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2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special review (video)

Fellow driving enthusiasts will instantly recognise and appreciate the allure of the Ford Mustang GT. But, for the hardcore fans who want a little extra, Ford Australia launched the Mustang California Special edition. It’s also a sendoff for the current-generation model before the all-new S650 arrives early in 2024.

Now, when you hear ‘California Special’ you might think of golden beaches, palm trees, and endless sunshine. And while this special edition Mustang does bring some sunshine to your day, metaphorically, it also brings a few clouds. Read on to find out if it pours when it rains.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special : Specifications

Engine: 5.0-litre petrol V8
Output: 339kW@7000rpm / 556Nm@4600rpm
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Drive type: Rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff
Wheels: F: 19×9.0, 255/40 R: 19×9.5, 275/40
ANCAP: Three stars
Tare weight: 1732kg
Power-to-weight: 5.10:1 (kg:kW)
Official consumption: 13L/100km
Our consumption: 13.2L/100km
Fuel tank/Fuel type: 61L/94 RON
Power efficiency: 26.07kW:L/100km
0-60km/h: 2.88 seconds*
0-100km/h: 5.45 seconds*
60-110km/h: 3.30 seconds*
1/4 mile: 13.68 seconds at 179.8km/h*
Max acceleration: 0.824g*
100-0km/h braking: 39.49m in 2.97 seconds*
Max deceleration: -1.154g*
Decibel at idle (/Race mode): 49/55*
Peak decibel at 60-100km/h: 85*
Starting price: $67,290

*Figures as tested by Driving Enthusiast on the day. Manufacturers’ claims may be different

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: How much does it cost?

The California Special was launched in 2022 as one of the last editions for the outgoing generation. It’s based on the GT and is priced $2000 north of the equivalent regular Mustang GT. But it does come packaged with extra fruit taken from the Performance Pack catalogue and some other special enhancements.

As it stands, the current S550 Mustang is not technically on sale – you’ll need to order the new model. But we’re certain you’ll find some existing stock of the outgoing version hanging around in some showrooms. Prices start/ed from $65,290 for the manual GT coupe, plus $2000 for the C/S taking it to $67,290 (before on-roads).

The C/S is (was) available in coupe and convertible form, and with either a six-speed manual or 10-speed auto in the coupe, and only auto in the drop-top. It adds the high-stand rear spoiler, special side intakes (not real), a black front grille, decals along the lower sides, and bespoke 19-inch alloy wheels. Some light tweaks have been applied inside as well.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: Interior & packaging

When you first slide into the driver’s seat of the Mustang California Special, you’ll likely feel a surge of nostalgia and excitement. The cabin is unmistakably Mustang, with retro-inspired touches and a driver-focused layout.

The black leather seats feature Alcantara inner sections that remind us of 1980s velour trim, and they’re comfortable and supportive with a great driving position. However, as you start examining the finer details, you’ll see the interior is where the Mustang starts to lose its shine.

The quality of materials in some areas and the switchgear don’t quite match the car’s price tag. Plastics feel hard and cheap in places where soft-touch materials would be more fitting for a vehicle of this caliber. Fortunately, the C/S does include Alcantara inserts along the door cards, some red stitching for extra depth, and special floor mats.

The 8.0-inch infotainment system running Ford SYNC 3, while functional, is starting to show its age just in terms of its size and colour palette. But it’s pretty easy to navigate thanks to block-style apps, making tasks like adjusting settings or choosing media a seamless affair.

Rear passenger space is, well, let’s call it cozy. While the front seats are comfortable, the back seats are best reserved for occasional use or for children. Adults will find the legroom and headroom in the rear quite limited, making long journeys a less inviting prospect for adults. It’s fine for a quick cruise to the beach or run down to the pub. And compared with its nearest rival, the Toyota GR86/Subaru BRZ, at least the back seat is actually a usable seat.

Boot space is decent, for a sports car. At 408 litres, it’ll easily swallow two proper luggage bags or some golf clubs. It’s not a fastback tailgate. Instead, this features a regular boot lid like a sedan. So that does limit loading access for bulkier items, even though the volume is good once inside.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: Powertrain & handling

This is where the Mustang California Special comes alive. Under the bonnet you’ll find a 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 that produces a throaty and exhilarating soundtrack. It’s the kind of engine note that sends shivers down your spine and puts a big grin on your face. Power delivery is very linear, as per traditional naturally aspirated characteristics, and the engine pulls strongly through the mid-range right up to its 7400rpm redline limiter.

With 339kW and 556Nm, straight-line performance is awesome. We ran some acceleration tests on a private road with the Vbox to see what it could do. We recorded 0-100km/h in 5.45 seconds, the quarter mile in 13.68 seconds, and 0-200km/h in 17.32 seconds.

These figures were pretty challenging to obtain, but not necessarily because of any blame on the car’s side. A big part of getting the most out of this car is all down to the human behind the wheel. You have to gently modulate the clutch release and throttle position to balance wheelspin and progression off the line.

There is a launch control function but it was slower during our tests (5.87 seconds to 100km/h). We usually see launch control systems produce slower times in manual vehicles, purely because a human has the ability to think about how much throttle is needed and can adjust along the way. Whereas with launch control here, it mainly tries to manage wheelspin only, and via wheel-braking intervention – not ideal if you’re trying to go faster.

Regardless of the figures, it is so enjoyable performing these tests. The Mustang even comes with its own on-board timer (it runs on indicated speed and not true speed, according to our GPS Vbox), with 0-100 and 0-400m settings. A line-lock function (15 seconds of front brake application) has been available overseas for years now on the S550, but the California Special is the first S550 to offer the burnout-assistant feature in Australia – it was previously disabled because burnouts are illegal in this country (in what countries are they legal?).

Warming up the rear tyres can improve traction off the line because the tyres become hot and sticky. However, this is mainly for proper soft compound track/drag tyres. For regular road tyres, even the excellent Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres fitted here, the compound is simply too hard for any substantial softening effect to occur. But hey, it’s worth a try.

Around corners, the S550 Mustang – C/S or not – isn’t the most dynamic sports car on the market. The steering is quite heavy-set, especially in the sporty mode (it offers individual modes for the steering), and the engagement and communication through the wheel is lacking.

You might also experience chassis shunting sensations during hard cornering, particularly when you’re jumping on and off the brakes as you dive between bends. The chassis feels heavy and the weight takes a moment to catch up. With a tare weight of 1732kg, this isn’t a light-on-its-toes ballet dancer. So it’s best not to expect it to pirouette and prance like one.

No, instead of tackling your favourite high-tempo mountain pass, slow down and take this beast for a cruise. It loves cruising. Enjoy the bellowing V8 growl, and sure, give it a hit every now and then. But if you’re after a track-day toy that can produce not only great lap times but also reward its driver in a more enjoyable manner, we’d recommend you check out the Toyota GR86/Subaru BRZ, or anything from Hyundai’s N division.

Being a V8 you’ll probably instantly jump to the conclusion that it drinks like a 1990s Australian cricket team. And you’d be right, to some degree. The official consumption average is 13L/100km. But that isn’t all that terrible considering its 339kW output.

In the real world, we experienced a week-average of 13.2L/100km. And that included lots of performance testing. After extended use in regular conditions you’re likely to drop below that official rating. That’s not something we see very often.

On paper, the ‘power-efficiency’ ratio is good. This is a calculation I’ve been doing since the old PD website, and it basically gives you a quick reference as to how efficient an engine is at producing power. You simply divide peak power by the official consumption rate. In this case, the result is 26.07kW:1L/100km.

The calculation has some flaws, I know. But it’s a good benchmark in my opinion so you can compare vehicles under the same conditions. All new vehicles on sale in Australia are subjected to the same NEDC-based fuel consumption testing protocol, so the averages can be compared, even if they aren’t realistic or represent real-world figures.

Try out the calculation on some of your favourite cars anyway and see how they shape up. Anything above around 20kW:1L/100km is what I would consider impressively power-efficient. The formula doesn’t work as well for plug-in hybrids or EVs, for obvious reasons.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: Key attractions/reasons to buy

Its classic muscle car design is one of its big assets. It looks very cool and attracts plenty of attention from fans. Adding the California Special package, with its distinctive stripes, badging, and bespoke 19-inch alloy wheels, makes it even more eye-catching.

The other big plus is the powertrain; a rear-wheel drive coupe featuring a V8 engine, and a manual transmission. Name another (new) car that offers this combo? This is fast-becoming an extremely rare combination.

If you love it, you’ll need to jump in while you still can. Or wait for the S650 to arrive next year. Our bet is the S650 will be the last to offer a naturally aspirated V8 and a manual.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: Key considerations before you buy

Interior quality, although with more depth and character in the C/S, remains a weak point for the Mustang. Some elements such as the chrome toggle switches look quite dated. But this will all change with the next-gen model next year.

Lastly, as per muscle car tradition, the real driving enjoyment can be found in straight lines only. It steers just fine if you’re driving at a leisurely pace. But turn up the heat and tackle a challenging road or race track? It’s a ‘yeah-nah’ from us. This is much more fun cruising and cracking it along straight roads.

The other key consideration is the three-star ANCAP safety rating. It is perhaps not as important for ‘weekend’ vehicles like this. But it is an area to consider if you’re planning on driving it every day or with your kids in the back. Especially when most competitors manage to pass five-star credentials.

2023 Ford Mustang GT California Special: Video

How does it rate against its rivals?
  • Price
  • Quality look & feel
  • Interior tech
  • Powertrain performance
  • Handling
  • X factor (does it stand out in its class?)

Final word

The 2023 Ford Mustang California Special offers a thrilling and nostalgic driving experience thanks to its V8 rumble, manual transmission and iconic styling. It’s a car that’s sure to turn heads wherever it goes, and it delivers awesome straight-line grunt. But there are some compromises in cabin quality and driving dynamics over some rival sports cars.

Brett Davis

Brett started out as a motor mechanic, but eventually became frustrated working on cars that weren't his. He then earned a degree in journalism and scored a job at Top Gear Australia back in 2008, and then worked at Zoom/Extreme Performance magazines, CarAdvice, and started PerformanceDrive/PDriveTV in 2011 with Josh Bennis, and ran it for 12 years. He's now the owner and managing editor here at Driving Enthusiast.

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