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The first day of our Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 drive was spent on a variety of public roads, almost all of which the car handled with skill. The next day was spent at Infineon Raceway on three different courses: a low-speed figure-eight, the drag strip, and the track. It was here that the car sealed its credentials, going from capable hi-po steed to "How do you like me now?" The answer: We like you. We like you a lot. Follow the jump to find out why.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc

Ford knows its audience. The down-and-dirty Mustang guy is taking his car to the track – specifically, the drag strip. Drag strip guys like their solid rear axles and Mustang buyers have made sure to let Ford know the Mustang should stick to that formula. And in the Shelby, that solid axle is an asset when you pass through the raceway gates: you put 540 horsepower down on the ground and the car behaves the way you want it to. It's Heaven. And this is where the GT500 overwhelmingly wins its case.

First up is the second-gear figure-eight. Putting the car in AdvanceTrac's Sport Mode gives you plenty of rope to swing for a good time and not nearly enough rope to hang yourself. Exploring the car's behavior on loop after loop, the only thing you're looking out for is understeer – the car exhibits minimal roll and excellent behavior on the brakes so your job is to keep from getting greedy and plowing into the curve at 80 mph.

But there's a lot of room before massive understeer rears its head, and even when it appears, it doesn't come in suddenly. You can do a decent lap just while getting to know the car, without even trying. Make the tires chirp a bit and you're in for a good lap. Get the tires talking to you the whole way through the curve, stay glued to the cones, and even though you can feel the front end thinking about straying, it holds the line perfectly. Push a little harder and you can even lightly left-foot-brake and bring the nose back into line when needed.

Pass that boundary, however, and the front doesn't want to hear about following the cones anymore – figure-eights became parabolas. Turn the traction control entirely off and it's like dropping a Clydesdale in a Steeplechase – burnouts between the curves, and instant oversteer if you call up too much power before you got the GT500 straight again. But again, this isn't the Mustang's preferred turf. So we were off to the drag strip, where the Shelby made its biggest impression of the day.

The changeable winds made comparing times over the course of the day a challenge, but the constant was we were always driving into a headwind. The first journo to go got into the Grabber Blue car and pulled out a 12.33 -- faster than Ford's officially listed time. Asked to back it up an hour later he did a 12.5. Some drivers were getting their 60-foot times under two seconds. A photographer who had never been on a drag strip before did a 12.8 on his third run.

What we're saying is that, if you don't get greedy, the car is thoughtlessly easy to drag. The controls are great, you don't need to worry about any other dynamic aspect of the car, and the live axle shines. Check out either car taking off and there's barely any squat. Let the revs run past 6,000 before you shift and the car will still be pulling in fourth gear as you pass the finish. The GT500 also comes with an always-on launch control that works optimally at about 3,500 rpm in the Advance TracSport Mode, 2,500 rpm when everything's turned off. It works well, but even going without the assistance you can still put in some rewarding times if you keep your head about you at the start.

Then we had the road course for dessert – a small section of Infineon, with blind turns and serious elevation changes. The car pulled its weight in every way, all the way around the course. With 540 supercharged horses you never worried about acceleration. And this is the third time we're bringing it up, but it deserves mention again: the stoppers and the car's behavior under hard braking are exceptional. Panic stop at 80 mph and there's nothing but linear deceleration. It is a non-event. If they hold up over an entire day like that, there are going to be some happy racers.

At speed, the car is stable all the way. We wrote yesterday that the car is 50% more stable than the previous model. That was incorrect: the car is 50% better than the GT500KR; it is 75% better than the previous GT500. At 120 mph there is only 20 pounds of lift, and because the rear now has 50% less downforce, the car's behavior remains more constant as the speeds rise. And if you want to change the downforce, all you need to do is swap in a different Gurney Flap.

Once you know you can go fast and stop without drama, all you need is to be ability to carry speed through corners. It's our pleasure to report that you can check that one off as well. Turn in is stable and confident. Stiffer than the last model, this GT500's yaw moments don't happen suddenly, and even leaned over in a turn, the Mustang wasn't put out by kerbs. Even the large-ish steering wheel felt completely natural on the track and the specially-developed Goodyears gripped like octopi.

When we adjourned, we were thoroughly satisfied – it was everything you want a track day – and a track car – to be.

The GT500 is, in fact, probably everything a Mustang lover would want it to be. And it should garner respect from anyone who appreciates performance unattached to an astronomical price tag.

Is there a compromise? Yes. There is a compromise, as in single one: it's not a fan of tight twisty bumpy roads with crazy cambers. Since there are hundreds of thousands of roads that don't fit that description, more most people they'll be easy to avoid – and besides, all you need do is take your driving down to Level Eight when you find one. Compromise solved.

But the car is $48,000, has 540 usable horsepower and you can get in and get fast quickly on both the road and the track. The controls are commuter-car friendly and the ride is good when cruising at virtually any speed. The interior is well done, can carry four people, has front and side airbags and Ford's Personal Safety System. There's even a fantastic (optional) navigation interface and a load-lugging trunk. The car is easily tweaked, won't need a government bailout to maintain, and is mean looking enough to make Thomas de Torquemada say: "Maybe we should burn it at the stake, just in case..."

Our complaints number this many: zero. Who cares about a live rear axle when you have this much power and can go this fast on the track and on almost every road for $7,000 less than a Porsche Boxster S... and carry three other people and groceries and luggage while doing it? We don't. The GT500 and its live rear axle can find a home in our garage any day and we will love them both equally.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc

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