When you grow up in Detroit, the Ford Mustang is so much more than just another performance car. It's arguably the most iconic automobile born within these city limits, and anyone who's called the area home can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride while driving the Blue Oval's pony through the Motor City. It's like eating a hot dog at the ballpark – you can't explain why, but it just tastes better.
At the tippy top of the Mustang hierarchy sits the Shelby GT500 with its supercharged 5.4-liter V8, 550 horsepower and an exhaust note that will wake the neighbors. Our love for the GT500 has run deep since its debut in 2006, though most of that affection was never given to the convertible. The droptop Ford suffers from substantially more handling and rigidity issues than the coupe, and when you consider the added price that Ford charges to lob off the roof ($5,000, in this case), it can seem like a puzzling proposition.
For 2011, Ford has tweaked the GT500's core, not to mention stiffening individual components of both the front and rear suspension setups. That, combined with a new electric power assist steering system, means this should be the most driver-focused GT500 yet. Thus, we put the top back and basked in the warm Michigan sun to rekindle our love with Detroit's most powerful pony car. This, friends, is our kind of end-of-summer lovin'.
Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL
One of the hardest things for an automaker to do is turn a coupe into a convertible without ruining its design. The Porsche 911, Infiniti G37 and BMW 3 Series come to mind – droptop versions that, while still attractive, just don't look as good as their coupe kin. Unfortunately, Ford falls victim to this with all of its Mustangs, especially from the top-down side profile. You really get a sense of just how large the new Mustang is when viewed from this angle (188.2 inches long), and because the body lacks any sort of defining character lines (save the modest crease that runs along at door handle level), there isn't a whole lot of visual interest to keep your eye moving from front to back. Adding the $3,495 SVT Performance Pack helps a bit, as the 19-inch front wheels and 20-inchers out back (wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires) add contrast.
Good thing, then, that both the front and rear look so damned delectable. We're extremely fond of the GT500 treatment to the Mustang's front end, specifically the more pronounced grille and the larger lower fascia with foglamps flanking it on either side. Around back, the Shelby ducktail spoiler is still in place, though it works well on the new-for-2010 Mustang body. The whole package looks fresh and modern while still having plenty of retro-inspired cues – this latest Mustang is at once an homage to the muscular Mustangs of the 1960s while still being a proper evolution of the mid-2000s design that rekindled our love for the badge and the breed.
The same retro-modern theme is immediately noticeable inside the cockpit. All Mustangs received a brand-new interior as part of 2010's major refresh, and the use of higher-quality materials has gone a long way to make Ford's performance car feel remarkably more upscale than its rivals.
Even with the soft top in place, the GT500 Convertible's interior is spacious and comfortable, though it should be when you consider the car's overall size. The low-slung driving position feels appropriate behind the large, snake-stamped steering wheel, and the large, analog gauges in the instrument cluster are easy to read while still being stylish, especially when you have the ability to change the color of the illumination. (We recommend red – it's sinister and it fits.) Of course, the Shelby can be had with Ford's lovely Sync system, and the large touchscreen display is intuitive and attractive. Expensive, too – optioning up for the navigation package and display will set you back $2,340. Putting the top down is easy as pie – unlatch the two handles above the sun visors and hold the button on the console between them. Hello, sunshine.
But while the Mustang's interior refinement will impress in the reasonably priced V6 model, it doesn't receive any substantial upgrades in the GT or GT500 models. Our decked-out convertible test car retails for $60,330, and when you're spending that much on any vehicle, you're right to expect comfortable, nicely crafted appointments. This isn't to say that the Shelby disappoints, it's more to put the standard 2011 Mustang's interior into perspective. It's a huge sales driver for the base models, but when you exceed the $50K mark, the value proposition just isn't as clear.
If there were any reason to call the GT500 a value, it's the ludicrous powerplant shoehorned under the hood: a fire-breathing 5.4-liter supercharged V8 packing 550 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque. Talk about horses-per-dollar. Not only that, but by switching to an aluminum block for 2011, Ford has managed to shave 102 pounds from the GT500's front end and the weight reduction is immediately noticeable on the road. The car's fore and aft weight distribution feels more balanced than the 2010 model, especially with the added weight of the convertible mechanism out back. In fact, the drop-top's 55:45 front-to-rear weight distribution is slightly better than the coupe (56:44).
In a straight line, the GT500 Convertible is an absolute thrill, able to rip off 0-60 runs in under four and a half seconds, accompanied by an exhaust note that can only be described through guttural man-noises. For the most part, we like the shorter throws of the six-speed manual in the GT500, but we still find ourselves doing the occasional hunt-and-peck to ensure we're in the proper gear (we mistook fourth for sixth and third for fifth on more than one occasion). Luckily, the expansive powerband and tall gearing softens the blow of picking the wrong gear, but it's less than ideal, especially when heads-up. Still, when you find an open stretch of pavement, put the top back and let 'er rip, it's sensational.
But then you hit a corner, and you're forced to rely on the GT500 Convertible's handling characteristics to keep things in line. This is where the problems arise.
The GT500 has never been graced with beautiful, sports car-like handling, and that's partially due to the fact that the old hydraulic steering setup and live rear axle don't allow for the sort of road-hugging grip that you want to confidently blast through corners. Ford has ditched the old steering system and fitted a new rack with electric assist, which improves things greatly. We applaud the higher levels of feedback found at the helm, and we always have a solid idea of what all four wheels are doing at any given time. Yes, the 2011 GT500 Convertible is better than what we drove in 2010, but it still isn't where it should be – the body is still too flexible and we would never consider anything but the coupe if we were tasked with driving a Shelby along a California canyon road or out on a track. We love convertibles, but we also love stiffness and sharpness with our performance cars.
Back home in Detroit, though, you'll barely notice. The key ingredients that make a Shelby a Shelby – the gut-wrenching acceleration, the equally impressive brakes and the aural soundtrack – are even more phenomenal when the roof is removed. The live rear axle will act up over stretches of broken pavement, but a few quick correction flicks will have things back in order in no time.
Like all summer romances, our love for the GT500 Convertible faded the more we pondered the idea of what it would be like to live with. We'd have a hard time agreeing to a full-on relationship with the drop-top Shelby, and that's a shame, because it really is something sweet. That amount of power on tap is hard to deny, especially when the supercharged V8 is singing at fortissimo, but we'd prefer it in a more poised package. Moreover, our time with the Shelby suggests that the smart money is on the Mustang GT – it's all we'd ever need in terms of performance, and the value proposition really seals the deal. The GT500 Convertible is a wonderful summer fling, but the GT is a car we can commit to.
Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL