesn’t resonate with me the way I was hoping it would, and I am skeptical of things like a manual transmission and a sportier suspension setup changing the fundamentals. And so, even after test-driving many before this and then spending two days with the 2018 Mustang GT Premium that this story is about, I can’t buy one because I didn’t find myself thinking about it when I wasn’t in it, and that was even less so when I got back to the east coast. A great car, yes, but a one-way ticket to my heart and soul, it was not.

On our last day in San Francisco my fiancé and I did the end-of-trip rituals: wake up early, drive to the airport, return the car. By this point I was perfectly comfortable in and with the Mustang in every regard; everything about it had meshed as seamlessly into second-nature muscle memory as any car I’ve ever spent such little time with. This is a direct reflection on the Mustang GT, in non-Performance Pack guise at least: it’s approachable, easy to get comfortable in and with, and, yes, it’s fast. The refreshed S550 Mustang GT is a hell of a car, one I give a wholehearted recommendation and that is good enough to garner my support. And yet, as great as it is, I didn’t– and don’t– find myself thinking about the Mustang, never dreaming of it and by no means lusting after owning one. As good as it is, in rental-spec GT Premium form at least, the Mustang is just lacking that “special something.” The greater San Francisco area roads, however, aren’t lacking anything. They’re damn-near perfect.

  • Fred

    “The greater San Francisco area roads, however, aren’t lacking anything. They’re damn-near perfect.” Well they can get a bit congested, especially on weekends and holidays.

  • Zentropy

    I haven’t driven an S550 Mustang yet, but my concern with any generation of Mustang is always steering feel. I grew up on muscle cars, so while I drool Pavlovianly at the sound of a well-piped 289 or 390, I also know what numb steering feels like, and I don’t care for it. I’ll compromise a ton of horsepower in exchange for communication through the wheel. Feedback is everything.

    • Greg Kachadurian

      In my experience with the one I rented a few weeks prior it actually wasn’t that bad. I like it a hell of a lot better than BMW’s electric steering which is the very definition of what numb is.

  • DoctorNine

    Anytime I see these roads, I always remember doing them on two wheels, not four.

    But that’s just me…