Every so often, I end up having a boring, watered-down weekend doing nothing but lying on the sofa like Homer Simpson and binging random stuff on Netflix. After a while though, these sessions feel more like a mid-life crisis waiting to happen rather than relaxing respites from daily life, and I find myself begging for just an ounce of excitement. I’m tempted to cruise around town, or maybe hit Starbucks, but those are just temporary reprieves. What I need is to see something different, something less familiar. Luckily, I’ve been given the task of supervising a 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt for the weekend, and if anything could inspire me to get off the sofa, it’s a muscular green pony on 19-inch black wheels with a rock-star personality and a loudmouth exhaust.
My weekend companion ran a cool $52,890, a price that included the optional Recaro leather-trimmed sport seats, electronics package, and magnetorheological dampers. All the cool kids know that the reincarnated Mustang Bullitt is only available with a six-speed manual and to me, that’s one of the biggest highlights of the car. Not that I’d choose an automatic if it were available as it is in other Mustangs, but having that mechanical connection to the naturally aspirated Coyote V-8 engine is simply enrapturing, and allows you to better and more immediately conjure its boisterous sound with every press on the gas pedal. And with 480 horsepower from its 5.0-liter engine, the Bullitt doesn’t lack for thrust.
To confine a muscle car—or any car for that matter—with a manual transmission to the clogged arteries of L.A. is a sin, and as mentioned, the idea of playing it safe and staying close to home to do the typical stuff didn’t sound thrilling. On these grounds, I devised a plan to leave the concrete jungle behind and make a run for the desert. A quick search on Google Maps and I had my destination, a place remote enough to make the drive long, and memorable enough to make the trip worth it: the desert town of Borrego Springs, some 160 miles to the east. I intended to leave on Sunday, leaving Saturday to warm up to the Bullitt on the gritty streets of “El Lay.”
A note about the manual shifter: No novice should be scared to operate this one. There’s plenty of torque in first gear to make getting off the line a snap using only the clutch, the and gearchanges themselves are so fluid and natural that it’s nearly impossible to miss a gate. That the Bullitt features rev-matching on downshifts is caramel drizzle on this particular slice of cheesecake. But as I was shifting gears via the gorgeous cue-ball shifter and autographing the asphalt of San Pedro with a Michelin Pilot Sport 4S signature, something far more profound happened than several slick shifts. I had developed a rapport with the Highland Green Mustang, an understanding of what it wanted to do, and I thought I heard a whisper—it’s hard to hear over all the ruckus coming from the dual exhausts—calling me to the desert. Today.
Fueling up on my way out of town, I performed a quick walk-around to inspect the tires. In the middle of my inspection, two men in a truck slowed down, their eyeballs glued to the Bullitt. I stopped what I was doing and stared back with a slight grin on my face; before I could get in and start it up, one of them stuck his head out the window and gleefully asked, “Is that the new Bullitt!?” In response, I simply strapped myself into the driver’s seat—the well-bolstered Recaros put you in a perfect upright driving position—fired up the sonorous V-8, nodded, and pointed the Mustang east.
Whenever I encounter the pandemonium of Southern California freeways, I equate the experience to Little Red Riding Hood being chased by a pack of wolves. After six years living in SoCal, I’ve learned that ill-advised and erratic drivers are a part of the deal, and have made some proper adjustments to my own driving code and style to compensate. Plus, on this day I could deal with any vultures impeding my path to desert serenity with a well-aimed Bullitt.
The traffic on State Route 91 was miserable, and immediately put the pony in a choke hold. To ease the frustration of driving a manual in dense traffic and minimize downshifting to first gear, I started driving in what I dubbed “Pac-Man mode.” I scored points by jumping into the open pockets of the traffic maze, imagining each one contained a power pellet that boosted the volume of the deafeningly loud, 12-speaker B&O audio system. I then made it to Interstate 15 South and traffic that called more for a Tetris style of driving, where I fit myself in wherever I could. When I finally reached Temecula Parkway en route to State Route 79 South, the pretend games were over, and the real game was just getting started.
I drove past myriad campgrounds, RV resorts, vineyards, and ranches lining the two-lane road, and while the first leg was congested with other adventure-seekers, after 10 miles or so I had the blacktop all to myself. I settled into a cruise, occasionally stirring the Mustang into an acceleration run just to work the shifter up and down through the gears. Third and fourth were where I stayed much of the time, though, as there the engine felt relaxed but ready, and it sounded the best there besides—especially in the exhaust’s Sport+ mode, which takes the sound from aggressive to positively maniacal.
I made few stops on my way to Borrego Springs, and I made sure to pause and take in an overlook (elevation: 2,300 feet) with a view of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A pair of visitors were just driving away as I arrived, but they quickly turned around when they saw me snapping photos of the Mustang. One of them stepped from their SUV and—in what was a theme for the trip—excitedly asked, “Excuse me, but is that the Bullitt?” He wanted to know what I thought, and I told him the truth: it’s fantastic.
As I drove down Palm Canyon Drive in Borrego Springs, I stopped for a bite at Carlee’s restaurant before exploring the Borrego Botanical Garden and gift shop next door. The sun was beginning to sink below the horizon when I made my way to Galleta Meadows to take in the massive sculptures. Being out there, away from the smog and honking horns and the ever-buzzing city, allowed me to collect my thoughts and reflect on what, well everything means to me. I’d divulge more details, but it seems prudent to stop there, as to do so would spoil the adventure itself. As Wilfred Thesiger wrote in Arabian Sands: “For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement.”
On Sunday, I stepped out of my apartment to find the Bullitt covered in the early morning dew. A cranky neighbor mumbled a negative remark about the car, but I simply started it up, lowered the windows, and rolled away, letting the V-8’s burble provide my response. It felt right to keep to my original schedule and head again into the desert toward Borrego Springs—there would be no Netflix binging that day, either.
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