No set plans: Two days exploring the San Francisco Bay Area in a rented Mustang GT
The sign stood there, motionless except for the small movements of the wind’s work, as does any sign. A reflection of the suggested all-important driving etiquette, it stands strong in the name of the enthusiast, always there, always a reminder of the roads’ potential. “Slower traffic use turnouts,” it, and they, read, the signs that indicate the consistent, subtle prodding of local, slower travelers to yield to faster, more determined drivers. Inanimate as it may be, it allows the contrary in its indirect encouragement and support of driving. And not just “driving,” but driving. The act of operating a vehicle not just for practical purposes, but for fuck-it-all fun. The sign, as overlooked as it may be, means everything.
I thought my drive in the hills east of Los Angeles was great. Well, yes; of course it was. But just a short month later I found myself in the fun seat of a V8-powered sports coupe hammering through the San Francisco mountains and, contrary to my expectations, it was better than Los Angeles. Much better. Partially due to the car, partially due to the roads, partially due to…well, everything associated with those two all-important factors. From the canyons to the coast, the roads in the greater SF locale spoke to me, and I connected with them in a way that simply wasn’t so downstate in the LA region.
Two days alone with a rented Mustang GT and an expanse of roadways that I had yet to explore at my disposal. What would you do? Probably exactly that same thing that I did: drive.
The roads, the Mustang, the experience, the SF region, and everything that comes along with it all. Read on for Part One of the story.
There’s something inherently relaxing to waking up to a day of no set plans, and my first day on the San Francisco peninsula was just that. In all fairness there were some loose “plans,” as in lunch around the time of eat-whenever-I-arrive at the famous Alice’s Restaurant and a few hours worth of much anticipated exploration of the mountain roads between ocean and bay, but, aside from that: nothing. Point, aim, and go. Shortly after a transit to SFO’s rental car hub I found myself walking onto Budget’s open floor of cars, eyes looking for the gray coupe in spot D3. There may or may not have been some excitement-fueled confusion resulting in taking the gray coupe in E3, but alas, the next thing I knew I was toggling the steering feel into Sport mode, setting the Drive Mode to Sport+, and laying my right foot hard onto the 2018 Ford Mustang GT Premium’s fun pedal as the coupe and I hit the highway.
Quite a good rental car I thought I had for myself, and, as I would find out over the next two days and ~350 miles, quite a good car… period. GPS set for Skyline Boulevard, the Mustang and I thundered out onto the freeway, settling into a nice cruise prior to reaching what would be the first stage of the reason I had come back out to California.
The first few miles on the twisties of Skyline were plagued by traffic, because of course they were. But then congestion cleared and the car gods shone a light upon me and my rented canyon race-car. It’s a breath of fresh air when suddenly the tarmac is yours and yours alone; straightaways with nothing to slow you down, nowhere for anyone to hide, and the freedom of doing almost entirely as you please. It’s you, the car you’re driving, and the combined factor that results in your rate of travel. Find your comfort zone and go.
Wringing out the five-liter for the first time was truly glorious. Ford really upped the ante with its exhaust work on the refreshed ‘Stang, and the way the motor pulls towards the top of the rev range is outstanding as always. With room to run– and taking full advantage of the long, wide-open sweepers– the ‘Stang is in its element. Loading up on the outside tires, the suspension soaks up higher-speed corners with ease, allowing you to lay on the throttle after the weight sets, then giving you the right lean to power out of the turn with relative grace.
Here, more so than in the canyons outside Los Angeles, I found driving bliss. With long tree-covered stretches that keep your eyes on what’s immediately in front of you, stringing together mile after mile of smile-inducing driving is as easy as it is enjoyable. Your pace is hampered by nearly nothing at all, and when you need a moment to regain composure, to gather yourself amidst the laughs, the pull-offs allow some of the best sight-seeing that a coastal range has to offer.
After exploring the northern part of Skyline I hit my only true “destination” for the day: the long-standing enthusiast-favorite Alice’s Restaurant, a mountain hideout heralded for its location and the surrounding curves. A recommendation from fellow Hoon Bradley Brownell, I expected good things and was rewarded with great. It was a pleasant surprise from the get-go, with the parking lot being lined with cars of an extremely interesting variety pulling your eyes to each corner, and I savored my half hour spent reading Road & Track at a lonely table, watching and listening to the exhausts notes of other cars being driven hard echoing off the forest walls as they ripped past the old establishment.
All of this was only improved further by what was probably one of the absolute best– if not the best– burgers I’ve ever had in my life. My regular indecision dictates a tradition asking every restaurant’s respective server what their recommendations and/or preferences are on the menu; at Alice’s, I was told of three different favorites. My advice, thanks owed to the waitress who recommended it when I asked for hers: get the Yamaha burger. It will blow your mind.
Taste buds more than content, the next road on my “to drive list” was another recommendation from another fellow Hoon, this time Pescadero Creek Road at the guidance and endorsement of our own Greg Kachadurian who had run it recently in a similar, if not identical, rental ‘Stang. Unfortunately the first stretch was marred by a slow-moving minivan intent on sight-seeing rather than corner-carving, but pulling off to the side for a few minutes allowed me to once again make full use of the Mustang’s powerband, the meat of which doesn’t rear its head until you dig deep and push the tach towards the second half and especially the top third of the rev range.
At a certain point the road becomes totally devoid of cell service, and, with most of the day still free and the car begging for more, I followed the pavement as it became less and less wooded, smoother and flatter, randomly full-on country rural, and then, much to my heart’s pleasure, oceanic; with little notice, sand lined the pavement, the breeze intensified, and I found myself face-to-face with the Pacific Ocean.
Intoxicated by the smell and sound of the surf, the looming decision to be made was a matter of instinct: north or south? A right turn, the former; a left, the latter. Going with my gut I pointed the Mustang’s long hood northward, thinking that Half Moon Bay would be a nice spot to see before heading back to the Redwood City area in which our hotel was located. And what a decision it was: the sweeping coastline provides mile after mile of stunning views, a desperately pretty and breathtakingly beautiful area through which to see what I imagine NorCal to be at its absolute finest.
We simply don’t have roads like this on the East Coast, and it wholly fulfilled every fantasy of mine. The cliffs, the changes in altitude, the smell of the sea through open window as the Mustang rumbled quietly along, the relaxation and endless expanse of the sea nearby; I knew it would be good, but the coastal road turned out to be one of my absolute favorite drives of all time.
Having taken in as much ocean as I could muster, I escaped to higher altitude via La Honda Road, basking in the extreme juxtaposition between run-down farmland and ultra-wealthy beachside that I had been passing so few minutes before. As the road climbed and the difficulty increased, again and again the driving etiquette displayed was astounding: more times than I cared to count, I came around a corner and found myself right on the bumper of a slower moving vehicle– be it a Prius, Cooper S, or beaten-down 1990s SUV– and, regardless of hooptie, the driver in front of me almost always knew how my intent differed from theirs and then seamlessly moved over to the shoulder to let me by, allowing us both to continue at our respective rates.
Prior to experiencing this phenomenon for the first time I had not even noticed the signs displaying the words “Slower traffic use turnouts,” but it came to be something I was supremely thankful for once the reason for their being came to be of direct impact on me and my rhythm. It’s almost as if those who designed the roads knew that drivers looking for fun would be moving at a faster rate than the locals and sight-seers would and, in a brilliant move, designed pull-outs for slow cars to move over onto so as to allow faster traffic to pass rather than forcing it to make a dangerous over-the-double-yellow move or quelling the enjoyment altogether. Genuinely brilliant, this. In turn, it also made the locals seem that much friendlier and made my drive that much better.
The big downer of the day– and that’s not anything considered “a big deal,” for the record– was the Mustang’s ten-speed automatic transmission. Not expecting it to be anywhere near the level on which PDK plays or even that of a good dual-clutch, it was, very unfortunately, still somewhat of a letdown. Ten is just too many gears; seven, max, would have suited the car much better. I don’t doubt the extra three help with gas mileage just enough to reflect good upon Ford’s EPA tryings, but it makes for an incredibly shift-happy experience that nudges past frustrating anytime you’re two– or four— gears too high to accelerate at a rate you want to when in a city or when trying to merge. The transmission does shift well when in Sport and Sport+ mode but upshifts are decidedly quicker than downshifts, and, yes, a manual would have been more engaging even if my hands, brain, and feet are nowhere near as quick as the auto will ever be.
I’m curious to see how the ten-speed feels in the Camaro, seeing as it was co-developed by GM and Ford, but my hopes are not high given its application in the ‘Stang. All that said, having an automatic doing the work for me rather than rowing the gears myself did allow for a bit more time spent focusing on the road and its surroundings, so all was not bad with the reality of paddle shifters to control gear changes.
Sun starting to show signs of setting and sky reflecting the dying of the light, it was time to point the Mustang east. But exploration was calling: I followed the roads, some big and fast, others one-lane and nearly impassable, out to Saratoga Springs, grabbed a delightful and extraordinarily expensive cup of coffee, then doubled back on my path up to Skyline Boulevard.
Beyond content with how my day had gone so far and not wanting to push my luck in driving the car hard during the strained visibility of sunset, I settled into the drive down the front-side of the mountain at a more relaxed pace and took the time to both take in the scenery and the refreshed S550 Mustang GT in the way that reflects its abbreviated namesake: Gran Touring.
Suspension set to Comfort, I eased in, moved the seat back a bit, and threw on some music. Though the stereo doesn’t sound amazing it’s more than sufficient; what the radio can’t handle, the exhaust rumbling in the background more than makes up for. In this refreshed S550 generation the ‘Stang truly has become a fantastic Grand Tourer, a car displaying a plushness that reflects true cruising legs capable of soaking up the miles with ease and getting you to your destination relaxed and thankful for the cushy suspension and soft seats.
The Mustang is, for the most part, a great road-tripper. But what’s not great is the size of the gas tank: at a capacity of 16 gallons, even if you swing 25 MPG rolling along at the absolute minimum RPM on the highway, you’re looking at a maximum of 400 miles per tank if you run it from completely full to completely empty. Put simply, that’s not enough. Drive hard at all during a specific tank and the range dwindles down to 250-300 miles, sometimes even less, before you hit the critical refill point. Ford would be wise to bump up the tank size to 18– or, even better, 20– gallons; a little extra capacity would go a long way to reduce range anxiety.
Finally pulling back into the hotel lot around 830pm, I backed the Mustang into a spot, killed the motor, and took a minute to reflect. I might not have been the fastest car on the road that day…I definitely wasn’t, considering I passed a GT3 and a few 488/458s convoying through the forest…but I sure felt like it. The Mustang was proving to be a willing and capable dance partner up in the mountains, and it was soaking up the long highway stretches with a composure beyond what I had expected. From reading other journalists’ reviews, I knew the refreshed S550 Mustang GT was good…and now I knew for myself that those reviews were written in absolute truth. Content and exhausted, I called it a night. The day might have been over, but the next day had even more adventure in store.
And so, Day One came to a close. Stay tuned for Day Two.
Assorted extra pictures: