Is the 2016 Ford Mustang California Special a Marketing Gimmick?

Or is this Mustang redux a super pony ride?

016 Ford Mustang California Special
Ford

The genius of the Mustang has always been this: It can be anything for anyone. Just out of college, looking for a cool ride? The base V-6 Mustang Fastback starts at $24,145. Torn between your need for speed and your hope for the sustainability of our planet? Toss in $1,500 more for the EcoBoost V-6 and you’ll get a solid 22/31 mpg for your affordable ‘Stang. Or, say you’re Billy Johnson, professional racing driver in the Continental SportsCar Challenge, from Miami, Florida. Congrats on 4th place in your Mustang Shelby GT350R-C at last weekend’s Monterey Grand Prix.

Now comes the new Ford Mustang California Special, which I happily test drove over a handful of days last week, and which will be available to consumers in limited numbers this coming fall. Available on the Mustang 5.0-liter GT Premium package exclusively, the “CS” is a throwback to the California Special Mustang that appeared in 1968, which has become a bit popular for collectors looking for something unique. Like that car, the new CS’s added features are mostly cosmetic. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is it a gimmick dreamed up by some middle management marketing dude bucking for a promotion? Or is there substance here? Let’s go for a ride.

Ford

For starters, the CS comes in either fastback or convertible garb. Our tester was a convertible in competition orange paint—so orange in fact, I’d call it freshly squeezed. At the wheel, the CS is riotously fun, and the exhaust note is as vicious and old-school as you’d want a throwback ‘60s V8 to sound. Hurtling down the road, foot hard on the accelerator, your testosterone glands (if you have them) feel like they themselves are revving to redline. The car should come with a divorce lawyer surcharge. I took my wife on back country roads and we couldn’t get through a mile without her yelling epithets at me.

Ford

Suspension is appropriately stiff, resulting in joyous cornering. (“I’m sorry, honey, I’ll slow down. Right after these S-turns coming up.”) The six-speed manual gearbox is slick, the gear ratios set properly so that you can lock up the rear tires on down-shifting if you chose. (“Hey, that wasn’t my fault! I didn’t mean to do that, I swear!”) There’s something animalistic about this car, as there should be with a 5.0-liter V8 Mustang. You can’t help but murder speed limits.

The most noticeable details on this car are the hood vents with secondary turn signals—also a nod to late 1960s Mustangs. Very nifty. This feature isn’t unique to the CS, however. It comes with all model year 2016 Mustang GTs.

Performance-wise, there’s very little in the California Special that’s not already in the 5.0 Premium, aside from a high-performance front-splitter and some other minor bits and pieces. So that wonderful driving experience is available to buyers without the CS garb, for the most part. So what is the CS garb? You get black aluminum 19-inch wheels (in place of the standard 18s), ebony lather/Miko suede seat inserts with red stitching, some extra cool carpeting and badging, hood and side stripes, a black pedestal spoiler, a strut tower brace with CS badging, a unique grille and some other stuff. Oh yeah, and a special CS faux gas cap, too.

The Mustang can be many things for many buyers, and this one is for drivers hunting for a performance muscle car that makes you look at it twice—every time.

Visually, the car does look special and appropriately nasty. Neighbors poured from their homes to get a closer look. And the CS package only adds $1,995 to the 5.0 Premium GT. So take a look at these photos; if that’s your bag, it might be worth it for you.

Some numbers: 5.0-liter V8, 435-horsepower @ 6500 rpm, 400 lb/ft torque @ 4250 rpm, 25 highway/15 city mpg, six-speed manual. Base price for the GT Premium convertible: $41,895. CS package: add $1,995. Our car also had the Shaker Pro audio with 12-speakers, an extra $1,795, and worth it if you demand Mick Taylor guitar solos while you’re driving, as I do.

Ford

Conclusion? I love this car. If the Mustang can be so many things for so many different car buyers, this one seems to be for drivers hunting for a performance muscle car with with the added touch of beauty that makes you look at it twice, every time. There’s just one problem. The base MSRP for the Mustang Shelby GT350 starts at $47,795, so while the CS does have some substance, the GT350 renders it kinda irrelevant, doesn’t it? The GT350 is a masterpiece for the money, and packs more street cred per dollar (SCPD) than any Ford automobile out there, perhaps ever. And it’s only a few more dollars than the California Special, so little in fact that you’d be stupid not to make the leap. Hmm.