If you read my Mustang GT introduction and Performance Pack on-track test articles, you know that I am an unabashed fan of the 2011 Mustang GT. On a road course, it is very probably the fastest normally-aspirated ponycar in history; it’s certainly the best-conceived, best-assembled, and most satisfying ponycar I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving.
The 2011 Shelby GT500 hasn’t received quite the amount of media attention devoted to its five-liter little brother, but it is packing two significant upgrades. There’s an SVT Performance Pack, which includes larger forged-aluminum wheels, revised suspension settings, a 3.73 axle ratio, and a unique Goodyear F1 Supercar tire. Ford has also taken advantage of a unique “Plasma Transferred Wire Arc” process to create an aluminum 5.4-liter V8 that makes 550 horsepower, ten more than last year’s iron-block monster. The payoff is a 120-pound weight savings.
Lighter, stronger, better-handling. Let’s go to the track.
The GT500 was made to hunt Corvettes on a dragstrip or road course. This image, one of just a few captured by our “Flip” camera before it self-destructed at one hundred and thirty-eight miles per hour or thereabouts before the famous “Kink” at Nelson Ledges Road Course, shows one of the highlights of a dogfight we had with a NASA ST1-prepared Corvette. 440 horsepower at the rear wheels, big Hoosier slicks, and a competent driver. In the end, he wrung out about a 1.5-second-per-lap advantage on us, but he was sufficiently impressed by the Shelby to stop by and ask how it handles on-track.
My answer was, “Very well.” The bespoke Goodyears don’t quite deliver a Hoosier’s worth of grip, but they do have one R-compound-like trait: the gap between squeal and slide is fairly small. I’d require an identical-car test to make sure, but I’m of the initial opinion that they are probably very close to the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup in terms of overall dry-weather performance.
After our exploratory first session with photographer Neil Switzer on-board, the Shelby never again had to yield for anything short of a true race car. Street Corvettes, STis, EVOs, M3s, and the like were mere snacks for the gaping grille. The 2010 GT500 had a far more “pointable” front end than its predecessor; the 2011 offers a similar improvement. Yes, it understeers; every production car does. With that said, it doesn’t understeer much and it more or less matches its five-liter sibling in steering feel and feedback.
Power from the supercharged engine is solid, delivered in unsurprising fashion across a broad band, and very subject to heat soak on our ninety-two-degree Ohio day. The Cobra’s best laps were its first few, before the tires could cook and the brakes could fade.
And do they ever fade. I complained about the brakes in the 5.0 GT not being up to the car’s raw speed potential. These are the same calipers, pulling back the reins on an additional one hundred and forty horsepower. It was necessary to completely change my braking philosophy, often “coasting in” briefly before stabbing the pedal all the way to the floor and over-dialing steering for an initial slowing effect. As a result, the GT500 isn’t nearly as kind to its tires on a road course as the 5.0. A change in pads and fluid would bring the Brembos up to snuff for light track day work, and I’m sure most owners will make the change.
When they do, they will discover what a pussycat the GT500 is on a racetrack. Seriously. I’ve never driven a car with this kind of pace, particularly a RWD-only car, that was so easy to operate. There are no surprises. Nelson Ledges is famous for the washboard surface used for braking after the “Kink”. It’s not uncommon for cars to loop out there with very little provocation, as shown by yours truly below in my NASA Performance Touring Neon:
The Mustang is flawless in this zone despite the solid rear axle. There’s a bit of hop-and-skip, but the rear end never threatens to come around. This is a well-sorted car. We turned AdvanceTrac off from the first session on and never had cause to regret it. The GT500 requires no electronic babysitter; the inherent stability of a big, heavy (though not as heavy as previously) engine serves as the paperclip on the nose of this particular paper airplane, and the well-damped suspension ensures that the body never acquires enough motion above the tires to cause difficulty. A solid throttle foot will assist in turning the car during slow corners but that’s more for show than go.
The GT500 is wonderfully track-ready, but most of them will never see a road course. To display the car in an alternate light, I took it to the ComFest in Columbus, Ohio and exposed it to a crowd of hippies. I would like to tell you that they cheered as I smoked the tires all the way through second gear, a block away from the Natural Hemp Products booth, but the curses and thrown objects seemed rather half-hearted. Perhaps they are Ford fans in the making. The stunning, perfectly tanned young woman who took me in her pedicab from my parking space to the concert area smiled with approval at the SVT-Pack-unique narrow stripes and black wheels, pronouncing the car “kind of neat”. This, from a woman who rides a bicycle for a living.
It’s impossible not to like the GT500, even if you’re a alterna-chick who probably considers the Prius a wasteful use of the planet’s nickel supply. It’s an unashamed love letter from Ford’s SVT division to traditional America, Friday nights, and pretty girls in halter tops reclining against the Cobra-emblem fender. I’d like to own one myself. I’d fix the brakes and see if I could get the “Shelby” crap off the car. This is an SVT product and it deserves to be badged as such. With all respect to the chicken farmer and his long legacy of suing everybody from his friends to his fans, there’s no reason to have the Shelby name on this Mustang. SVT Cobra should suffice.
There is one tiny problem. All the improvements over the 5.0 GT are worth having, except perhaps the supercharged engine. Even with the improvements, the blown 5.4 simply doesn’t shine against the standard 5.0 the way it did versus the three-valve 4.6. My perfect Mustang has all the goodies from the Shelby — the SVT performance pack, the forged wheels, the Alcantara wheel — and a fully-tuned, max-power normally-aspirated V8. No heat soak, no extra weight, no complications. Big V8, revving hard. I’d call it… the Boss.