Knowing that we’d be in Southern California, my wife and I recently sought out the rental options on a Miata for a taste of our familiar lightweight roadster to fling around through the canyons. However, we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work out for our travel plans. With a rental cost that was not much higher than average, the Ford Mustang (V6 with automatic in this case) emerged as a decent compromise between fun, affordability, and “practicality.”
Click past the jump to see how it stacked up. 
Things started out on a downer; not so much with the car, but with the rental company from which I picked up the car. Arriving to pick up the Mustang, the hardtop model that I’d reserved was of course unavailable. I was reminded of an old Seinfeld episode. Some things never change. The rental agent offered an upgrade “at no additional cost” to a convertible. Those four words never seem to live up to the truth with rental cars. A higher bill soon followed with a vague explanation as to why. The word “hold” was used, which at least sounded like I’d be getting some money back at the end. But when I asked about that, the man at the counter laughed and said something like “no, that would be nice.”

The little area in front of the shift selector seemed conveniently sized for phones. If only the stereo didn’t have Bluetooth amnesia ever time we left the car.
I was on vacation and I wasn’t going to let this ruin my day. As I went to the specified spot to collect the black Mustang, I was relieved to slide down into a soft new black leather seat. I drove the nicely optioned Mustang towards the garage exit… and was told to go back into the lot because they’d told me the wrong parking space. I was given a license plate number and was told to go back and look for that instead. It turned out to be a much more basic model with cloth seats and a much more basic stereo. But what are you going to do when a rental location lives up to their 2.3 star review rating? It was not exactly a shock. With the keys to a (relatively) new Mustang, and a convertible in California at that, it was hard to be too let down once we were under way.

Headroom was plentiful. Front and side visibility were excellent, rear not so much. Drop the top and this is no longer a problem.
Two odd things stood out immediately in this Mustang: the brakes and the steering feel. In the previous few days, the most recent car I’d driven was a friend’s 2014 Chevrolet Volt. Compared to that Volt, the Mustang’s steering actually felt a little slow and numb initially. The Goodyear Eagle all-season tires mounted onto the attractive optional 18” wheels could possibly have something to do with that. More aggressive rubber and alignment settings would likely help. Fortunately, in just the first few hours of driving, I adapted and things began to feel normal again.
The brakes, on the other hand, would take some time to adjust to. They seemed far too sensitive at first. Pushing the brake pedal to slow down almost brought the car to a dead stop. This sensitivity became especially bothersome along some of the tighter portions of PCH. With so little time driving the car before this, and being on an unfamiliar stretch of road, it was slightly challenging judging speed going into curves. It never felt dangerous exactly, but the touchiness of the brakes probably meant more wear than they otherwise would have, had they performed more progressively. It was a repeated pattern of accelerate, turn, reach apex, too much brake, accelerate, turn, reach apex, too much brake. Consequently, by the time we reached Thousand Oaks late that night, the brakes were squealing at low speed. All that said, they held up without any signs of fade despite hours of frequent use. They were just as grabby at the end of the trip as they were at the beginning.

No obvious signs of glazing after a day driving down PCH. Low speed squeal mostly fixed itself after a day of less-curvy street driving.
The V6 is adequate without having enough oomph to really get you into trouble. With 300 hp, it has double the horsepower of my daily driver. Strangely this wasn’t noticeably faster at first. After a day or two, however, I realized something. The whole time I’d driven it, over a few hundred miles, no one had cut me off or made any rude overtakes. It wasn’t that the other drivers on the road were necessarily more skilled or gracious than I was used to driving with. It was that this car was powerful enough to get out of its own way well enough that opportunities to jump in front of me had decreased. With the top down the V6 sounded pretty good and things really got fun once the transmission was set to Sport. Power never really got past adequate, but at least with Sport the car responded more quickly to my right foot.
The only times it ever felt like a V8 would have been particularly beneficial were in providing more power in going up steeper hills (not to mention the occasional launch), and for providing a louder, more rumbly exhaust sound. The V6 seemed nearly inaudible with the top up, but had a decent sound when accelerating with the top down. Setting the transmission to Sport seemed to help with the power and response, but through some of the tightest curves on PCH, Sport often lead to rougher downshifts which was a little unsettling when the curve would require me to slow to near-idle speed at an apex.

This 2015 model had already traveled over 30,000 miles since new and had begun to show some minor wear. The front seats had gained a few stains but were remarkably plush and fit my 5’8”-ish frame well. Front seat comfort is where this car really shined.

In the first day after picking it up, we travelled 382.3 miles down the Pacific Coast Highway, for a little over nine and a half hours worth of driving. It was a total trip time of about twelve hours with some stops along the way. Impressively, it wasn’t until the last two hours that back soreness became an issue. The rear seats are small, as to be expected in a sporty car of this type. My sister in-law sat back there for a short trip when the car was first picked up and it forced her into a not so comfortable turtle-like seating position.

The Mustang V6 with its big brother, the limited production Shelby GT350 in the hills above Malibu. Big bro has some serious presence.
The top worked well, but had some small hiccups. The Mustang wants you to stop before the top will move. Once you did, it went down quickly enough. The only small annoyance it had in going up is that the rear quarter windows didn’t always seem to make it all the way closed when the top went up, so some experimentation was required to find the right sequence of which windows to put up and when, for everything to end up closed. Once the top was up, it was noticeably quiet inside. The interior was insulated well enough that we were able to hold a conversation without raising voices.

The trunk had plenty of space inside, but the opening was small and awkward. Perhaps in the next generation Ford can find a way to make the tail lights go up with the lid or fold down and out of the way when it’s open.

If you miss the days of physical buttons and knobs in car interiors, this is the stereo for you. So many buttons. Ford’s SYNC system paired easily with my phone, but would only allow Bluetooth to pair with the phone when the transmission was in Park, which was a little annoying. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were a once and done procedure. However every time we left the car and returned, it seemed as though we’d need to have the stereo forget the phone and start over with pairing the phone to the stereo again. Otherwise it wouldn’t see it. Of course, this often wasn’t noticed until we were already in motion. As fast as a passenger can be at pressing buttons, you’ll likely be at least a couple of seconds too slow to perform this at the average red light. Once connected, it worked flawlessly. It just got tedious punching through the stereo menu every time we got into the car. Overall I’d characterize the stereo’s operation as not bad, not great, but just okay. About right for a rental car.

With as much complaining as I’ve done here about technological annoyances, grabby brakes, and rotten rental counters, I have to admit that the Mustang was genuinely fun to drive.  I’d been trying to get my wife to consider one as an option for when one of us will eventually need a new car down the road. It successfully won her over. By the end of the trip, she liked the Mustang. We just both wanted to try the V8. Despite the rotten rental experience, this was a good rental car. We put it through much more than the average boring A-to-B highway trip, driving nearly 400 miles of PCH and then following it up with The Snake and a few other canyon roads around Malibu the next day. It was fun to drive, took everything we dished out, and nothing broke. Sometimes that’s all you need.