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Motornet: Mustang Alley

Stonking V8s are not the kind of cars I grew up dreaming about. But you're never too old for new addictions I say....

I heard it before I saw it. Head down, daydreaming, I was waiting for the cross signal on one of Wellington's busy commercial streets early one weekday morning. I didn't quite register that the noise I was hearing was coming from a car, though the sound of the V8 was quite unmistakable. I barely caught a glimpse of its taillights before it was gone but there was no mistaking that rear end, or that noise - Ford's Mustang Cobra had arrived in town.

A few months earlier, I had gotten a call from the friendly man at Ford New Zealand who arranges press cars for me. I had expected him to offer me a drive in the new Mondeo, instead he offered the Mustang. In response, I gasped something along the lines of 'yes, please' (though it may have been less eloquent than that), before he dropped his bombshell. Yes, I could drive the car, but there was a catch. With only two Mustangs in the country, a red convertible and a silver grey coupe, people were clambering to get behind the wheel. I could drive it, but for only 24 hours.

Which left me with a bit of a dilemma. After all, there is only so much you can do in one day, and my initial vision of cruising the highways and byways of the country listening to the likes of Johnny Cash were sadly dashed. Worst luck, it was a particularly busy day in early June that I picked up the car. Far from savouring the sound of the V8 as I lazed the day away, I had a very tight schedule to meet.

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The silver Mustang coupe may not be quite as sexy as the convertible, but despite its slightly old world appearance, it certainly makes an impact. The bulging bonnet scoop and side skirts add to its muscular appearance. Basically, it’s testosterone on wheels. My feeling is that you either like this look, or you don’t. Me, I felt strangely drawn to it, which is odd if you think about it. My generation has been bred on high performance, small cubic capacity engine Japanese terrors - the kind of car that normally doubles for a shopping cart but with a turbo strapped to the engine. Neither is it especially cheap at $95,000 for the coupe and $100,000 for the convertible.

While middle age balding men can look back to their youth and fondly remember the big bore Holdens and Ford's (not to mention the Mustang's of old), the same cannot be said for me. But should that matter? Does it make the car any less appealing?

Starting the engine, you're instantly assaulted by the noise of the V8. There is no mistaking that some serious horses reside below this bonnet.... and it is a sound that is contagious. Suddenly, there is an urgency to see what this car with its 4.6 litres, 240kw and 430Nm of torque can do. On paper, those figures look intimidating and the engine note is not especially reassuring, but once underway, the car is not difficult to drive at all. In fact, it is almost docile with a generally compliant ride around town.

Even so, the clutch is heavy, even heavier than expected and the five speed manual transmission takes a little getting used to. The notchy action and long throw is unusual and while it’s not especially sophisticated, it gets the job done. Of course, combined with the long clutch travel, getting the car off the mark quickly takes a little mastering.... and sometimes getting the car of the mark at all can prove a little tricky, as I was to find out.

Did I mention that the timing of the press drive was less than ideal? The busy day at work turned into a hectic evening. The cell phone was chirping relentlessly, I hadn't managed to finish a million things and worst of all, I was sitting in 5.30pm traffic late for a dinner I didn't want to go to! Unexpectedly, I had been called on to dine with some visiting speakers at a conference we were hosting. How could I enjoy a lengthy meal and amiable conversation when precious hours with the Mustang were ticking by?

As it happened, one of my conference charges * that happened to be an American * was not only a Mustang fan, but also the owner of a hand-built replica Cobra Shelby, perhaps the most classic American sports car of all time. Things were looking up indeed! The next few hours were spent discussing cars and the reasons why this amenable chap had traded his 'everyday' car - a Mustang Cobra identical to the one I was driving - for a BMW 3-Series.

I have to admit, the two cars seem to have very little in common. Where the BMW oozes sophistication and bristles with technology, the Mustang comes up a little short. Despite Tickford spending nearly $4 million on upgrading the car and converting it to right hand drive, it still shows its mainstream origins. The cockpit is attractive and well appointed, boasting combination leather/suede upholstery, cruise control and a kick butt stereo as befitting any American icon. But the plastics are nothing special and much of the switchgear is borrowed from Ford's corporate parts bin - possibly a bit under whelming for the expectations of the average executive German car owner.

Not that anyone will buy the Mustang for the interior; it's performance that this car is all about. Sneaking away as early as I could, I was disappointed (to say the least) to find that it had been raining steadily for several hours. While it had eased off considerably, the roads were slick and glistening - not ideal for a car that puts several hundred horsepower through its rear wheels.

With my window of opportunity rapidly closing, I collected two good friends (both of whom were prepared to pay cash in advance for the privilege) to experience the joys that the Mustang had to offer. As it happened, we quickly decided to head to Wellington's Mecca of big bore cars, the delightful suburb of Upper Hutt where friends and relatives were anxiously awaiting our arrival. There was no time to lose....

'Holy snakeskin’s batman, this baby is out of control,' I thought as I headed rapidly for the concrete road barrier. Feeling more confident with the car, I had given it a bit of a tickle as we rounded the corner to the motorway entrance. Without any warning, the rear was fishtailing and the traction control - evidently sensing my loss of traction - was trying to send the car directly for the wall. With the barrier looming and with nothing but nerves of steel and a quick prayer to save us, I quickly backed off the gas and manhandled the car into submission, a little shaken but otherwise no worse for wear.

Yes, my account is overly dramatic, deliberately I might add, but it serves as a very real reminder of the laws of physics. Wet roads and rear wheel drive, combined with too much torque, does not a good combination make. In most situations, the traction control does a good job of getting the power through the rear wheels and onto the road. However, once it is engaged, it will simply do its best to send you in the direction your wheels were facing when you over did it. Not desirable if you are facing a wall.

Turning it off creates a few issues too. At take off, even a relatively modest amount of acceleration will start your wheels spinning, especially in wet or greasy conditions. I imagine that smoking ones tyres in the dry would be an equally common occurrence. On the plus side, if you are confident in your abilities as a driver, you can have a lot of fun with such a set up, provoking power overseer at will with nothing more than a keen right foot. I have witnessed masters of rear wheel drive and I can assure you that they could have a lot of fun with this car...

What is really surprising though is how neutral the car's handling is. With a huge V8 sitting over the front wheels and nothing over the rear, you might expect the worse, but the Stang' always feels relaxed and well balanced. The 55/45 percent weight distribution is to be applauded. Despite its high ride, the car gets into the twisty stuff with gusto, while progressive understeer can be easily countered by squeezing on the gas. Nailing it out of the corners is a lot of fun and is rewarded with a quick response and 'plenty of warning' oversteer. And here I was thinking you really needed muscles to keep these babies under control!

The steering is equally good. It’s reasonably heavy for around town but feels suitably weighty and direct for the highway, if a little vague straight ahead. Can't help but wish the steering wheel itself were a little fatter round the rim though...

But I digress. As it happened, it was the V8 and not the Bruce Springsteen CD (Born to be Wild of course) blaring through the stereo that woke the neighbours. My mate’s old man was more than happy to ogle the uncovered engine - which is truly something to look at - and enjoy a burn around the back streets of Upper Hutt.

It didn't take us long to realise that the performance of this car is simply staggering. 0-100 is covered in a scorchingly quick 6.5 seconds - not as quick as a Mitsubishi Evo VII, but certainly quicker than pretty much all the big bore cars on the road today. It is also a little deceptive, as far from being pushed back into your seat as you nail the accelerator, the car just seems to gather speed rapidly but without any fuss. It's only when you look down at the speedo needle that you realise how fast this car can go.

Fortunately, the brakes are pretty good and clearly up to the task of stopping the car hard when the need arises - always a plus when driving a V8. They might not be as progressive as their European sports coupe counterparts but the big Brembos are strong and reassuring and they suit the feel of the car.

We eventually delivered our interloper back to his bed after terrorising the residents of the Upper Hutt Valley for some 90 minutes. He certainly enjoyed it, but I am not sure his neighbours appreciated being woken up for the second time that night...

The evening was rapidly drawing to a close and there was nothing for it but to head back to the lights and action of the big city. As it happened, the rain had put paid to the action if not the lights. Even the ever-reliable Courtenay Place was virtually deserted, though we did manage a couple of slow drive-bys of one notorious night spot where the girls dancing in the window seemed to really appreciate our wheels...if their gestures were anything to go by.

As we headed for the suburbs, we couldn't help but reflect on the car - not to mention the ever-diminishing gas tank. With only 60 litres on-board, don't expect to cover even moderate distances without a requisite stop to fill up.

What we did conclude however was that you do not need to be fat, balding, or even American to appreciate this car. Sure, it feels a little old-world and the left hand drive conversion doesn't do it any favours (witness the right-hinged centre console), but the car has character - a trait sadly lacking in many similarly priced high performance competitors. Overall it has real road presence, performance to burn, a V8 to die for and high levels of equipment - factors even children of the turbo generation can appreciate. Of course, when it comes to stumping up a $100 grand for the privilege, the question of how many twenty-something’s could afford it might be a moot one. Perhaps a little nostalgia and a well-established beer gut are mandatory for potential purchasers after all?

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