2021 Ford Mustang GT Convertible California Special Review: Cloudy with a Chance of (V8) Thunder

If you have a Mustang Convertible for a cloudy and rainy week, you would drive it with the roof up, right?

My four-year-old squeaked in delight from the rear seat as the cloth roof settled behind him.Your first tryst with a convertible tends to do that to you. Even my better half who isn’t fond of cold weather didn’t object to us driving with the roof lowered on a cold-ish and grey spring day. It was to be overcast and grey all week but that wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying some top-down motoring. When you have a 2021 Ford Mustang GT Premium Convertible California Special (yep, that’s the official name but we will stick to GT/CS for the sake of sanity), sunny or not, the top stays down. 

So we pulled our tuques to our brows, zipped up our down jackets, and got on with it. 

A Gorgeous Beast

The Mustang Convertible was always a handsome brute. But the California Special package turns that oomph up a couple of notches and ensures it turns heads even after six years of being on sale. The offset tri-bar Mustang logo, a unique grille, that Velocity Blue paint with the Ebony Stripe and the 19-inch aluminum alloys make the CS stand out among its peers. But it is also a potential hazard. It’s almost impossible to not stare at your own reflection as you pass by the glass towers. For $2,000 extra, the California Special package gives an even better-looking Mustang but with a side helping of vanity, you can’t escape. So when you do gawk at your own reflection, make sure the way is clear. 

A Rich Cabin?

Unfortunately, not very. Yes, there are faux carbon-fiber inserts on the dash and you get a “California Special” insignia as well. The seats are finished in suede with contrasting red stitching and there is soft feel material with red stitching as part of the dash upholstery as well. But there is just a lot of exposed plastic. The door panels seem like they are from the Escape and the dash tends to rattle every time you go over a big bump. In all honesty, it doesn’t inspire confidence in quality. Also, though the Mustang GT/CS technically qualifies as a four-seater, you can’t seat adults in the back. But you can fit in a child seat and your child will thank you for it. 

Our tester came with the 12.0-inch digital instrument panel which comes with a magic ‘Pony’ button. This little button on the steering wheel lets you access the settings for the instrument cluster like colors for the dials and gauges. You can also choose between the gauges you want to display and even cycle between different display modes. My personal favorite is the drag mode display that places the tacho at the top of the cluster in a horizontal line, pretty classic. But the pièce de résistance has to be the exhaust modes. You can cycle between sneaking out (Quiet), I have a V8 (Normal) or I like earthquakes (Sport). Personal favorite? Sport of course. And I wasn’t the only one who preferred the louder setting. 

The seats unfortunately aren’t as snug as you would expect them to be. Sure they look like armchairs strapped to the floor but you always feel like you sit on them rather than in them. The more generously proportioned, like yours truly, will feel as if they are spilling out of the seats and unable to settle in. But the feeling tends to dissipate after considerable time in the saddle. The driving dynamics also help in distracting from the seats. Dropping the roof though fun is cumbersome.

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It’s another factor that reaffirms the Mustang’s industrial nature. Even putting the roof down requires manual labor. You need to pull and twist a handle to undo the main latch and only then can you press the button to pull the roof down. To put it up it’s the exact opposite procedure. The roof folds down fairly quickly, but you can’t do it on the move. You have to be stationary. 

I always thought driving with the top down on the highway would be noisy, but there is a considerable noise reduction when you roll up the windows and the rear quarter glasses. And the optional 12-speaker Bang and Olufson speaker system makes sure you can hear your music at volume level 15 at 65 mph on the highway. A SYNC4 instead of SYNC3 though could have been better. But, you wouldn’t care and I think Ford realizes that. 

Rumble, Rumble, Rumble

I’m possibly asking for flak with this statement but if it doesn’t have a V8, it’s not a Mustang. What’s a Mustang without a V8? In my humble opinion, incomplete. But with a 5.0-liter push-rod V8 under the bonnet pumping out 460 hp and 420 lb-ft of peak torque, the Mustang GT Convertible California Special is as complete as they come. Plus, for all intents and purposes to retain the ‘muscle’ in muscle car, the CS comes with a six-speed manual as standard that sends the power to the rear wheels, obviously.

But the immense torque aside, what makes the California Special really, well, special is the sound. Not having a roof means you can bask in the sonic exuberance of the Coyote motor at its purest. Among the current trend of synthesizing engine sound through the speakers, the industrial growl of the V8 is a breath of fresh air for your auditory senses.  The motor burbles gently at tick-over barely suggestive of the fury beneath the surface. Rev the engine and the whole car tingles and vibrates, raring to go. The growl deepens as the needle rests between four and five thousand revs. And past that, it transcends into that distinct American V8 roar topped with bangs and crackles from the exhaust overrun when you take your foot off the gas.

I personally prefer JDM cars especially the Type R variety. And where the shifts on the Honda are short, precise, and slick, almost scalpel like, the Mustang’s are a sledgehammer. A very likable and oddly precise sledgehammer. A stalk and ball shifter is reminiscent of Mustangs of old and induces a smile even before you throw it into gear. Given the wake-up snort and the mild shake of the chassis, you’d expect it to feel like trying to shift gears through a block of cement but the reality is quite the opposite.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Ford Mustang GT Review: The Power of Dream Cars

The clutch is light. Shifting into first requires a firm direction, but it isn’t cumbersome and slots with an industrial thud. But you do need to be careful. Ride the clutch even for a second and you get that distinct smell almost instantly. But a lowered top helps you recognize it immediately and clutch in, that is a safety feature.  The best course of action is to let it roll off the line gently and then gas it when you’re moving. 

Rowing through second to third requires deliberate effort but fourth is just a two-finger effort. Shifting to fifth and sixth is just as easy. Yes, it makes its peak 420 lb-ft at 4,600 rpm but yet most of it is available well below that. Roaming around town in sixth at 30mph is no problem for the Mustang. The engine feels half asleep with a gentle snore of tick-over emanating from the quad-tailpipes.

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It really is a gentle giant. Not to mention, it also helps fuel the economy. Driving for around 25 miles around town in this manner dropped the fuel consumption to 17 mpg which for a manual 5.0-liter V8 is pretty darn good. But then you would need to have a feather foot if you’re planning to drive long distances for the fuel tank is tiny. A 16 gallon (60 liters) tank translates to about 240 realistic miles under the best of circumstances. So if you’re planning to drive cross-country, either don’t or carry fuel. 

Rides Like a Pony, Purrs Like A (friendly) Lion 

The ride, admittedly, is a tad stiff. It’s not uncomfortable but quite firm nonetheless. The bigger bumps tend to feel jarring but more so for the bodywork than the occupants. Every time you hit a larger-than-usual bump, you see the wing mirror (depending on the side) and sometimes even the dash and windshield shake a bit. The smaller bumps though, like the ones you’d usually find on city roads are no problem and neither are the undulations. 

Out on the highway, it tends to glide over everything, yes, some bumps and undulations at highway speeds so make it through the cabin but they fail to upset the balance of the car and your confidence in it. You have plenty of drive modes to play with, all accessible from the singular toggle switch on the center console. Regardless of the mode you choose, the suspension setup seems to remain constant but the throttle mapping changes dramatically. In Track mode, the acceleration is violent. The throttle response becomes super sharp and even the slightest prods can potentially result in whiplash and spilled coffee. 

Flooring it feels like you’re strapped to a bullet. You might even forget that you need to shift into second, when you do, the fury returns. The Sport mode is only a notch or two below and not as violent. But the sharpness of the throttle remains. There is a drag mode and Line Lock as well but try them at your own risk. Also, a word to the wise: don’t floor it in track mode when the wife has something liquid in her hands, just saying. 

SEE ALSO: 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E Review: First Drive

It’s no slouch in the corners either. Yes, it’s big wide, and heavy, yet, the independent rear suspension setup helps the Mustang GT/CS manage its weight rather well. It’s no nimble corner carver, but it’s just agile enough to be fun in novice to intermediate corners. The tighter bends though do present a challenge. Pedals are perfectly placed for heel and toe and if you’d rather not, it comes with rev-matching as well. 

But the California Special is meant for the open roads and Sunset Boulevards, and it feels the most at home on the highway, in normal mode, with the exhaust setting on sport. This is where the almost lazy and immensely tractable V8 feels at its best. A gentle rumble from the engine, the burble of the exhaust, and an occasional sonorous prod that is met with happy squeaks is the right way to drive the Mustang GT/CS. After a few days, even the missus warmed up to the sound. Wish I could say the same about the drives with the top down, in the cold.  

Verdict: 2021 Ford Mustang GT Convertible California Special Review

The Mustang GT Convertible starts from $46,815 ($56,290 CAD). Adding the California Special package adds $2,000 ($2,500 CAD) to the total cost. The one you see here has costs $52,010 ($63,590 CAD) and comes with $5,195 ($7,300 CAD) worth of options including a 12-speaker B&O system. Yes, it isn’t exactly affordable and yes, it is essentially a two-seater masquerading as a four-seater. But you do technically get four seats and you can place a child seat at the back so they can get used to open-top motoring. It’s good to start them young.

You also get a usable trunk as the foldable top sits behind the rear seats. While it might not be the ideal family or an outright affordable car, for an all-American V8 muscle, it is a steal. Add to that its non-threatening, almost modern sportscar-esque handling and you’d be willing to forgive the cheapness of the plastic and the shake of the mirrors. And when you drive down the street winking at your own reflection, you’d be spreading joy even when the skies are grey. 

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