June 27, 2006

San Diego in a Shelby GT-H

The original plan was to turn in the Ford Escape I had been driving on the company's dime for 3 days in exchange for a Mustang convertible -- that I would spring for -- for my remaining free time in San Diego.

I had flown into town late Sunday night to attend a Gartner conference. While waiting for the lone counter agent to finish up with the customer in front of me, I looked around the Hertz establishment at Lindbergh Field looking for something interesting to rent on my last day. There were a few Hummer H3's out in the parking lot, but those did not interest me in the least. There were also a smattering of Hertz' Prestige Collection cars: Volvos, Jags, Lincolns, etc. Again, no interest. I decided that since I was in San Diego, a Mustang convertible was the way to go. Having decided this, I completed my transaction for the Ford Escape that would be my ride during the conference, and headed to my hotel.

After the first day of the conference, I met up with my old fiend Julie, who is a bio-med post-doc at UCSD. She took me to Station Sushi, which is kind of like a surf shack masquerading as a sushi bar. This was a super-casual sushi dive with a definite SoCal surfer vibe. Plus they served up the best California roll I've ever had.

During a conference session on Tuesday, I was IM'ing with my friend Ken about where to go for dinner that night. He suggested an In-N-Out burger, since I was in California. This sounded like a great idea. While researching In-N-Out locations however, I read about an establishment touted by many as the best burger in San Diego: Hodad's. I decided In-N-Out could wait until my next trip to Los Angeles in July.

So, after the conference I hopped into the Escape and headed to Newport Ave, Ocean Beach. Ocean Beach is the artsy, funky, bohemian area of San Diego (they call themselves The People's Republic of Ocean Beach), and Newport Avenue is the main commercial strip, running from the hills straight towards the Pacific Ocean.

Hodad's is an open front burger joint, with (surprise!) a surfing theme. Old license plates from around the country cover the walls, along with other surfing-related memorabilia. Surfboards hang from the ceilings. You grab a menu from a stack by the door, and seat yourself. Eventually, a server takes your order. And I do mean eventually: The surfer vibe trickles down to the service as well.

I ordered a cheeseburger basket and a vanilla milkshake. The milkshake came first, served in a frappe cup and topped with an additional scoop of ice cream. Perfect. You can either eat the ice cream, or let it slowly melt to maintain optimal consistency and temperature throughout the milkshake lifecycle. Then came the burger. This was a 6 inch tall tower of a burger, with fully 4 inches taken up by the veggies and condiments: lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup, mustard, mayo. The menu advises that unless stated otherwise, all burgers come with the works. My server did ask me if I wanted everything on it. I went for the full experience, and it was delicious. There's a lot of veggies to go along with the beef, so it's not the "beefiest" burger I've ever had (Louis' Lunch in New Haven takes that title). But it was definitely very tasty.

On Wednesday morning, I headed back to Hertz to turn in the Escape and pick up the 'Stang vert to tool around in after the conference ended later that day. As I walked from the return area back to the rental building, I noticed a couple of cars that had not been there Sunday night: Prominently displayed in front of the rental building were 3 Shelby GT-Hs. I asked inside if any were available, and the agent nodded "Yes." Woo-hoo! I knew it would be expensive, and it was: $199/day. I also sprang for the damage waiver, as I anticipated some spirited driving. Wendy also probably wouldn't have approved. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, etc.

The rental process for the Shelby was more drawn out than just handing over your credit card and getting the keys to a Dodge Stratus. First, a Hertz manager needed to get the keys from a locked safe and pull the car around. Then, you must show proof of a departing airline itinerary; local residents are not allowed to walk in and rent this car. We had to call Continental for them to verify that I indeed had a ticket back to Connecticut. Finally you must go through with the manager an extensive car condition check and inventory, including in the engine bay and trunk.

So how does it drive? To answer that, you have to keep in mind a couple of things: 1. We live in an age of marketing and bling, and 2. we live in an increasingly litigious society. As such, despite the Shelby name, I believe the GT-H is much closer to a base Mustang than the Shelby GT500. I'm no Mustang expert, but I think the GT-H is basically a Mustang GT with a cold air intake, and cat-back muffler and pipes upgrade. On the suspension front, there's a front strut tower brace, recalibrated shocks, lowering springs, upgraded roll bars, and a shorter final drive.

The suspension upgrades seem to pay off well. Again, I'm no Mustang expert, and have not driven a current model GT. But the GT-H tracks nicely through corners, even if it doesn't feel nimble or spry. You can sense the front strut bar working to keep the front end planted. The solid rear axle also works well, but you can still feel the rear end step out a bit when disturbed.

You can definitely sense the weight of the car (>3500 lbs). The car will push a bit and start to understeer at the limit. Also, the all-seasons (235/55-17 M+S PZero Neros) that were probably mandated by Hertz' lawyers conspire to lower the limits. Most tragically, traction control cannot be disabled on GT-Hs. The button is there, but can't be pushed.

As for the engine, it's the same 4.6 V-8 that's in the GT, but with the aforementioned intake/exhaust upgrades. Throttle tip-in is very gentle, so there's no great neck snapping torque available just off idle. The DOHC engine needs to be revved a bit to really get on cam. Plus, the automatic tranny seems to rob a lot of this engine's power. I guess in those respects the power is a little underwhelming.

However, it sounds great. The CAI and muffler improvements really let the V-8 rumble out. That, plus the bling package (black w/gold racing stripes, upgraded front fascia with hood pins) really gets heads turning on the street. I had one jogger chase me down in the streets of San Diego to ask what car I was driving. Another time, a pickup truck full of teenage girls came alongside and tried to pick me up. A man crossing the street in front me pointed at the car, said "V-8," and gave me a thumbs up. So the car definitely attracts attention.

Bling for the driver comes in the form of a Shelby commemorative inscription on the dash between the front vents.

With the GT-H at my disposal, I proceeded to explore the rest of San Diego: Coronado, Silver Strand State Beach (nice night-time high speed runs there!), Mission Beach, La Jolla, Torrey Pines. I had dinner Wednesday night at a downtown BBQ place where they filmed a couple of the bar scenes from Top Gun. I sat right in front of the actual piano used in that scene where Goose and Mav sing Great Balls of Fire.

I enjoyed my time in San Diego. It's a beautiful city with lots to do. And with a Shelby GT-H, all the more so.