Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Driving Bad: A Journey to New Mexico

After the sheer madness that was CES, I decided that it was a good time to drag my tired corpse of a body away from work for a little while.

I was already in Las Vegas -- a city which seems to be right in the center of every tourist attraction possible. So, a road trip is in order. Where to?

Being from the West Coast, I'd like to stay away from California this time around (although if you do have the chance, do the Pacific Coast Highway -- you'll thank me later). I have also done the Grand Canyon tour as well, which leaves out Arizona. My first choice then, was originally Denver, Colorado -- Mile-High City, beautiful Rockies, maybe catch a Broncos game, why not?

Except, I then remembered, that it was mid-January. Driving to Colorado at this time of year would probably have a similar difficulty curve as learning how to play Dodgeball with Patches.

So, Colorado is out. But I do like the idea of staying down South on the virtue that it should be warmer (as it turns out, it isn't). But if I were to stay down South, then I'd rather go further out. No half measures.

And so, I tread lightly and found myself knocking on the doors of New Mexico -- more specifically, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the famed city that provided the setting for AMC's Breaking Bad.

This should be fun.

The ride

I looked at the rental list and something intrigued me. Mustang. Open-top. Open road. The classic wind-in-the-hair fun. Can it get any more simple than that?

Actually, it's not that simple. The 2015 Mustang is the first in over two decades to offer a 2.3L turbocharged inline-4 engine. On the surface, it is a 310 horsepower pony car that should deliver a lot more torque with improved fuel consumption than its V6 counterpart. On the other hand, it shares the same amount of cylinders as your grandpa's '92 Honda Accord.

In other words, does it deserve the Mustang name? Would Steve McQueen approve of this? Is it a great American sports car or just a JDM wannabe?

To answer these questions, I clicked on the "rent" button to find out.

The drive

My trip starts in Las Vegas, where I'll take the I-15 northeast towards Utah and Arizona to my first quick pit-stop: Antelope Canyon. Two and a half hours away is Four Corners Monument, where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico intersect.

Once in the land of enchantment, my first stop is Santa Fe, the state capital of New Mexico. Finally, I would put on my black pork pie hat with a pair of sunglasses, and head for Albuquerque.

Nevada > Arizona > Utah > Arizona > Utah > Arizona...

My journey started at 8:00am in Las Vegas. The drive in Utah and Arizona were quite scenic, if also a bit unspectacu... Wait a minute, IS THAT SNOW ON THE GROUND?

Yep, ladies and gentlemen: Remember when I said that it should be warmer if I opt to stay down south for my road trip? Yeah. It was a cool 30 degrees outside, with a blanket of snow covering up the vast Arizona desert.

The Mustang's passenger door was
surprisingly practical.
Slight miscalculation, that.

The EcoBoost Mustang, on the other hand, has been quite positive so far.

The 2.3 turbocharged powerplant is, as expected, very torquey -- once past 3,000rpm, the afterburner kicks in for the car and rockets you into wherever you are pointing towards. The sound of the turbo kicking in, coupled with the electric turbo gauge on the instrument cluster, makes the drive a rather intoxicating experience.

Stopping at Antelope Canyon does have its perks -- for one, it is situated 4.5 hours away from Vegas, making it the perfect lunch-hour stop. Also, the view at the nearby Horseshoe Bend is quite something... If you are brave enough to walk to the edge of the 1,000ft cliff:

Four Corners Monument, AZ / UT / CO / NM?

I was in four states at once when I took this picture.
After a quick lunch at a local gas station, it was time to press on. It was already past 1 in the afternoon, and if I continued my current pace, Google maps tells me that I would arrive at Four Corners Monument at around 4:30pm, or, just a little too close to its 5pm closing time.

The 'stang yielded an average of
35mpg. Not bad.
With the gas tank filled all the way up -- and by the way, the fuel consumption yielded a rather reasonable 35mpg -- it was time to flex the Mustang's muscle.

Miles flew by as I crossed Arizona. Overtaking was a rather relaxing affair -- signal, put the foot down, the 6-speed automatic gearbox then drops down a couple of gears while the speedometer climbs with the same velocity a volume knob has when AC/DC starts playing.

Under pressure, the engine sings in a surprisingly "meaty" tone which is a tad reminiscent to the old five-cylinder rally cars of the '80s -- which is not a bad thing -- although I suspect that may have something to do with the sound symposer that makes it sound a little too, shall we say, engineered?

Also, this is where I started pondering how much more fun I'd be having if the rental car company gave me a six-speed manual instead.

After extensive driving at speeds I'd rather not disclose over here, I finally arrived at Four Corners Monument. At 4:30pm. Damn you Google.

Four Corners Monument.
Looking around, you get an unobscured panorama of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico -- with endless desert on the west, and snow-capped mountains on the east.

As it was closing time, the plaza was completely deserted, with no one around but me and a herd of horses standing majestically on a nearby hill top as the sun sets.

It was a magical moment.

"I've been through the desert on a horse with no name..."
Santa Fe

Downtown Santa Fe.
Driving into the night, one thing is very clear -- the convertible makes for a great highway cruiser.

Leave water in the trunk
overnight and this is what
The suspension (now all-around independent!) feels more robust than the previous generations, which makes tossing the car around in the back country roads of New Mexico that much more fun. The ride is more firm, but not too busy that makes long-distance driving feel like a seismic event.

The upgraded Infotainment system, Ford Sync, was also one of the more intuitive systems I have used in recent years. The layout is simple and clearly displayed -- all it needs is an iPod cable and you can start jammin' to "Panama" on-the-go.

Finally, 12 hours and 700 miles later, I arrived in Santa Fe.

This is also where my "keep warm by staying down south" plan completely disintegrates into shambles. The mental image of a city surrounded by a vast, blazing desert gave way to the reality of a city that is situated 7,000ft above sea level, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, icy roads, and temperature of a bone-chilling 5 degrees.

My selection of wardrobe consisted of a couple of t-shirts, jeans, and a light jacket.

Who knew that New Mexico is such a Winter Wonderland?

My first day in Santa Fe consisted mostly of walking around the historic Downtown area. Here you will find many unique Pueblo-style Adobe buildings, along with many historic cathedrals, surrounded by the backdrop of snow and ice.

I finished the day by hiking up to the Cross of the Martyrs for the night view of Santa Fe. The hike may look very short, but the combination of the very thin air, extreme cold, and physical exercise have proved strenuous for my criminally out-of-shape body.

The Cross of the Martyrs.
What a view, though.

Heisenberg's Territory Albuquerque

Less than an hour away from Santa Fe is Albuquerque, the largest city of oh let's face it everyone is here because of Breaking Bad.

If you are here for to satisfy your inner Heisenberg, you'll need a car. Most of the iconic locations from the show are quite close to each other, but if you'd like to venture out in the desert where some of the most important action takes place -- well, you'll also need to travel to To'hajiilee, a significant piece of land where Walter and Jesse had their first venture.

Watch the video and see how many Breaking Bad filming locations you can recognize!

Really though, there's much more to Albuquerque than a couple of filming locations.

For one thing, Albuquerque is a great place to try some authentic New Mexican cuisine. Just be prepared to be asked the question: "Red or Green?"

Whatever answer you provide will likely dictate the color of your dish, as it will be smothered in either Red Chile or Green Chile. What's the difference? One of them feels like you are guzzling molten steel, and the other one feels like you are having your tongue tattooed by an angry teenager.

If, like me, you are about as good with spicy food as a freshman sitting in a math exam, I'd suggest that you ask for the Chile on the side instead of smothered all over your carnitas burrito -- just to be on the safe side. Otherwise, the food here is delicious.

At the end though. I got to take pictures of the F750, Breaking Bad-style. Mission accomplished.


When I first started this trip, my main goal was to go to some of Breaking Bad's filming locations and take some cool pictures. While I did manage to do that quite successfully, it became clear that the rest of the trip was nothing less than spectacular either -- from the vastness of the Arizona and Utah desert, the sheer historic beauty of Santa Fe, to the charm of Albuquerque, the trip was a worthy one that is completed by a very competent convertible sports car.

And that leads me to this: does the EcoBoost Mustang deserves the name its been given?

On the one hand, it is a lovely car that does its job exceedingly well -- which is to provide entertainment to the driver with competent performance and timeless looks. On the other hand, the image of the classic Mustang has always been a road-eating machine with a rumbling V8 under the hood.

In this sense, is the EcoBoost Mustang a muscle car? Not quite. It definitely tries to be, as evidenced by the manufactured engine note that makes it sound angrier than it really is. The reality is, however, it is simply too refined to keep the muscle car title.

What it should be, however, is the direct replacement of the V6 models, which is a class of Mustangs that has always been perceived as the slow and uninspired sibling that is not worthy of being anywhere but a rental lot. In other words, if Ford can put the Mustang label on those, surely then the four cylinder EcoBoost deserves recognition for making the entry-level Mustang feel more... Alive.

Sure, it doesn't have the grunt of the old fastbacks or the Fox bodies, but this is why the GT model exists anyway. As an entry-level performance car though, the EcoBoost is a heck of an invitation to the Mustang experience.

I certainly wouldn't mind heading back to New Mexico either. What a place.

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