A California Special drive for a California Special

I’m off this week testing the hot California Special edition of the ’16 Ford Mustang GT on some roads north of Fallbrook for my next San Diego Union-Tribune Weekend Driver day-trip column.

First impressions are that this is a cool trim package on top of a beast of a modern pony car. The huge power and mean looks of the late ’60s California Special combined with 21st century driveability, safety and comfort. It’s a bit noisy inside, but cruising around the twisting mountain roads was fun.

It’s not a Mazda Miata (or even a Saturn Sky) but a big, brawny car that can turn and stop quite nicely. A definite head-turner, my test car has bright red with black trim here and there, such as rocker cladding, spoilers and hood vents. Inside there are more unique trim bits and comfy leather-trimmed seats.

Under the hood is the 5.0 liter, 435 hp V-8 that did get me about 23 mpg on the highway. The original California Special had every Mustang engine available, but nothing even got close to 400 hp; even the 6-cylinder probably got under 20 mpg. How times have changed.

As for the road, I’m tracing a historic route a bit north of Fallbrook, then winding around the avocado ranches. De Luz Road has been a subject of the Weekend Driver column a few times in the past, but I’m taking a different route this time.

I’ve gone from Temecula to Fallbrook in the past; this time I’m doing a loop around the mountains, starting and ending in Fallbrook. It’s scheduled to run August 20, so I’d better get busy.

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Nine new cars in two days… and a great SoCal road

Had the opportunity to drive nine new cars recently at and around the historic Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., just a bit north of Lancaster and Palmdale, as well as west of Edwards Air Force Base. Best of the bunch? The Scion iM.

Every year, the Motor Press Guild — the Southern California automotive writers group — manages to coax new cars from the manufacturers for two days of track and street driving. The track is historic and unique and a thrill to drive. I should say tracks, as Willow Springs has seven of them; I’m fortunate to have been able to drive on three… or is it four.

The street drive is equally fun. If you’re up there, or want to get there, take Highway 14 north from LA through the Antelope Valley to Rosamond Road, then head west (if you head east, you’ll end up at the front gate to Edwards). A couple of miles from the freeway, you’ll pass Willow Springs International Raceway, one of the oldest tracks in the country. Mark that as your starting point.

From Willow Springs Raceway, continue on Rosamont Road west, making a right at 90th Street West. Continue north as it changes name to Tehachapi Willow Springs Road, a mostly straight line except for a nice twist shortly after your turn.

Make the right at Backus Road, which is mostly straight with gentle curves, but has some fun, quick elevation changes at the base of the mountains. There’s even a spot where, if you hit it at the right speed, might lift a wheel or two off the pavement.

The right turn at Mojave Tropico Road has some delightful curves and hairpins as you head south again to Rosamont Road. Be sure to slow down at the middle school. It’s a nice drive if your day trip is a bit outside of San Diego (about three hours out, by the way).

Of the nine cars I drove, the most fun and the most surprising was the Scion iM, a little wagon with a lot of umph paired with a low center of gravity, taught suspension (but not punishing) and really quick steering. The test car had the six-speed manual transmission; an automatic will probably be on most of the cars sold. The 1.8 liter, four-cylinder engine puts out 137 horsepower, plenty for a little, light car.

My total time with the car was only about a half hour, but I was impressed with the comfortable seat, amenities, visibility and easy access to the cabin.

The price was as good as the drive… $18,460 to $19,200; fully loaded includes navigation, leather-wrapped steering wheel, backup camera, lots of other goodies. Scion seems to have lost its unique looks, as the front end looks pretty much like a Corolla, but this isn’t your boring friend’s Corolla. It’s a great car at a great price.

Why was it my favorite? Road fun and price. At legal speeds on a good road, everything in the car was working to make it a fun drive. You can’t say that about something with huge horsepower that can only be pushed on a track. And the price; you could buy a fleet of them for the price of one of the other cars I tested.

The other cars I drove were (all 2016 models except where noted and in no particular order) the: MX-5 Miata; Mercedes-Benz AMG GLE 63 S Coupe; 2015 Dodge Challenger Scat Pack; Acura RLX Sport Hybrid; 2015 Infiniti Q70 5.6; Cadillac ATS-V sedan; and a Honda HR-V. Nice way to spend a couple of days.

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A convertible, beaches; what else do you need?

I’m out testing a VW Beetle TDI convertible this week for my upcoming San Diego Union-Tribune column on the best beach stops in San Diego County. Yeah, it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.

My initial impressions, after driving from Border Field State Park at the US-Mexico border, Imperial Beach, Coronado and Downtown San Diego, is that this diesel version of any teen girl’s favorite ride is too cute, but also a really fun car to drive.

The TDI badge means under the hood is a turbocharged diesel engine, but most drivers would be hard-pressed to notice that this is anything but a sporty, small call in the great Volkswagen tradition. Acceleration was plentiful on a brief freeway drive, there were no problems in city traffic, and response was great on twisting, country roads in the Tijuana River estuary. Not slow or smelly.

The second-generation New Beetle is still the hot car for young women, as experienced by the glances and smiles I got on the road (I don’t even want to think that these cuties were smiling at creepy-old-guy me). The update makes it look more like the Stout Scarab rather than an inflated version of the classic Beetle. It’s comfortable and really fun to drive, but I doubt in its demographic will opt for the six-speed manual transmission that’s in this car. In fact, most of them will stay away from the diesel, too. So this particular car is an anomaly, which is too bad.

So, I’m off to take some more photos, and maybe a drive up to Julian to work on my next Joyride Guru e-book.

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Going vertical in the new Jeep Cherokee: speed and brake controls keep us from tumbling down 30% grade

You don’t see it in this photo, but car 5, a new Jeep Cherokee, has all kinds of electronics that allow speed to be set to a crawl and stay there even on steep dirt roads. The driver just points it in the right direction… not off the side of the cliff.

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Auto writer taboo subject: I’m reviewing my own car, the Mini Cooper S Countryman

There seems to be a taboo out there for auto writers… they don’t review or talk about their own cars. I’ve had chats over the years with a few of them and their answers seem to be that this would be a bias.

Their own decision to spend their own money on something isn’t worth discussing in a profession where at least a portion of the work is a consumer-oriented discussion of, yes, whether someone should or shouldn’t make what for most folks is the largest or second largest purchase of their lifetime.

I’m only a part-time auto writer and hope this won’t get me thrown out of the club, but I’ve had a lot of people asking me about the MINI Cooper S Countryman that I ordered last December and received at the end of February.

So here goes… my review. The Countryman has been exactly what I wanted… and more.

I was looking for something fun to drive (check), four doors (check), comfortable and easy to get in-and-out for me (check), something easy for my 86-year-old mom to get in-and-out (check), and a hatch with fold-down seats in case I need to carry things (check). It also had to fit in my one parking space and be maneuverable enough to get in-and-out of the tiny, underground parking garage at my condo. Check there, as well. Manual transmission, good mileage and good power? Check. Good gas mileage (at least 20s in the city, 30s on the highway), check.

After going through the fun – yes, fun – of the wait for the car to arrive (see my earlier posts), the smiles continued when I picked up the car. My mom had no trouble getting in, enjoyed the upscale interior and thought the ride was very comfortable and smooth.

The next morning, I headed out to my favorite road in San Diego County for driving a sports car, Lyons Valley Road north of Jamul. It really is a roller coaster… up, down, sideways all at the same time. 10 miles of heart-throbbing, white knuckle driving at any speed. Scary curves but they’re all paved. A road that goes around boulders. The verdict? It was a thrill.

The handling was very close to the MINI hardtop, which is about as much of a roller skate with an engine as you’ll find. Handling is precise but there’s a bit more lean than the hardtop due to the extra six inches or so.

Reviewers complaints included the electric power steering, the run-flat tires and clutch. For me, the electric power steering provides OK road feel and is as good an electric system as I’ve driven. Hydraulic would be better, but this is a good compromise.

The fat, run-flat tires aren’t the greatest for rally-crossing, but for my every day needs they’ll do just fine; the extra six cubic feet or so of trunk space that would have had the spare is a bonus. I did opt for the run-flat tire warranty so if something does happen to one of them, it will be replaced. Run-flats can’t be repaired and can be pricy.

Shifts were smooth, although the throw on the clutch is a bit longer than I’d prefer (too tall for heal-and-toe shifting). BMW reportedly changed the clutch for the 2013 model year.

Power from the basic 1.6 liter, 121 horsepower engine through the six-speed manual transmission should be enough for the 3,000 lb. car. Heck, I’ve been getting by with less power (100 hp) but about 900 pounds less weight in a Mazda Miata since 1991, and it’s a blast on roads like this.

Add the turbo and the thrills just get better. Up the horsepower to 181 with the turbo, then switch into sport mode and it will give you a quick boost to 192. I was in sport mode but didn’t have the MINI Connected connected, so I couldn’t get a horsepower reading (more about that later).

Lyons Valley Road isn’t as much about horsepower as it is about driving and the driver’s skill. Matching the shifts and turns and pressure on the accelerator pedal is the challenge, making it fun in a 22-year-old Miata or a just-off-the-boat MINI.

The Countryman loved Lyons Valley Road. With just a few miles since it first saw the sky at the assembly plant in Gatz, Austria on January 11, everything the BMW engineers created to make the company’s second brand another “ultimate driving…” well, you know, was working perfectly. Power, grip, sharp steering, shifting, clutch and brake working together to take the twists, turns, ups, downs. Inside, I heard just the right amount of “exhaust note” appropriate to a four-cylinder engine, the seats were supportive and amenities comfortable.

Stopping at the Lyons Valley Trading Post at the end of the twister, I had a smile on my face and the Countryman happily cooled itself as the hot metal parts ticked away.

The handling is front-wheel-drive tricky at times. At speed, the car jumps on curves when it covers cracks in the road and expansion joints on freeway bridges. That probably a bit of torque steer – the result of all that power going through the front wheels – and maybe the run-flat tires.

In case you’re not familiar with the Countryman, it is MINI’s second platform, as they call it in the auto industry. The familiar hardtop, with its various variants, has been selling since 2002. The Countryman made its debut in the 2011 model year. And by the way, MINI is now the marque name; the original Morris Mini of the old British Motor Corporation, launched in 1959, was just a model and goes by Mini. BMW, now its owner, uses all capital letters.

The Countryman is larger. Longer wheelbase, wider track, taller. It’s been called an inflated MINI hardtop, a hardtop on steroids and a few other colorful descriptions. The blokes at the UK Top Gear hate it, believing it’s an affront by its German owners on British traditions, sort of like putting fins on a Jaguar XKE. Of course, if I ever do meet Jeremy Clarkson, I own a car that he hates, the Countryman, and one that he loves, my now-vintage MX-5 Miata. So I’m well prepared to be snubbed by the bad boy of the car press. But I digress.

They recommended I buy a Skoda Yeti, but unfortunately the nearest Skoda dealer is on the other side of the planet. The similar VW Tiguan is more expensive and looked a bit too much like a shrunken SUV for me. And I like VWs; buy the Tiguan if it works for you.

I also considered the other “candy cans” on the road – cars with four doors and boxy styling that look like one of those cans that contain fancy, individually foil-wrapped Christmas candy. The Scion xB started the trend and has been followed by the Nissan Cube and Kia Soul. All of those can be had for lower prices than the MINI, but I’m not 34, I’m 54 and wanted something a bit more mature. However, of the three, I like the Soul the best. It feels like it has the most room and handles better than the other two. A refresh for 2014 promises even more interior room and smoother exterior styling.

Of the 10,000 or something combinations of color and trim that MINI offers, mine with its dark green paint and black wheels looks like a bullfrog, so I’ve named a car for the first time in my life – Mr. Toad. Three things brought on the name: the first wild ride on Lyons Valley Road; the ancient Disneyland ride; and the character in one of my favorite kids books, The Wind in the Willows.

It also has a resemblance to one of my favorite classic cars, a 1952 Hudson Hornet.

'52 Hudson Hornet
Is a real maxi MINI? No, it’s a ’52 Hudson Hornet.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, front and back. I didn’t opt for the electric seats or heaters, being the only driver and living in San Diego. The back seat folds down for more cargo room. It also slides back for more leg room, making it comfortable for rear passengers who are full-sized adults. The seating position for both is tall, so step right in and have a seat. No lowering down and folding up to get into the car (sorry, ’91 Miata, which I have kept).

On a longer trip I found it very comfortable and a good cruiser, with consistent highway fuel economy around 34 mpg (read about my Santa Ynez trips). Plenty of power to pass on the freeway and on twisty mountain roads. It was here I was able to hook up an iPhone and test out one of the goodies on the car, the MINI Connected system.

Turns out, MINI Connected is a very, slick feature. As I’ve been trying to describe it to friends with newer cars, they all seem to have blank stares when I say it’s more than just a hands-free phone feature. Yes, it access all kinds of engine computer info; does Bluetooth; plays your phone’s music; yeah, yeah, yeah.

Reviewers have described it as one of the most advanced infotainment systems on the market. Based on BMW’s iDrive, it apparently is missing a few things, but BMW’s added a few other goofy goodies for the somewhat goofy MINI owners. It talks to you. Three different voices… one’s the car, another is sort of a host and the other pops in with advice. It works through the GPS display, which on MINI Connected versions takes up the center of the MINI’s center speedometer.

Depending on the setting, it will root you on during “spirited” driving (“great cornering” … “great breaking”) or when you’re trying to maximize fuel economy. It’s worth a test-drive if the MINI dealer has an iPhone to operate it. It only works with iPhones and only if you’ve downloaded the MINI Connected app.

It is extensive and I haven’t figured most of it out yet, but it is a great system.

Other surprises have made me smile. Some I’ve noticed on other cars; some I haven’t.

  • A hill holder keeps the car from rolling backwards during starts on hills, a feature rare on manual-transmission cars today but first available in mid-1930s Studebakers. My mechanic says it was a different system, but who’s quibbling.
  • The air dam under the front bumper, which is usually torn off by those horrible concrete parking berms, is made from a thick piece of rubber. It pops right back in place. I know, as I freaked out one day when I heard it scrape.
  • Dampness sensor for the wipers. Turn it on and when the windshield gets drippy, the wipers go. When it clears, they stop.
  • Interior lights change color. The other “candy box” cars do this as well, but it’s still a whimsical touch.
  • The nearly full length sunroof pops both the front and rear roof open for ventilation. When the front sunroof is opened full, the back closes. Screens dim the sunlight but keep the interior bright.
  • The emergency brake has now has a large handle, the width of the center console, that’s easy to use. Reviewers complained about the stick-style brake handle interfering with the standard center armrest/storage box.

What would I like?

  • Standard gauges. For a performance car, having only idiot lights is just, well, idiotic. Owners have to opt for the top-of-the-line John Cooper Works edition or buy separately. MINI Connected does have extra gauges, but drivers have to plug in the iPhone, run the app and select the proper screen. And they’re in the center of the dash, rather than in the driver’s view.
  • Auto-dimming rear-view mirror. To get this, you have to select the package that includes a backup camera and other stuff. Auto-dimming mirrors are standard on many cheap cars today; BMW should make it standard.

All in all, I’m still happy with the car after a couple of months. Alternatives? As I mentioned, the Kia Soul would be another choice. Among sporty wagons, the Mazdaspeed 3 and Audi A3 are a blast, but seating position is too low for Mom. A lot of people like the Tiguan from Volkswagen and certainly the GTI is a class leader among hot hatchbacks. Ford’s Focus 5-door or smaller Fiesta 5-door are available in performance trim, but are lower and smaller still, same for the Mazda 3; all are really fun to drive, though.

The Countryman fits my needs very well. It might work for you. end of story

Countryman at old bridge near Descanso on old HIghway 80
Countryman at old bridge near Descanso on old HIghway 80

The Car

  • 2013 MINI Cooper Countryman S
  • 1.6 liter turbocharged engine
  • 6-speed manual transmission
  • Base price: $25,600
  • Major options as purchased, extra price
    • Premium Package 2
    • Sport
    • Technology
    • Sport Suspension

On the Web

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Video visit to Font’s Point in the Anza Borrego Desert and a Chevy Equinox test now online

Visit Font’s Point in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, near San Diego, in a 2013 V6 AWD Chevrolet Equinox. Font’s Point is a spectacular vista overlooking the rugged Borrego Badlands. The Equinox makes the drive over shifting sands to reach the view point. It’s also a preview of the upcoming Weekend Driver trip to Font’s Point.

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In the desert this weekend to test a Chevy Equinox

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I’m out in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park this weekend to test a Chevy Equinox awd on a few sandy roads. Headed to Fonts Point, a beautiful overlook in the Borrego Badlands. Shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the equinox, which was a pretty good performer on the mountain roads between the desert and San Diego.