2017 Mustang California Special Review: Ford’s Pony Is Wild and Well-Trained

wheel-to-wheel new car reviews

The 2017 Ford Mustang GT California Special
The 2017 Ford Mustang GT California Special | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

The 2017 Ford Mustang California Special is partly a throwback to the muscle car heyday of tire-smoking Camaros, Challengers, Road Runners and more. This Ford pony car is also one very smart take on an automotive genre that’s often criticized for being stuck in the past. Sure, American sports cars go fast in a straight line, but they’re wet noodles when it comes time to brake or steer. Or at least that is the undeserved and outdated perception.

A 1,000-plus mile road-trip in this modern ‘Stang uncovered plenty of unexpected qualities, particularly when it came time to refuel. Yes, you can go ape and do burn-outs everywhere you go (police permitting, of course). And let’s be clear, this isn’t a car you’re going to move homes in, unless you’re running from the law and need every ounce of power from the V8 engine under the hood.

The California Special option kit adds an extra dash of retro appeal onto an already cool package. This Mustang isn’t for everyone, true, but its demeanor makes it far more appealing to a wider audience than you’d imagine.

Ford mustang
The California Special adds a larger front splitter, black painted 19-inch alloys, black hood strips and a raised rear spoiler | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet


Our test car was finished in “Race Red” and, wow, did it look the part. When it arrived for the 2015 model year, this sixth-generation Mustang left some people underwhelmed. Longer and lower than the outgoing version, the hugely hyped introduction at the New York Auto Show (Ford squeezed a ’15 Mustang onto the roof of the Empire State Building, for crying out loud!) revealed a car that didn’t look dramatically different from its predecessor.

Over time, however, the shark-like nose and forward leaning tail-end have grown on us. A 2017 Camaro ultimately looks angrier, with its turret-like greenhouse and pinched headlamps. For pure nostalgia, nothing tops the Dodge Challenger, especially when fitted with racing strips and Mopar’s wonderfully garish range of lime, orange, yellow, and purple color choices.

The Mustang GT has some advantages. For starters, you can see out of the car – sorry Camaro owners. It also looks fresher than the aging Challenger, even if the big bad Dodge remains as huggable as a basket of English bulldog puppies. The California Special option package adds unique 19-inch black painted aluminum wheels, a large front splitter, black side mirrors and raised rear spoiler, black hood spoiler and air extracts, a tri-bar Mustang pony emblem in the front grille, along with a faux rear gas cap with “California GT Special” emblazoned on it.

Exterior pros and cons

+ The sixth-gen Mustang is aging very nicely.

+ California Special add-ons don’t go overboard in terms of retro touches. They’re cool and classy, not overblown.

– The Camaro and Challenger also look like they’d knock you over and steal your milk money. Today’s muscle cars look great, all of them do. So really, it’s a design toss up with the competition.

Ford mustang V8
The 5.0-liter V8 delivers 435 horsepower | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet


The California Special package is only available when choosing the GT Premium trim level, either in Coupe or Convertible format. This gets you a 5.0-liter V8 with 435 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. You have a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed SelectShift automatic. Purists might freak out, but given the length of our test drive, we weren’t bummed to spot the auto when poking our heads into this Mustang for the first time.

It’s a great transmission, perfectly tuned into the power of the V8. Acceleration is fierce and the sound is an all-American rumble that is always present, even at idle. On the open highway, the powertrain settles down to an effortless cruise, which is where the surprisingly good fuel economy came into play. Our initial 500-plus mile drive down to North Carolina netted a 25.8 MPG average!

No, we weren’t feathering the gas or trying to be cheapskates. The V8 just wafts along and is remarkably easy on your fuel budget … but only until you’re back to city driving. In town, things got a lot more realistic with an economy average that hovered around 18 miles per gallon.

Powertrain pros and cons

+ Strong V8 power, and solid highway fuel economy.

– City economy isn’t nearly as impressive.

– The V8 makes many of Ford’s hyped EcoBoost V6s look like fuel guzzlers in comparison. So maybe that’s a plus point?

Mustang cabin
The Mustang cabin is comfortable, at least for those in the front seats | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet


The California Special adds some special touches – microfiber inserts in the seats and contrast stitching – but for the most part, you’re looking at the standard Mustang GT cockpit. A dash plaque on the passenger’s side of the dash is a nice touch and impressed front occupants. Those in the back won’t heap praise on the ‘Stang cabin, however. It’s cramped back there for adults, though our long-distance rear occupant (a pug named Merlin) didn’t seem to mind.

The two main gauges, for revs and speed, are set in deep, round binnacles. We’re not entirely sure why the miles per hour gauge says “Ground Speed,” but it’s really cool. The multi-function, three-spoke steering wheel is useful, and the galloping pony in the center is attractive. Over many hundreds of miles, the cabin was a convenient and comfortable place to be.

Interior pros and cons

+ The California Specials adds custom touches, like contrast stitching and a dash plaque.

– Consider this a two-seater with a whole lot of luggage room. Space in the back is very snug for adults.

– Turn signals are mounted on the hood, tucked into vents on either side. They look great, when you can see them. From the driver’s seat, unless you’re playing center for the Knicks, they’re practically invisible.

The first California Special was introduced on the 1968 Mustang
The first California Special was introduced on the 1968 Mustang | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

At last, Ford infotainment systems are no longer the software equivalent of a torture chamber. The SYNC3 system in this Mustang is quicker, clearer, and much easier to navigate. Large circular knobs beneath the center screen control volume and radio station tuning, with buttons for the heating and ventilation directly beneath. A smart touch: The heated and cooled seats are controlled via simple buttons, not embedded in layers of superfluous menus. Luxury carmakers, please take note of this!

Our test car also came equipped with the 12-speaker Shaker audio system. The sound is beefy and bass-rich, thanks in part to the large subwoofer that takes a chunk out of trunk space.

Tech pros and cons

+ Ford infotainment systems have finally entered the 21st century.

– The center screen is a touch on the small side, but that’s only a minor flaw.

Ford Mustang
Acceleration is fierce, but the Mustang doesn’t beat you up in everyday driving | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

It’s not often we get to know a car as intimately as this Mustang GT California Special. Driving from New York City down to eastern North Carolina, this Ford could have tested our patience – and wallet – had it been a rough-riding fuel hog. The suspension is firm, of course, though you expect that in a car with 435 horsepower and a Mustang badge on its nose. Thankfully the independent rear suspension makes this sixth-gen ‘Stang a much more capable dance partner when the road gets bumpy, or slick with rain.

Punching the gas is always fun, which is why our city fuel economy numbers were only this side of what you’d get in, say, a Lamborghini or Ford Super Duty pickup.

Point. Rev. Punch gas and go! It never gets old – and passengers expect this kind of childish behavior in a bright red Mustang.

We knocked the Camaro for visibility due to a low greenhouse, so now it’s time to levy some judgement on the Mustang. There is more glass to the outside world, except you’re looking out and over a huge front hood. Be careful when pulling head-on into parking spots, because that front splitter is much lower than you think.

The handling does a good job of letting you know what each wheel is doing, even if ultimate grip is usually decided by the gas pedal and not the steering wheel.

Ford Mustang California Special
A modern muscle car, the Mustang California Special has retro appeal and surprising civility | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

For $1,995, the California Special package is a bargain when it comes to injecting extra attitude into the Mustang GT. You do have to pony up roughly $33,000 for the V8-powered Mustang, and that’s before the extra cost of the California Special package and other add-ons. This is still a whole lot of car for the money, considering the blend of power, heritage, and tough-guy styling.

We know, the automatic on our test car might lose points for ultimate coolness. But for a 10-plus hour road-trip, the transmission was a capable companion. Our only regret is that the six-speed manual would have made it easier to rev the 5.0-liter V8 at every red light and stop sign.

Room in the back stinks, plain and simple. Yet cargo room isn’t bad for two people and a week’s worth of luggage – not to mention a dog crate mounted behind the front seats. This is a very modern and livable muscle car, one that could definitely serve as a daily driver without rattling you to pieces.