Saturday, May 2, 2009

Car review - Shelby Mustang GT500 (2010)

Car review - Shelby Mustang GT500 (2010)
In my recent review of the 2010 Mustang GT, I suggested that only a slight lack of power vis-à-vis the competition kept the revised pony from five-star status. The new “Shelby”— air-quoted because the car is really a product of the dedicated men and women of Ford’s unsung SVT division—GT500 is a sharp riposte to that concern. At approximately forty-eight thousand dollars, it’s the only 540-horsepower car available under fifty grand. Or sixty. Or seventy. Or eighty. Or ninety. In fact, if the embattled Viper doesn’t show up in showrooms for 2010, it will be the only car for sale in the country with this kind of power under . . . the Corvette ZR-1, which costs nearly three times as much. Ah, but is the über-Stang really worth the premium over the the GT?

When I heard that Ford’s GT500 media preview would take place at Infineon Raceway, it seemed reasonable to assume that we’d be focusing on dragstrip prowess, with a side nod to racetrack potential. Surprisingly, delightfully, Ford chose to start the press day with a one-hundred-and-forty mile drive up the Northern California coastline. Narrow roads, sharp turns, big elevation changes and limited sightlines. From previous testing, I knew the aluminum-block Mustang GT was a competent dance partner under those conditions. Surely the heavy-nosed Shelby would be a bit overmatched by an endless series of camber-change second-gear hairpins?

Car review - Shelby Mustang GT500 (2010)
The answer turned out to be a combination of “kinda” and “hell no.” There’s no getting away from physics. The supercharged iron-block mill hanging over the ’Stang’s front wheels creates a pretty big polar moment of inertia. The GT500 is like a paper airplane with three paperclips on the nose; it wants to fly straight under all circumstances. Drivers who are looking for the darty nose of a Porsche Boxster or Mazda RX-8 can keep looking.

For the 2010 GT500, Ford’s SVT engineers reduced the front swaybar’s diameter while increasing spring stiffness. (The changes permit a quicker load on the outside tire, promoting initial turn-in.) They revised the damping rates to match the new bespoke-pattern Goodyear tires. The payoff: the GT500’s steering wheel now has some real bite on the pavement. Although it takes some force to get the nose turning, it will happen reliably upon driver request. There’s none of the nasty “slip and set” feel familiar to drivers of older Mustangs.

Car review - Shelby Mustang GT500 (2010)
Once the GT500’s steering’s in progress, additional rotation around the car’s vertical axis is available on command. Second gear runs up to nearly eighty miles per hour; the heroic thirty-two-valve Romeo motor can spin the tires without preamble anywhere on the tach. As with the Mustang GT, this feels like a “Euro” engine, closer in power delivery to a Cayenne Turbo’s V8 than to any pushrod ponycar. The Shelby delivers its maximum power above six grand. More importantly, the torque peak is between four and five. It’s a road racer’s dream, awake and alive all the way to the limiter.

Down Highway 1, I find myself reaching for third gear more and more, and occasionally venture into fourth on the exit of the fastest corners. The road’s crowded, but with the ability to reach one hundred and thirty miles per hour in seconds, any visible gap is usable. I see a big “whoop” ahead, a mid-corner hump that obscures the road beyond it, and I hit it at ninety miles per hour. The limiter chatters as the rear wheels spin in midair. I land the big Shelby sideways with the rear tires smoking. What we’re looking for here is something between the auto-correction of a GT-R or Porsche 997 and the unpredictable “death car” wobble of a first-gen Viper. Fortunately, the Mustang Shelby GT500 delivers perfectly.

Still, without active participation, I’ll oscillate off the road, fall down to the rocky seashore, and die. Big opposite-lock. The GT500’s feedback is micrometer-precise. Foot still flat on the floor, I sense the momentum reducing and unwind the steering. Here, that big iron arrowhead is a help, not a hindrance. And get this: we’re still accelerating. Fourth gear and we straighten out. That’s it. I’m in love. The Mustang Shelby GT500 provides all the power you could want, all the control you need, and all of the babysitting electronic crap can be turned off. Perfect.

The rest of the car’s pretty good, too. The interior detailing and features do more justice to the price than one might expect, and NVH levels are almost too respectable. The Shelby GT500’s well-built enough to suck-in the occasional Infiniti or BMW intender. While the Neanderthal retro–look is a bit OTT, the latest ‘Stang certainly earns its stripes. To wit: when Shelby introduced the first GT500 in 1967, he claimed it would be a superior road car. Forty-one years later, it is.

[Ford provided the car reviewed, insurance, access to a closed course and a couple of tanks of gas.]

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