Having arrived in the huge all-company rental car garage at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, I made my way to the Hertz floor, spotted my name on the board and headed off to the right area of a rather empty looking parking deck. I’d booked a convertible, and was more than a little dismayed to note that one of the few cars in the right looking area of the parking was a Solara. My heart sunk, as it looked like there might be little choice to swap it for anything else. As I got nearer the dreaded Toyota, I realised that it was not in the space number allocated to me, and in fact my car was hiding behind a huge SUV. And there I found a Mustang Convertible in the relatively uncommon colour that Ford calls Dark Candy Apple Red. Relief, as I have always rather liked the look of the current ‘Stang, and the convertible version was still on the list of cars I have yet to drive.
Noticing the white stripe along the side, I did start to hope that this might be a GT model, with the V8 engine. However, subsequent research revealed that this is part of the Sport Exterior Appearance package, which also brings the rear boot lid spoiler. A quick look at the front of the car and I noticed that there was no sign of the extra grille-mounted driving lights that identify the V8 cars, so even without lifting the bonnet, I was sure I had got the 4.0 V6 engined model. Along with the special 45th Anniversary badging that features on all 2009 model year Mustangs, a few additional features made it clear that I was at least going to be driving the Premium model.
It was late evening when I collected the car, and as well as being dark, it was also not very warm, and as I was only going to be driving a short distance to my hotel, I decided not to lower the roof. Even so, firing the engine was an aurally satisfying experience, with a particularly pleasing rumble and roar at idle, and an equally delightful sound as I set off. It’s not quite as good as a V8, of course, but not bad! My next observation was that even with the roof up, all round visibility is nothing like as restricted as in the PT Cruiser, let alone the dreaded Solara that was truly awful in this respect. As well as being blessed with a wide and deep glass rear window, the side windows are decently sized and there is not too much of a blind spot to contend with. Next morning, driving the car with the roof down, I found that visibility is, of course, excellent.
The good impressions do not really extend to the rest of the cabin, sadly. Ford must realise this, too, as the 2010 model which I had inspected at the Los Angeles Show only a few days earlier is a marked improvement, especially in the quality of the materials. From a distance, things do not look too bad. The dash is a mix of modern and something redolent of the 1960s, with the main instruments in hooded cowls, sitting on an aluminium effect dash. However, look closely, and touch the materials and it is clear that the plastics are very hard and generally of poor quality. The actual fit is decent enough, and a huge improvement on the model that this car replaced – not that this is difficult, as the model that was superceded in 2004 was truly terrible in just about every respect. At night the dials glow blue, which looks rather good. Mounted in the middle of the console is a switch with an unfamiliar graphic. Pushing it changed the illumination of the cup holders and the footwells from blue to pink to yellow to orange, to no illumination at all. This feature turned out to be part of the Premium model package. I quite like the extra lighting, having the footwells illuminated, though not all the colour options (pink, anyone?) appealed. The switches for the lights (standard Ford, on the dash, to the left of the column) and the heating/air con controls feel very cheap. They all work well enough, but feel like a throwback from 20 years ago. A Sirius XM Satellite radio comes as standard, and this function is incorporated into the main dash-mounted stereo unit. A far neater solution than the add-on device that I recall from the Shelby model I drove last year. Reception is good, even in the remotest corners of Arizona, and the sound quality and level was fine even when driving on the freeway with the roof down.
Let’s be honest, though, the reason why people will choose a Mustang is because of the way it drives. Mustang has always been about finding a balance on the tightrope of affordability and driving enjoyment. This model is no different. It’s certainly not the last word in sophistication, and in some ways it is still not that good a car, but then you look at the price, and you start to understand. The 4 litre engine develops 210 bhp, which is adequate for decently brisk progress, but does not make this a particularly fast car. Think of the Mustang Convertible more as a cruiser, and you won’t be disappointed. The engine is smooth, and it does rev quite willingly, but it all runs out of steam quite quickly, as this is still an old-school American lazy engine, with the red line at just over 5000 rpm. The test car came with the optional five speed automatic transmission, which shifts readily between the gears. There is a button on the right hand side of the unusually shaped shifter which selects “overdrive”, ie the fifth gear. I left this switched on, and let the kickdown bring on a lower gear when needed. After driving a very thirsty car last week, it pleased me to find that this one, with an engine nearly twice the size was notable more economical, averaging something around 26 mpg (US gallons, that is), and better than that on a long journey at a steady speed up the I17 to the Grand Canyon and back. So, while the engine is not stellar, it’s not the weakest dynamic link. That accolade – or perhaps I should say “brickbat”? – goes to the suspension. The Mustang still makes do with a rather primitive live rear axle set up, and on anything other than smooth roads, the back of the car still bounces around enough to dissuade you from increasing your speed. It’s nothing like as bad as the previous model, but it did take some of the fun out of the driving experience. On smooth roads, the car is fine: it handles decently enough, grips the road well, and even rides well enough. Roughen the surface, though, and the weaknesses show up. The body appears rigid enough, and the terrible scuttle shake I remember from a previous generation convertible that I rented in Hawaii seems to have been eradicated. The brakes are good – progressive, with plenty of stopping power. There is a centrally mounted traditional handbrake.
As well as being relatively affordable, the Mustang has traditionally scored good marks for practicality. No-one buys these sorts of cars expecting to be able to pack the whole family and all their luggage in with ease, but there are two good sized rear seats, endowed with plenty of leg room, which are easy to get into when the roof is down, and a little more awkward to access when it is up. One installed, the seats are quite low set, but you sit comfortably in the car. The boot is smaller than that of the Coupe model, but not by much. The issue is more one of access than capacity, as the slot is quite restricted, especially between the rear light clusters, so I was grateful for the fact that my suitcase was not that heavy when lifting it in and out. There is a surprising amount of space in the boot itself, though, not least because there is no metal folding roof contraption to steal any of it. Just as well, as oddment space inside the cabin is woefully non-existent. There are tiny pockets on the doors, which would hold about three pencils, if you could actually get them in and out, and there is a small glove box, a small cubby between the seats and that is it.
Objectively, the Mustang has some notable weaknesses, so I should not really like it. But I did. In America, when the sun is shining, and the open road beckons, getting behind the wheel of the Mustang Convertible is all rather appealing. Mustang remains good value for money, and it is no wonder that it is a doyen of the rental fleets, as business people like them for a few days of fun, and holiday makers can get themselves and their luggage in them, too, all for a price that is only a few dollars a day more than you would pay for a regular family saloon car. Life is about to get tougher, though with competition from the new Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro – just as it was in the 1960s, in the heyday of these cars. With a facelifted 2010 model Mustang due on sale in March 2009, addressing at least some of the current model’s weaknesses, I don’t think Ford need worry unduly. Their more pressing problems are elsewhere in their US product range.