Straight up the center of California runs Interstate 5, a road diabolically designed by Federal bureaucrats to avoid anything interesting. It has no interesting curves, it passes through no interesting countryside, and the pavement is often so grooved that tires rolling over it produce a hypnotic hum that leaves drivers susceptible to suggestions ranging from "eat at Burger King" to "bathe with Lifebuoy soap" or "drive a Camry." It's a misbegotten superslab conceived with sinister intent. And we love it.
We love I-5 because when it was built, it bypassed great roads that used to be the main arteries of the Golden State. Roads like California 33, 58, 229, and 41 that run through nearly forgotten towns like Maricopa, McKittrick, Creston, and Cholame in the center of the state. They have great curves, they pass neat scenery, and they're both lightly traveled and lightly patrolled. If all you want to do is drive, these are among the very best roads in the world to drive upon. All we needed was a place to go, an excuse to go there, and some cars to go in.
So we asked Ford for three Mustangs and got two: The new Mach 1 and the SVT Cobra (a regular GT wasn't available-go figure). Our excuse to go was evaluating these truly quick ponies-the best Mustangs ever and among the last to be based on the near-ancient Fox platform-before (we think) they're replaced in April of next year with a Mustang that should be even better. For a destination, we chose the city of Tracy, which is just outside of Stockton and was once home of the world's largest tire fire. It would be a salute to the biggest burnout ever!
Of course things didn't go as we planned. They never do. Fearless Leader Matt King was coming along, and his exalted status meant that his whims had to be indulged. First he invited ex-CC staffer (and current Mustang Monthly editorial whipping boy) Miles Cook and his '01 Mustang Bullitt along on the caravan so we'd have a two-valve Mustang around for comparison. Then he decided we shouldn't drive all the way to Tracey, but divert to Bakersfield.
So it was that on a Friday morning Matt King, CC Technical Editor Terry McGean, and Miles Cook showed up at my palatial mansion in Santa Barbara ready to head north.
The CarsFord has so many Mustang parts floating about that it can mix-and-match them to create an almost endless stream of performance variations. The new-for-'03 Mach 1, for instance, uses the angle-cut rear quarter-windows, instrument cluster, and shifter of the '01 Bullitt Mustang, along with the Mustang GT's side scoops and rear spoiler (painted flat black), an updated version of the normally aspirated DOHC, 32-valve, all-aluminum 4.6L V-8 from the '01 SVT Cobra, and a few new pieces like a front chin spoiler, Magnum 500-like five-spoke wheels and, of course, a reincarnation of the classic shaker hood. It's sort of like automotive Garanimals.
It's this mix of the familiar and novel that keeps the Mustang a compelling vehicle even though underneath it's still based on a 25-year-old family sedan (the '78 Fairmont for trivia buffs). If you're a Mustang freak like, say, Miles Cook, you know every slight variation among the different models and how they've been swapped around through the years and heck, decades.
But just because the new Mach 1 is a compilation of many previously seen parts doesn't mean it isn't a good car. In fact, except for the more stable, much quicker, and more expensive '03 SVT Cobra, it's the best Mustang Car Craft has ever driven. The Cobra engine, rated at the same 305 hp it was when it first appeared in the '96 SVT Cobra, is sweet-natured and with plenty of torque available, satisfyingly potent. Backing the engine is either the familiar Tremec five-speed manual or Ford's own familiar 4R70W four-speed automatic.