American road trip! Exploring the west coast in a Ford Mustang

Published: 24 November 2018

► 2000 miles in a 2018 ‘Stang
► Our big Cali road trip
► Was it a drive of our dreams?

The plane door opens, the sun is blinding, and you walk down the steps feeling fresh, alert and with a smile on your face. Your luggage is already waiting for you at the bottom and, once retrieved, someone hands you the key to a car that has a million Likes waiting to flood its way onto your Instagram account.


This didn’t happen.

Instead, there was a 10-hour flight with little sleep, followed by the usual scenario of endless airport queuing and watching the same, sad, unclaimed piece of luggage go by on a squeaky old carousel. The only thing welcoming you to your destination is the text message stating how expensive roaming is about to get.

This isn’t the cliche of walking off the plane in slow motion and immediately being mesmerised by some scenic, breathtaking backdrop in dreamy weather to the soundtrack of house music.

No, the first real abiding memory of this trip instead was a sign being waved by a child in Arrivals marked ‘Welcome home from rehab Aunty Anne’.

Why that grabbed my attention as we walked out of Oakland International airport, I’ll never know, but it did make me wonder how many other things I’d see for the first time on this holiday.

Why are we here?

It’s all down to Highway 1, really. After reading about this scenic location in a magazine ten years ago, I was sold. It got torn out and put up on the wall as a future goal.

Fast forward to today, and no longer am I a poor student dreaming about it. I’ve planned a route around the west coast of America – picking out the roads I have to drive first, and dealing with accommodation later. I know what my priorities are here.

California is huge; you could easily spend a month here and still struggle for time to see everything – we had two weeks. This round trip would start from San Francisco and lead on to Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Highway 1, Monterey and back to San Fran in a clockwise order.

We weren’t looking for a marathon of a road trip. Getting up early with a hangover and having to pack up just to cover ground sounded awful, so that was out the equation.

Night drives were a no-go area too. Having to drive continuously for so long where we’d hallucinate just didn’t appeal.

If you want a laidback road trip, this will be it. Keep it simple with a few choice locations and roads on the agenda and everything else along the way will be a surprise. Travelling as a group of three also brought the benefit of swapping drivers if need be.

The need for steed

And the car? Obvious choice really. It’s our first road trip in America so it’s got to be the default muscle car – and there couldn’t be a better time to get ourselves into one of the most iconic ones: the Ford Mustang.

The pony car might seem slightly oversized for our roads in the UK – despite the growing abundance of bulky SUVs – but here in America, we’re finding out what makes them so popular.

Receiving a minor facelift in 2018, this iconic four-seater is even better. You can now have a more powerful 450hp V8, adaptive dampers and an active exhaust.

The range is a simple menu of two dishes: Ecoboost or V8. With 6,000 sold in the UK since 2015, 70% have the full-fat V8 engine, 80% are the Fastback and the split between the manual and automatic gearbox is pretty even.

And here’s ours: V8. Auto. Fastback.

Finished in Kona blue, it’s fundamentally the same as a UK car, but there are a few notable stateside differences in spec: optional 19-inch polished aluminium wheels, a standard-fit subtle rear spoiler and a set of tiny door mirrors.

Plus, the ability to remotely fire up that V8 with the keyfob will never get boring.

San Francisco

Look at a map of this place and you might be fooled into thinking this is yet another flat, square-grid city with a couple of tourist-saturated bridges branching out from it. What the map hides, though, is a city with over 40 hills that will give your legs – or clutch (but not in our case) – a workout if you consistently make the wrong turn.

Navigate the streets on foot and you’ll be accompanied by a unique soundtrack of bumbling V8s and strained CVT four-cylinders working their way uphill, drowning out the whining sounds of regenerative braking from those hybrids going down them.

The concoction of electric-propelled cars and old-fashioned V8s almost seems harmonious.

If petrol is dying out in this place, it’s not going away quietly. Nobody reacts in disgust if you rumble your way through town in a V8 and you don’t feel guilty for it. If anything, a smoker has a harder time here having to keep a watchful eye on where they can feed their nicotine fix.

Time to pack up and hit the road

After the obligatory weaving drive down Lombart Street, we leave San Francisco for Yosemite. The first thing that springs to mind is the amount of road space available here. The Mustang is almost as wide as a Range Rover Evoque, but right now, it feels pretty compact. You certainly don’t have to wince at oncoming traffic and that level of stress you sometimes get in the UK is immediately removed.

We hit the freeway and discover there’s no such thing as rush hour here, it’s just constant. However, once the traffic eases up and we settle at motorway speeds, the Mustang’s new 10-speed auto ‘box turns this snarling V8 into a docile, lazy cruiser, letting the engine bumble along at 1,750rpm.

The revs can drop to 1,200rpm before it considers a downchange, or unless you encourage it with a burger-full of throttle.

Fuel economy shows 25mpg in US terms, so that roughly converts to 30mpg in the UK. Impressive for a 450hp V8.

In preparation for the lack of fuel stations in Yosemite, we brim the fuel tank at the nearest town just outside our destination. Running empty and waiting for rescue in a place where bears are more prevalent than gas stations is not appealing.

Ah yes, gas stations.

The majority of them only take debit cards. Some won’t accept UK credit cards, some require prepay. Costco requires human assistance.

Luckily, people don’t seem to be in a rush here, patiently sitting in their vehicle while this tourist fumbles around, wondering why there’s no 95 RON. Or what the hell I need to punch into the machine when it asks for my Zip Code.

If you have to ask, petrol fluctuates around the $3.50 mark for a US gallon; roughly equating to £3.20 for the larger UK gallon here.

Yosemite: Where have you been all my life?

The wealth of city skyscrapers are substituted for trees as we arrive in Yosemite. We unpack, find someone else to build a campfire for us and then call it a night. The next day, we head on over to the National Park. As we make our way, it doesn’t take long to have a full windscreen view full of mountain in front of us, in HDR Ultra 4k setting.

The 45mph speed limit might be a pedestrian way to enjoy the smooth-surfaced, twisting roads, but it’s perfect to soak up the sights – from helicopters on one side of the road, to people rafting the river rapids on the other. Besides, there are so many stopping points, you don’t want to miss them.

There’s one main fuel station here acting as an epicentre for where you want to go and that surfaces the main conundrum – which route do you take?

With scenery this beautiful and so much to see, we already know we need to come back and spend a holiday in itself in this place. I now understand why some citizens here don’t bother with a passport – you could spend your whole life exploring this country.

‘We just saw a bear about a half an hour ago..’ Says a park ranger. ‘So keep an eye out’.

We decide to head up north on Route 120. This road is usually closed due to heavy snow so we jump at the opportunity. Plus, avoiding the other routes saves us queuing among all the tourists.

As the road climbs in altitude, the temperature drops from 26C to 16C. Luckily it’s May and we’re left with just the odd patch of snow dressing the roadside like cake icing.

As we climb to 8000ft, the roadside cliff drops start to appear revealing steep views down into the tree-filled valleys. We don’t spot any bears but driving past a deer tucking in to the remnants of someone’s meal left in a lay-by is as close as we get to an Attenborough moment.

Mammoth lakes

We arrive at Mammoth Lakes and maintain our 8000ft height. The temperature drops to 10C and falls to -1C at night. Ending up here in a ghost town ski resort was not something we’d packed for though. Remember that airport scene from Cool Runnings when they had to wear all of their t-shirts in one go? Yes, that.

This really is a four-seasons kind of week in terms of weather, showing the sheer size of California itself, never mind the rest of the US.

You can find yourself in a completely different climate from one day to the next and this trip has suddenly become an all-weather test for the Mustang.

It’s probably why you see such a wide range of vehicles here, whether it’s a modded Subaru WRX, a jacked-up Toyota SUV with chunky off-road tyres, light bars and roof racks, or a VW T25 Camper van on Mercedes wheels storing chopped firewood up on its roof.

This place appears to be the equivalent of the Alps; with skiing in the long winters and mountain biking, off roading, hiking and every other outdoor activity in the summer holidays. Right now, it’s a ghost town, so if you want to escape people and have a hot tub to yourself in a resort, come here.

The sheer size of the tourist industry screams at you with the silence and emptiness around, despite the handful of devoted regulars that remain coming at the weekends.
This is one of our locations for catching some down time and we’ve timed it perfectly for a bit of peace.

The tour guide states that a severe symptom of altitude sickness is withdrawing him from social interaction. I begin to wonder if I suffer from altitude sickness all the time. Sitting at the lights as I fetch dinner for the evening, it’s just me, the Mustang and no one else. This is the complete opposite to city life and right now, it’s bliss. I just can’t help but think the straight empty street roads are crying for a drag race.

The next day, we go exploring. Mammoth mountain greets us with skiers and snow cliffs on the sidewalk. A modded F-150 on tracks makes us wonder how our all-weather tyres will hold up, but we make it to the top unphased.

While there’s little driving planned here, there’s still the chance to hit June Lake loop. A short 25 minute drive on the map, but stopping to check the scenery means this can quickly double or triple in time.

Death Valley to Las Vegas

We leave Mammoth Lakes the next day and head to Vegas. With half a tank left we strategically plan for a fuel stop that doesn’t cost as much as Yosemite ($6 a US gallon), offers plenty of snacks and is near enough to be covered by the 330-mile range on a full tank.

We hit the 395 highway and as the long sweeping roads in the valleys lay out before us, it’s the first time we actually consider how autonomous driving might be a useful feature here. The adaptive cruise works down to 11mph before you have to take over and has more than the typical three distance settings, but, right now, it doesn’t have much to detect for miles on end, let alone any other traffic.

Still, the Mustang makes for a great cruiser and steering with your arms is hardly tasking. Bring a load of pre-made playlists if travelling on your own.

We stop at Lone Pine just outside of Death Valley, picking up plenty of water, a packed lunch and enough snacks to feed a family. As modern a car can be, it’s best to be prepared. Our shuttle bus driver from the night before told us how his boss returning from Vegas bumped into a group of guys touring from Germany who’d broken down there in an area with no phone signal.

Despite his boss offering to call the hire car company for them as soon as he’d have signal, the guys were probably left there waiting for about half a day. No thanks.

It soon dawns on us that you can never have enough USB ports, the reality of road tripping is summed up by the number of wires strewn across the centre console for charging devices.

We veer off the highway and begin heading towards Death Valley. The road tightens up, dropping from a dual carriageway to a single one, and the initial section of twisting tarmac almost acts as a brief wake up call before the long, never-ending straights lie ahead of you.

As we rise and drop in altitude between 4,000 and 2,000ft, the temperature fluctuates before settling at 36deg C.

What we find slightly disconcerting is the heat haze slithering across the width of the road surface. It makes a perfectly flat road look completely undulated – right up until the point you’re about to drive through it when it simply disappears.

We’re now officially in the desert. Seeing the road lie ahead of you for endless miles is incredible, with the mist acting as a slightly hazy filter. We’d done well to keep the Mustang this clean until now, but now there’s officially a dusting of desert sand all over it.

The heat is also unbearable now and you begin to understand why all those luminous high-sugar drinks make sense. This is also where the air-con is having to work its hardest. The cooled seats are a godsend in bringing the searing hot leather back down to a comfortable temperature, but the air itself struggles to get through our clothing. So, we’re still baking.

Las Vegas

Right, back to city life. The heart of Vegas itself may not have a great deal to offer in terms of driving roads, but there is the Shelby Heritage Center; showcasing its historical models and concepts at one end of the building – some of which are available for purchase.

If you’re concerned a 700hp F-150 might be too much for your 23kg luggage limit, the other end of the building is simply a store full of merchandise awaiting to test your self-restraint. You can peek into the workshop next door, too, allowing you to see how someone’s Mustang is receiving the firm’s GTE treatment.

If the time coincides, you might be able to scratch that NASCAR itch at the Motor Speedway up north out of town, but for the time being, we’ve peaked at 43 degrees C and there’s absolutely nowhere we’d want to be unless there’s air-conditioning.

Speaking of air-conditioning, using the keyfob to remote-start the car from a distance brings valuable moments of ventilation into the cabin as you load up the boot.

Plus, since we’re staying in a multi-storey car park, firing up that loud exhaust acts as an audible flag to find out where you’ve parked, sending music to your ears as you approach from a distance with the V8 rumble echoing its way down walls.

In a city full of randomly-themed buildings, the Mustang’s 3D sat-nav helps when navigating your way around – even if the graphics look a bit N64-like.

That said, proving how this place is constantly changing, it becomes confused once or twice, telling us to leave the freeway, only to rejoin the slip-road at the same junction again.

Threading through LA

After a few days in Vegas, it’s definitely time to escape. We thread our way through Los Angeles with driving fun on the agenda.

The Angeles Crest Highway seems prime as a driving road. We even bump into a filming of Jay Leno’s garage just as they’re packing up for the day.

There’s nothing to fault the smoothness of America’s road surfaces and the Scion FR-S, Toyota GT86, and Subaru BRZ appears to be the weapon of choice. We see groups of these up here.

I’d be terrified to drive a pickup truck – especially a jacked-up modified one – but they still tackle it in their droves, crushing all the small, fallen rocks sporadically strewn across the road.

The active exhaust makes for great entertainment through the tunnels too, although the fuel range dropped considerably at this point after multiple runs. The pre-facelift models sounded a little muted, but now this is much more like it. You might look for the 5.0 badges on the front wings to indicate whether this is the V8 or not when it’s switched off, but once fired up, this Coyote V8 is so loud you wonder how much more the GT350 and its Voodoo engine could be.

How does the Mustang handle this?

The Mustang’s width makes it feel quite stable – but you can also sense this coupe is quite heavy, especially when people and luggage are on board. Factor in the higher 40psi tyre pressures to cater for it and the Mustang runs out of grip too soon – especially up front.

And that’s the reality: you can’t escape the added weight you have to lug around with you when you’re on a road trip.

The steering wheel is also a tad too big and it could do with a quicker rack, but with its primary purpose serving as a GT, this makes for a fairly decent compromise.

Taller drivers may brush their knee on the centre console when encountering twisty roads, but you can still build a decent rhythm from one bend to the next.

While the last six-speed auto ‘box procrastinated at changing gear most of the time, this 10-speed version seems more up to the task – even if it’s not perfect.

It’s eager to change down as you brake towards bends in S mode, keeping your revs just below 3,000rpm, and yet it can be stubborn and decide to be lazy on its own accord – sometimes it’ll want to just sit at 1,500rpm in 9th.

The changes can be jerky too. Whether it’s a deliberate calibration or not, it’s just not as smooth as a DSG ‘box or a Lexus 10-speed – and there are a lot of gears to go through, so you can imagine how frequent that’ll be.

Santa Monica – where Highway 1 begins for us.

After a pit stop at Venice Beach, the early evening begins and we embark on the roads that kick-started this whole thing in the first place.

By complete accident, the whole cliché of driving your muscle car into the sunset suddenly began. We hadn’t planned this, honestly, but this was simply one of the best settings we’d stumbled upon, without anticipating it. I give in. Cue the house music.

We arrive in Santa Barbara just as it gets dark for our overnight stay, and make a dash for what seems to be the latest fad in drinking estalishments: a microbrewery. The Mustang gets a time-out the next day as we exchange four wheels for two, cycling around the coast as a break from driving.

Highway 1

We leave Santa Barbara around midday just before it gets too hot and head up north. Due to landslides, we can only head up as far as Ragged Point where the road ends, before heading back down south to our Motel.

As we stop and take pictures, it doesn’t take long before a passing tourist winds down their window to ask ’they shut the road?! Where do we go now?’.

Perplexed that all these people didn’t do their research beforehand, we shrug our shoulders, continue taking pictures and soak in the coastal sun. Another sunset cliche win.

Right here, right now, why would you want to be anywhere else?

Cambria – a good opportunity to test the Mustang’s Quiet Mode…

Staying at one of the traditional American motels allowed us to try the Mustang’s latest trick: Quiet Mode. The active exhaust also allows the valves in the exhaust to remain closed so that you don’t wake up the neighbours with a satanic bark in the morning.

It certainly works, but only goes so far. Especially when your quad exhausts are facing the other side of someone’s window. You may as well try and silence the hulk when he gets angry.

To Big Sur…

After the V8 wakes up several motel guests that day, we continue heading up north. To rejoin Highway 1 above Ragged Point, we have to take a brief detour inland and pass by Fort Hunter Liggett along the way; a United States Army fort with over 165,000 acres of training ground.

We have one of those moments of trepidation when we’re not sure whether our sat-nav is supposed to send us to a military base as part of the route – the barriers are open, so it should be ok, right?

We hesitantly pass through the barriers and immediately see a parked-up tank. It’s out of service, obviously, but intimidating enough for us to consider doing a U-turn and rerouting.

We cautiously persist. We don’t want to be a moving target for anyone anytime soon and it doesn’t take long to see the military shooting grounds on either side of the road. We calculate which parts of the land are used to shoot what with help of the roadside warning signs, which, coincidentally appear to be as frequent as those indicating the speed limit. Luckily, the road diverts into the woodlands before the military buildings start to come into sight.

This is the first time the Mustang suddenly feels wide as the narrow roads resemble those in the UK. Never mind a pony car meeting a pick-up truck coming the other way, I genuinely would rather be in a hatchback right now.

Strangely though, the number of Mustangs we pass suddenly ramps up. They’re a frequent sight around here – with many an Ecoboost too – but if you do miss the V6, you could pick up a used 2007 model for under $10k in the classifieds.

Even though the Mustang is popular around here, our one still manages to draw attention from a few people. We reckon about half of the Mustangs we’ve seen are hire cars, but our GT with its optional wheels and louder active exhaust seems enough to engage more interest.

Once out of the woodlands and back on the coastal road, we suddenly feel less claustrophobic; the sea is back and brings immediate comfort.

This is it. What we’ve been reading about and seeing pictures of after all these years. This elongated road that drapes along the Cliffside has been worth the wait. Typically, the best stopping points are either far too packed with tourists or you’re too busy piloting your way over it, but this view is hard to beat.

As we start heading into Monterey in the late aftenoon, signs of life start to build up again and, before you know it, you’re stuck in a middle suburban traffic jam with people queuing for Pebble Beach. What a day’s driving. And as nice as Monterey is, I’d happily just sleep in last night’s motel again and relive today’s drive tomorrow.


We check-in at Monterey and, as tired as I am, I’m also restless. Now I want to see more and I’m tempted to go find somewhere to catch the sunset again. Head right up north in Monterey and you get to Lovers Point. That’s the closest place to park along the coast as you can get.

Laguna Seca is only a half hour drive from where we’re staying too. The drive itself is pretty dull, but this is the first time I’ve been to this place and finally get to see it outside of a TV screen.

There’s a motorbike group here today and each one of the riders are taking it gingerly, especially when it comes to the corkscrew. And even then it doesn’t take long to see one slide off their bike right at the top, only to watch their pride and joy scuff its way down the gravel towards the bottom, before hitching a ride back with a considerate passer-by.

Back to where it all began…

As we start heading back into the centre of San Fran on our final day, driving over Bay Bridge simultaneously brings back familiarity and a horrible realisation that the time with the Mustang is imminently about to end. Oh shit. I hadn’t prepared for this. My time with this wonderful V8 is up and I’m genuinely sad about having to hand the keys back. It’s evening rush hour in the city and I’m genuinely happy about the congestion adding time to our destination.

Our GT has done 2,000 miles, it’s covered in desert dust and it hasn’t missed a beat. What makes the Mustang slightly compromised in the UK just isn’t an issue here, whether it’s the physical size or daily fuel fill-up.

I’ll have a V8 in Orange Fury please, with some slightly stickier tyres. If you want subtle, don’t get a Mustang V8. Even the chrome finish aluminium wheels have me converted as they always look clean – useful when you proceed through a dust-ridden desert.

I wake up the next morning to hear it start up as it gets picked up. It makes me laugh how loud it is, but I also want to run across to the car park just to see it leave.

Would we have picked anything else?

For three people and their luggage, the Mustang and its mixture of theatre, relative size and driveability is going to be hard to beat.

The rear seats are a squeeze for adults, requiring those sat up front to compromise their leg space for those behind them. The back of your neck feels the full force of that sun too with the rear windscreen being a headrest.

Still, sitting here means you get to feel the full force of the optional Shaker pro sound system and the exhausts. And with so many stopping points, you’re not sat here long enough to develop chronic pain.

The convertible will have a tad more headroom but the backrests themselves almost rotates their posture towards the centre. A four-door version would be ideal, but that doesn’t exist.

The F-150 that followed undoubtedly offered more space for luggage and passengers. But to pilot that on the winding roads meant endless twirling of the steering and its slow rack, accompanied with motion sickness for everyone else. Great for attacking highways and off-road ventures but not much else.

If you wanted a Mustang previously in the UK, it would have resulted in a left-hand drive import with an archaic suspension system.

Things have changed since 2015. Now that this global car has been engineered with Europe in mind, it’s not so easy to dismiss; you sit on the right side of the car and there’s independent rear suspension to deal with our roads. So I guess Ford has done its bit, it’s just a shame our roads haven’t changed to accommodate them.

The thing is, even if I could afford one in the UK, the dreary lifeless backdrop in place is a complete mismatch, never mind how cumbersome it’ll be on our roads in comparison. In the meantime, I’ll just have to daydream about a GT350 to face reality back in Blighty. Until next time…

By Lawrence Cheung

Bauer Automotive's former senior staff writer; hot hatch hoarder, road trip hunter