Do you love the Ford Mustang?
When Ford decided to stick the steering wheel onto the right-hand side of the Mustang the world went bananas for it, but NZ motoring writers have ignored it for their top gong… Mad?
THE HEADLINE IS CLEARLY A RHETORICAL QUESTION. Course you do. Us too. Sales say all. Obviously the registrations count on my side of the Tasman is far more modest than on yours, but in the 12 months since landing this car has essentially doubled the size of our performance coupe sector, so it’s doing pretty well.
And that’s just the right-hand-drive. For every one of those, we’ve got around seven ‘Stangs of varying pedigree and age, all cars privately imported, mainly from North America because … well, we can.
Slightly-aged-to-ancient American cars arrive via a sub-allowance for fare of collectible and exotic status and not available new. Want a 1960s’ racing stock car, still in faded last-race livery? Seen a couple. How about a factory-fresh Dodge Challenger Hellcat? Check that one, too.
Apart from that: Mustangs. Special edition V8s mainly, old and new. We already had an extraordinary count of Pony car clubs before Ford suddenly woke up to right-hand-drive being a good idea and some memberships have super-sized since.
Strictly speaking, left-hook examples of cars represented by distributors cannot be accessed, but it’s loosely controlled (as the first RHD GTs arrived from Ford, a parallel distributor was offering US-spec examples). And Ford only cares about factory stock; if you want a GT350 and can secure the import paperwork, fill your boots, as we say. Alternately, with Roush and Shelby agents operating domestically, it’s even easier to trick your car up to ultimate American attack mode here.
So, anyway, while they’re not quite Corolla common, it’s not hard to find a Mustang here.
So is this universal love? Not quite. There is a group that, despite having gushed out more praise than a Detroit preacher about this car when it landed, has now cold-shouldered it at a crucial time.
Who would do that? I’m ashamed to say it’s my kind. Motoring writers.
To example. One of the several reasons (aside from the All Blacks and Whittaker’s chocolate) that New Zealand is superior to Australia is that we have a pukka national motoring award.
This is meted by the nation’s car scribes, at least those who are members of an organisation that represents its views. The NZ Motoring Writers’ Guild – yes, I know that sounds a bit secret-handshake-ankle-tied-hankies-and-once-around-the-maypole, but it’s not – represents almost 40 journalists. The award, issued annually since 1988, is taken quite seriously by the industry.
Yes, it’s just one prize; best car. Determined by consensus. Qualification is really simple. New, or substantially updated, cars – one-tonne utes, too, as of a couple of years ago once we recognised these were (A) popular and (B) up to car-life safety and spec – that were introduced over the past 12 months that have been driven by 50% or more of the voting membership.
We used to simply send out a list of all the qualifiers, with request for a score out of 100, but collating the counts then working out the average based on the number of votes was a headache. So now the onus mainly falls onto a sub-committee, selected by the Guild president and secretary and involving a representative from the New Zealand Automobile Association, which has been a COTY partner since 2012. This group simply nuts out a top 10 and then asks the wider membership to pick a favourite. Whichever achieves dominance gets the gong and the winner remains a secret until a gala occasion in Auckland, this year on December 7.
And the candidates are …? Holden Spark, Honda Civic, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-9, Mercedes Benz E-Class and GLC, Skoda Superb, Subaru Levorg, Suzuki Vitara and Volkswagen Tiguan.
Yeah, that’s right. Mustang didn’t make it. Big call, right?
Ford New Zealand was a bit stunned, but took the news politely, whereas plenty of Mustang fans haven’t. Social media has … well … run blue.
What caused such massive disturbance in the Force and tripped this brawny pillar of American automotive lore that delivers sporting dash and styling at a price almost anyone could afford, the one still associated with Bullitt, Steve McQueen and Shelby, the car that a year on from sale still have a waiting list running until next March?
Deliberations that go on in the sub-committee room stay in the sub-committee room. However, it’s no secret how the he selection process broadly works. Basically, it’s as you’d expect. Committee members propose their favourite 10 contenders and then, because there’s never conformity, they then argue/debate each other into submission.
Guild president Liz Dobson says the panel had to narrow the list of vehicles from 35 eligible vehicles. Mustang was among “some very strong contenders” that made it through several ‘culls’ of finalist lists and down to the last few, but “this year there were a number of new models that made compelling arguments in their sectors and in the context of the voting criteria.”
All well and good. And, honestly, I’ve no truck with the chosen. But given that discussion is supposed to apply the same guidelines that will be used by all Guild members when they subsequently pick a winner from the shortlist, a task they must address on or before October 31, it does surprise me that my colleagues – some of whom are close friends – couldn’t find a spot for the Ford.
Because? Aside from being considered for styling, performance, handling, economy, comfort, interior design, build quality and finish, practicality and value for money, candidates must also pass muster for their ‘x-factor’.
If you’ve experienced a Mustang, you might agree with my contention that it’s average on quality and even tech – at time of writing, the update is still to land, so we don’t even have it with Spark’s Apple CarPlay. And it’s unlikely ever to match an E-Class’s almost-self-driving ability, or even perhaps pick up Tiguan and Levorg’s accident-avoiding tweaks. But it goes well on styling, stonk and value, being our only sub-$100k performance coupe.
Yet, when it comes to ‘wow’ … well, that has to be where Mustang hits the ball right out of the park. I’ve driven all the successful candidates; only the ‘E’ raised any particular kerbside interest, and then only from tech nerds. The others are nice cars. But they are just cars. The Mustang is all about character.
The two I’ve tested, both V8s, were total attention magnets. I cannot even begin to think how often I was asked ‘when are you getting ..?’ ‘can I drive/ride in ..?’ and ‘what do you think ..?’ about this car. It was an everyday thing. Likewise, all those catcalls to ‘pull a wheelie’.
Surprised? Yeah … nah. It’s a Mustang. The ‘X’ that marks this car’s spot in history has long been massive enough to be seen from space.
So I write this with concern. I’m a little worried that this left-field call might tarnish the image of a prize that has been historically unsurpassed for integrity, relevance and prestige.
But what really nags is that we’re messaging something else that I desperately hope isn’t true. Namely, that our group has lost the one factor that got us into this gig, our passion for cars.
# Disclaimer. The writer has been a Guild member for almost 30 years and has served in positions of office, including three consecutive terms as president, and is a member of the current Guild executive. He was also on the NZ Car of the Year selection sub-committee in 2014, when the award went to the current Mazda3 in its pre-facelift form.