The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500. Click on the above image t... The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500. Click on the above image to see more photos (Jonathon Ramsey, Autoblog).

One way journalists get to evaluate new cars is to attend press events. These events are tightly choreographed. Schedules must be maintained and driving routes followed. But on a recent trip to North Carolina, serendipity struck.

Ford had scheduled a stop at a small, local racetrack called Ace Speedway. Of the dozen or so cars in our group, we were the first to reach the 4/10th-mile paved oval. Brad Allen, the track's general manager, met us, and without saying a word, motioned us to follow him. We dutifully followed his golf cart from the garage area to the entrance of the banked track. All along, my co-driver and I thought this was all part of the press program Ford arranged to showcase the 2011 Shelby GT500.

Then Allen leaned in the open window and said, "This wasn't part of the deal, but I thought maybe you'd like to take a few laps." He then swung the gate to the track wide open.

There are a few things as risky as letting a journalist loose on a racetrack with a 550-horsepower car that's not his own, even if it is fully insured. I took a few spins and managed to keep the shiny side up.

Allen had told me that he held the track record in one class, so I eagerly gave up the Cobra's wheel to see what he could do. He slid into the Shelby's leather bucket and quickly bested the laps I ran. His practiced line straightened out the oval's corners, enabling him to hustle up some serious speeds. The roar of the new exhaust mixed with the high-pitched whine of the supercharger produced a unique mechanical symphony that reverberated off the banking.

The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500. Click on the above image to see more photos (Jonathon Ramsey, Autoblog).

After a few laps, he drove up off the track and back to his golf cart. "I may have to drop the track's pace car sponsorship and see if I can get the local Ford dealer to give me one of these," Allen said. "I think I just ran faster than most everybody else did last Saturday night."

Yes, the new Shelby Cobra GT500 created by Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT) is racecar fast. Any doubters need to experience what zero-to-60 miles per hour feels like when it happens in just 4.2 seconds.

While it looks almost identical to the 2010 model, the 2011 GT500 is significantly different from the 2010 edition.

To find all that's new on the 2011 GT500, one needs to look under the hood. The engine now has an aluminum block that weighs 102 pounds less than the cast-iron block of 2010, a weight savings the nose-heavy GT500 really needed. While on the diet, the 5.4-liter V-8 gained 10 horsepower over the 2010 edition's 540. Torque remains at a substantial 510 lb.ft.

The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500 engine. Click on the above image to see more photos (Jonathon Ramsey, Autoblog).

Much of the extra power comes from a bigger diameter exhaust system. The new design lets you hear the eight-cylinder cadence with a more satisfying burble.

While the extra horsepower can't be felt (is your butt sensitive enough to feel a two-percent bump in power?), the all-new steering system for 2011 is easy to recognize. To help save fuel, the new rack-and-pinion steering system is electrically assisted. The 2010 steering gear used traditional hydraulic assist, which required the engine to turn a hydraulic pump every moment the engine was running. In contrast, electrically assisted power steering (EPAS) uses an efficient electric motor to reduce steering effort, saving fuel in the process. This is why hybrid-electric vehicles use EPAS. The 2011 Shelby now nets 15 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, avoiding the stigma of the gas guzzler tax.

When asked why Ford went through the trouble to switch to EPAS, SVT's Jamal Hameedi told AOL Autos that, "We wanted to improve efficiency, but we didn't want to compromise the steering's performance in any way. At first, we weren't convinced that we could get the right feel out of the electric system. We were prepared to go to the wall and insist on staying with a hydraulic rack, but we worked out the issues with EPAS and now we're really happy with the results. Because everything about EPAS is tunable, it took more work to get the steering right than any other part of the new car."

From the outside, if you want to tell one year from the other, you'll have to look closely at the stripes -- the newer model has thinner ones. Otherwise the '11 GT500 carries over the looks that were new for the 2010 model year. Does the car scream boy racer? Sure, but just as a Rolls-Royce Ghost screams, "I'm rich!" and the Toyota Camry doesn't say anything, the GT500 broadcasts that its driver is up for some tire-smoking fun. No harm in that.

The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500. Click on the above image to see more photos (Jonathon Ramsey, Autoblog).

Even less changed inside, which means nothing there is new. If any aspect of the car warranted criticism, it would be the aluminum trim on the instrument panel. Surely there has to be a manlier finish than polka-dots? My only other complaint was that after a few hours driving in 85-degree heat, the transmission tunnel on the passenger side of the car got pretty warm. While it wasn't nearly hot enough to singe the hair on our manly legs, it wasn't comfortable.

The 2011 Shelby GT500 has one crucial new option: A $3,000 Performance Package. If you check that option box, many important things change under the Cobra.

First, the chassis rides lower over larger, high-performance Goodyear tires (265/40R-19 front, 285/35R-20 rear) that are mounted on lighter aluminum wheels. The extra, nearly race-ready rotating combo work well with firmer springs and revised shock tuning. To give the car more jump off the line and better acceleration in every gear, the rear axle ratio drops from 3.55:1 to 3.73:1.

Our few impromptu laps at Ace Speedway weren't nearly enough for us to evaluate the jump in performance offered by the new lighter engine, EPAS and Performance Pack option. Public roads were also the wrong place attempt a comparison. Our test site would be Virginia International Raceway, a challenging and potentially dangerous track that trips up even seasoned professionals.

Knowing the risks involved, Ford placed extra crash protection inside the Cobras in the form of a steel roll bar. Thankfully, no journalists tested said bars, but it was a sobering reminder that with great power comes great risk.

The 2011 Shelby Cobra GT500. Click on the above image to see more photos (Jonathon Ramsey, Autoblog).

On the track that hosts The American Le Mans Series and other major racing series, we drove a 2010 GT500 back to back with a 2011 GT500 outfitted with the Performance Pack. While the cars don't look much different to the eye, they feel very different sitting behind the wheel.

The Performance Pack equipped Cobra steered more sharply, responded faster to inputs, and communicated more about the track surface to the driver. All of these benefits are critical when hurtling 125 mph toward a corner where a screw up would send the car to the junkyard and you to the hospital.

Not wanting to visit either off-track location, I left the stability control system in the sport mode. This allowed for some tail-out driving (oversteer) in corners, but provided an electronic safety net if I overcooked a corner or accelerated too exuberantly out of a turn.

While both Shelby's were explosively powerful, the lighter 2011 GT500 is the better driving vehicle. As for whether Ace Speedway will end up with a new Ford pacing their oval, it may be difficult to convince a Ford dealer to part with a GT500 for free, with a sticker price that starts at $48,645. But from the look on Allen's face, he may have liked the car enough to put down his own money.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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