The counties that make up the borderlands of far northern California and southern Oregon are a day’s drive and a country apart from San Francisco and Portland. Six hours of freeway from south or north, longer if you take a route with some blood in its veins. Sparsely populated and remote, dominated by the stark ridges of the western Cascades, the area’s communities have spent 80 years flirting with secession. If they ever succeed, the region will become the 51st state—tentatively named Jefferson—but still be home to some of the best driving on the continent. Hundreds of miles of empty two-lane strung from one bit of nowhere to the next.
This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Road & Track.
The land felt tailored to the job at hand. The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 and the 2019 Subaru STI S209 can seem unlikely rivals. One is a 760-hp, supercharged, V-8-powered, dual-clutch, 4200-pound, rear-wheel-drive coupe costing just over $70,000. The other is a wide-body, limited-edition, 3400-pound family sedan with less than half the power, half as many cylinders laid out flat, a $64,000 sticker, and a turbocharger, plus a six-speed manual and all-wheel drive. But the Mustang GT and WRX STI on which these cars are based have always stepped on each other’s toes. The GT500 and S209 are the uppermost leaves in their evolutionary trees, sharpened versions of aging models, compelling performance for comparable money. The Ford is available to anyone with the means, while just 209 S209s will be sold in the United States.
This wouldn’t be a fair fight down a quarter-mile or through an ice course, but California State Route 96, from Willow Creek to Yreka, is even ground. The road threads through the Hoopa Valley Reservation and Six Rivers National Forest, a scrawl of pavement hounding the Klamath River for nearly 150 miles. It alternates between knotted switchbacks and fast sweepers, each turn a new combination of radius and camber, temptation and warning, jagged limestone on one side and a cliff on the other. We visited in the early edge of winter, weather waxing between rain and perfect blue skies. A week before we arrived, a storm had temporarily shut down passes and made the place inaccessible. By the time we got there, the ridges were powdered white in the shadows, the valleys strung with mist. Sunlight hung in the vapor.
The GT500 was a flashbang in Willow Creek, its Twister Orange paint an aberration among the land’s muted tones. It was also too much to pass up for a local sheriff, who pulled into our first gas stop and watched as we topped off. When I thumbed the start button to leave, the Ford’s 5.2-liter eight took the time to shout in the guy’s face. To his credit, the officer did not light up his roof. I celebrated by accidentally stabbing the brake while pulling out from the pumps, stomping a clutch pedal that wasn’t there.
Years of driving big Mustangs have hardwired that muscle memory. The sound and vibration seem to demand a chunky Tremec rowed by a palm-size, cue-ball shift knob. But those bits are gone here, replaced by a simple rotary dial and paddle shifters. Those switches control an all-new Tremec seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, one of the GT500’s many concessions to performance and economy. Manufacturers sacrificing engagement at the altar of insane power and blistering speed always make us turn up a nose, but the transmission is a wonder anyway. Ford says the box can crack off shifts in 100 milliseconds, or about as long as it takes your brain to process the sight of your fingers pulling back a paddle. By the time you’ve seen that, the shift is done.
Quick shifting is no longer impressive, though. Twin clutches have for years been able to swap gears quicker than any human. The machine’s logic is what gets you. As the road turned in on itself outside of town, the Mustang remained in automatic mode and half a step ahead, producing the right gear at the right time with zero interruption in power. It switches imperceptibly and on the fly between automatic and manual modes. Get tired of clicking the paddles, the transmission quietly resumes control. We now live in a world where a Ford can rival the seamless bliss of Porsche’s world-beating PDK.
The gearbox is the first indication that the GT500 has more to it than that wallop of an engine, but railing on it invariably means a slower drive beforehand, working up confidence. In the wet, over broken pavement and scattered pine needles, the car holds you in conversation, revealing exactly what you can get away with. More than you’d wager, it turns out. Previous GT500s were nose-heavy pigs, and this isn’t. If you can quiet the part of your brain screaming for self-preservation—and process the fact that you’re driving a stock Mustang with more power than some modern F1 cars—greatness awaits. The steering isn’t the most talkative, but it’s mated to an astonishing amount of front grip. Paired with excellent magnetorheological shocks and spectacular brakes, the Ford remains planted regardless of surface. It simply consumes whatever you point it at.
Except the S209. Stepping into the Subaru feels like switching languages mid-conversation. The cabin is open and airy, with expansive glass and clear sight lines, a polar contrast to the Ford’s dim and hunkered cockpit. From the first corner, it’s clear why the Mustang doesn’t just walk away on a back road. The Subaru is a buffet of confidence. Much of the car’s edge over an ordinary STI comes from the S209’s slightly wider track and new, 19-by-9-inch wheels. The traditional all-wheel-drive-Subaru understeer is barely there. Minutes after belting in, I was bombing into turns, hucking the car at the apex, railing the throttle mid-corner. The hydraulic steering chatting away while the Mustang shrank in the rearview.
Not that the Subaru is easy speed. Engineers used a new and more efficient turbo to help pull 341 hp from that 2.5-liter flat four—31 more than you get in the $37,000 STI—but the engine falls on its face below 3000 rpm. Meanwhile, the GT500 makes grunt everywhere. Miss a shift in the STI and you can feel the heat off the Mustang’s big Eaton blower. On the Klamath, out-sprinting the Ford meant picking your gears, thinking ahead, and never blowing a downshift, performing familiar mental aerobatics while snapping through that sublime six-speed. The Subaru was so eager and precise, so willing to rend more speed from any situation, limited only by its stiff springs—road heaves can unsettle it—and the driver’s willingness to fuse throttle with carpet. All while fir trees and stone walls whipped past the mirrors.
This part of the country is a mood swing. Dark clouds and damp pavement one moment, clear skies and dry road the next. It was these roads that spurred locals, in the 1940s, to envision a state of their own. In a land with an abundance of timber and minerals, there were few ways to get from one place to another. California and Oregon legislatures would promise new highway projects during election years, then direct funds elsewhere once in office. Fed up with paying taxes to a government that wouldn’t provide basic services, representatives from three northern California counties met in Yreka in 1941, drawing up a declaration of secession. The document named the area Jefferson, a nod to a president with a fondness for rebellion. The flag it established featured two Xs in a gold circle on a green field, one X for each state legislature, symbols of the perceived double-cross.
Armed men walked Yreka on Thursdays handing out literature. The region elected a governor December 4. Three days later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and roads seemed less important. As the country turned its attention to war, the movement unraveled.
That should have been the end of it. The war concluded, and infrastructure eventually came, but the idea remains. When rumors of a Californian secession brewed during the 2016 election, politicians in northern California’s rural counties drafted legislation that would have those counties secede in turn, forming a new state. As in the 1940s, residents felt their voices were lost in the chorus of more left-leaning cities. And so they chose the same name, Jefferson, for their state.
These ideas can seem unrealistic and easily dismissed, but a desire to be heard sits at the core of this country. A similar spark lit off everything America would become, from the Boston Tea Party to the 2020 election. In the current climate, that same light leads us to cars like these. They are shouts against the swell of crossovers and the specter of autonomous driving. Articles of secession from a world that would otherwise have you park your heavy, dead-eyed people-mover in line at the nearest charging station.
We stopped for photos, taking a moment to marvel at where we were and what we were doing. As the cars plinked and cooled, the Klamath River tumbled along somewhere below. The spectacle of the place, the audacity it must have taken to make a life here, so far from anywhere, hit me. I took a minute to let it soak it in.
Isn’t that us in a moment? America, the audacious.
The pavement was dry when my test partner and I swapped cars after lunch, and just like that, the GT500 was in its element—all flared nostrils and explosive gallop, taking full advantage of its expansive contact patches. The big Mustang pinned its nose to the STI’s goofy carbon-fiber wing and didn’t let go.
I came to the GT500 expecting zero involvement, but there’s fun there. It isn’t in the maximum-attack, redline sprint of the STI, and it’s actually in spite of the Ford’s spectacular power. It’s in managing your resources. You can easily carry big momentum by picking a gear and letting the car loaf low on the tach. Or you can let that V-8 spin, work the dual-clutch, and sling into corners at a phenomenal rate. The brakes, massive 16.6-inch discs and two-piece Brembo calipers up front, take an astounding amount of abuse, repeatedly bringing the big car down without fade.
On one of the area’s rare and clear straights, I buried the throttle and found violence. Nothing that size should move so quickly. The Mustang fought for traction through three gears, the rear dancing and hopping as suspension and traction control went about their business. Few cars make such a show of what they’re up to. Even in Sport mode—only the Track setting is more aggressive—with all the nannies on, the Ford made clear that it wanted to punt me to some kind of pony-car Valhalla. On the brakes before the next turn, the STI sniffed up the inside as I waited to unwind the wheel and spin up the blower again.
The GT500’s chief drawback is its size and pork. At more than 4100 pounds, the Mustang outweighs the lithe S209 by a staggering 740 pounds. It’s also 3.5 inches wider, soaking up the lane in a way that makes the landscape close in. Ford left the GT500’s rear sheetmetal unchanged from that of the ordinary GT, but engineers had to make room for the 11-inch-wide front wheels. The wider front fenders are a subtle change, but they’re visible from the driver’s seat.
Behind the wheel, it serves as just another thing to compartmentalize, along with your humming mortality. When the road switched from tight and technical to fast, broad corners, I expected the GT500’s legs to finally let it gap the Subaru, but that never happened. There’s only so much speed to carry out there, where a rockslide or an elk could sit in the middle of the next bend. Whatever gap the GT500 made, the S209 snatched back at the next apex. The process went on like that for more than 100 miles.
And it’s no wonder. Back in the Subaru, I was reminded just how much less demanding the Japanese car is at speed. It rotates with an easy kind of grace. With a relatively muted exhaust, the engine’s bark is mostly in the cabin, wastegate noise chattering off stone walls. The only way to hear the GT500’s blower is to put the window down, shove the exhaust in quiet mode, and listen carefully. A shame.
How splendid, these two. Opposing answers to the simple question of speed. How rare to find the right road and the perfect tools for it. We’ve come to expect a clear winner from these exercises—the big, dumb muscle car flummoxed by a lightweight Japanese fighter, or the tin-can economy car whipped by American might. But out there, these two could box even for eternity.
In the real world, the Subaru holds a few small advantages. Range, for one. By the time we tumbled into Yreka, the GT500’s fuel light had been on for 50 miles, the dash showing a paltry 6 miles left. One more full-throttle run would have meant a long walk to town, but the STI still had a quarter tank to burn. The Subaru is also more practical, with four actual doors and a back seat with room for more than just empty cans of Red Bull. If you had to choose one of these to live with, day in and day out, the Subaru would be the only choice. It’s functional family transportation that happens to enjoy running down 760-horse titans on its days off.
Except neither of these cars will serve as anyone’s sole source of transport. And the S209’s $64,000 base price is a tough pill, likely only worth it to the brand’s most earnest fans. Although technically impressive, it feels like a slightly stronger WRX with a wing and sticky tires. But the GT500 is far from a Mustang GT. It’s in no way subtle, from the massive wheels to that six-square-foot hole in the hood. That nonsensical engine and phenomenal transmission. There isn’t much there to our taste, but the package pushes the Mustang far past what that name has ever been. In the current state of driving, it’s a thing apart.