One Fast Pony
The Shelby GT500 is like the ruggedly handsome high-school kid from a small rural town who made it to Harvard.
The revitalized Mustang is Ford's finest 21st century contribution to the car world. To celebrate the success of this mega hit, the Special Vehicles Team (SVT) conjured up the wildest steed ever shooed from the Mustang stable, at least for road use.
As the badging attests, the Shelby GT500 is a collaborative effort between well-known Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby and the best and brightest Ford performance enthusiasts. Under a swollen hood there's a vibrant heart: 485 hp produced by a supercharged and intercooled 5.4-liter V8 similar in design to the engine that powers Ford's $151,245 GT supercar.
Even though this muscled-up Mustang crowds 4,000 pounds, it still packs the power-to-weight ratio to run competitively with Corvettes and Porsches. The GT500 is, by a wide margin, the least-expensive near-500-hp ride that money can buy. It's available as a coupe and a convertible.
To be sure that no one confuses the hot Shelby GT500 with V6 Mustangs, Ford emptied its jewelry box on this mojo machine. Graphics galore accentuate the humped hood, wide lower grille, deep air dam and new decklid spoiler: eight white stripes, seven coiled cobras, six SVT identifiers, four GT500 badges, three Shelby nameplates, two Ford logos and one galloping-pony icon. Thankfully, the jewelry box didn't have partridges in a pear tree.
Not all of the decoration is gratuitous. The horizontal lip at the bottom of the front air dam, the two plastic grates in the hood and the spoiler jutting off the trunk limit aerodynamic lift to 150 pounds at the Shelby GT500's 155-mph governed top speed.
This car's exterior is over the top for mature audiences, but the rugged stance, aggressive face and striking wheel-tire package radiate enough charisma to charm the hardest-core law-enforcement officer. Ford designers have truly tapped the burning essence of the original Mustang in their revival edition.
This Mustang's dirty little secret is that only kids and briefcases fit in the backseat. According to recent EMS reports, those adults who dared enter the modern Mustang's rear confines are still awaiting release. The problem is two-fold -- an awkwardly narrow entry-exit passage and a roofline that blithely chops through head space.
Front occupants are better served. Designers took a second stab at interior decor with this flagship, and it shows. Gauge graphics are more legible (though the dials are still located at the bottom of deep tunnels), the tachometer has been moved to the right side of the cluster and bright trim rings wear an elegant matte finish. The metal trim plates on the instrument panel are nicely finished in a painted-dot pattern.
Leather upholstery has a quality feel with contrasting stitching and cobra accents (long the logo for Shelby Mustangs) sewn into the backrests. The snappy two-tone interior features red center panels in the doors and seats surrounded by black borders.
The top of the instrument panel, the center console and armrests can also be swathed in elegant French-seamed leather.
The front seats' backrests are nicely bolstered with firm stuffing to hold occupants securely in place. Unfortunately, that upgrade did not extend to the bottom cushions; while the SVT sorcerers wished to improve the lower portion of the buckets, such alterations would have necessitated costly and time-consuming safety tests. The result is a slight imbalance during hard cornering: torsos properly restrained, thighs left to fend for themselves.
Forty years ago, muscle cars were created by dumping monster engines into whimpering, intermediate-size bodies. The sole emphasis was straight-line go with little attention to cornering or stopping when the linear spurt ran out.
While some of that hoary tradition is evident in the Shelby GT500, SVT engineers at least added larger Brembo front brakes, fatter Goodyear Eagle F1 radials, aluminum wheels that are an inch larger in diameter and a fresh assortment of bushing, spring, anti-roll bar and damper calibrations.
What they didn't do was reinvent the Mustang chassis or attempt any serious weight savings. The inevitable result of adding an iron cylinder block and hefty Roots-type supercharger is far more than the ideal amount of weight carried by the front tires. At the back end, a very rudimentary -- albeit well-tuned -- beam axle bears the responsibility of connecting the car to the road.
Mash the throttle and your head is smartly yanked back to the 1960s. The rising whine of the supercharger soon drowns out the roar of the exhaust. The run to 60 mph takes 4.5 seconds, according to Ford, one long second faster than the same sprint in a 300-hp Mustang GT. Work the pedals and levers expeditiously and drag-strip clocks will report a trap speed of 115 mph in less than 13 seconds; that's better than my personal Hemi-powered Plymouth Road Runner achieved 38 years ago.
Thanks to stiff tire sidewalls, thoughtful steering calibrations and a front suspension tuned just for this task, the Shelby GT500 responds crisply to steering inputs. Press for more, however, and the reality of 57 percent front weight distribution soon sets in. There's a hint of deliberation through S-bends and quick transitions to remind you of this car's ancient ancestors. On a racetrack, where some of these cars will surely end up, early throttle applications in the middle of a bend are helpful in curbing the understeer (front tires sliding wide at the adhesion limit).
The rear suspension tells a very different story. Nailing the throttle and side-stepping the clutch to light the rear rubber poses no problem whatsoever. This live axle loves such abuse and Ford engineers made sure it could withstand more than 1,000 drag-strip starts without failure before approving the GT500 package for production.
However, large and small bumps provoke the rear suspension into bad behavior. Control arm bushings robust enough to restrain the axle properly at the drag strip also transmit tread noise triggered by rolling over textured pavement or minor road divots. And when you encounter a major heave in the midst of a sweeping bend, the axle leaps and bounds with enough excitement that the rear of the car occasionally forgets about the path selected by the driver.
Ultimately, the Shelby GT500 is like the ruggedly handsome high-school kid from a small rural town. Good grades and athletic ability earned him a scholarship to Harvard. For the most part, he thrived in the college environment, but every now and then, his upbringing stuck out. Not knowing better, he wore white socks to the president's reception, displayed poor manners during cocktail hour and struggled with casual conversation. The underlying issue: Our Harvard boy is still a hick at heart.
In a similar vein, the Shelby GT500 is unlikely to dissuade buyers from selecting a 3 Series BMW coupe, a Mazda RX-8 or a Nissan 350Z. What it lacks in social graces, this Mustang pays back with raw speed. That's just fine by the Mustang faithful and longstanding Ford devotees who've been waiting patiently to pay extra for the pleasure of owning the fastest and most stylish Mustang in decades.
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