How similar is a man to his brother? Their parents flipped the chromosonal coin twenty-five thousand times with each. Perhaps they are entirely different, individuals in perfect reversal. Perhaps they are identical twins. But it’s rarely that simple. Imagine two brothers, similar and different. One is balanced, light, controlled; the other is brutish, temperamental, dramatic. One is well-liked everywhere he goes; the other is either despised or adored. Yet they are both capable of callous viciousness, careless love, arrogant intellect, base stupidity. It would be a rare woman who would want them both.
We’re obviously talking about the 2013 Boss 302 and Shelby GT500, right? As fate would have it, I happened to have the Shelby for a week. In the course of that week I drove it over a thousand miles on gnarled back roads and ruler-straight Midwestern freeways, took it to five different states, and hammered it to one hundred and sixty-eight miles per hour on the back straight of Virginia International Raceway. I would have loved to have compared it to the Camaro ZL1, but I’ll need to do a few more Sonic advertorials before I get GM loaner cars here in the States. Instead, I compared the big Shelby to the only car that its purchasers are likely to genuinely consider. Brother Boss, step forward.
I found Instagram fancier and former professional bluesman Bark M. relaxing with his son at his rather oversized Kentucky home. “You interested in checking out the Shelby?” I inquired, already knowing the answer. We rolled down Route 1958 near Winchester in tandem, two middle-aged guys laughing their heads off, cranking the music, nodding at the open-mouthed Fox Mustang and F-150 drivers rolling the other way. At any speed up to about a hundred miles per hour, the GT500 can smoke the rear tires on the roll, the force-fed 5.8-liter making instant and Herculean power. The Boss has a lighter nose and a lesser twist, but it snarls viciously through its side-bypass exhaust.
It’s interesting how different these two brothers are. There’s a twenty-thousand-dollar gap between Bark’s Recaros-and-Torsen Boss and my Performance-Pack-and-Track-Package Shelby, and it’s reflected in various little ways, from the Shelby’s leather trim to the no-frills stereo fitted in the 302. When we come to a halt, Bark immediately demands to look at the Shelby’s suspension. “Not adjustable,” he sneers.
“It is, with a button on the dashboard.” His expression is contemptuous.
“Hope one of those two settings is right, then.” Nor does the GT500 have the massive strut tower brace fitted to the Boss. This is probably because the 5.8-liter block is visibly taller and deeper. It looks squeezed into the engine compartment where the five-liter simply fits.
I know Ford’s M3-mauling ponycar pretty well, but Bark has no such Shelby experience. I toss him the keys and watch him disappear down a two-lane, back wheels spinning, the back of the car hanging almost into the ditch. He’s an autocrosser, I’m a road racer, but we’re both part of what NASA’s director of competition, John Lindsey, once called “the brotherhood of speed” in an email to me. Full disclosure: the occasion on the email was my putting a fellow “brother of speed” on a LifeFlight. Oh well.
Bark returns half an hour later. I’d spent the time helping his five-year-old son photograph bugs in the church garden. Bark’s son is quiet in his concentration, while mine is outgoing and easily distracted. I remember Bark being a lot like my son as a child; my mother says I was a lot like his son. Perhaps the gods have decided to make us raise each other.
And now we’ll turn this review over to Bark for a moment to get his impressions:
When first sitting in the GT500, everything seemed familiar. A couple of slight differences-I actually prefer the all alcantara steering wheel on the 302 as opposed to the half leather/half alcantara on the GT500. Seems like that would make the dreaded shuffle steering on an autocross course really challenging. The white shift knob on the GT500 sticks out a little too much for me-I prefer the 8 ball look of the knob on the 302.
Now, when it comes to driving-it’s really an either/or type of situation. If you want to go very, very fast in a straight line in a very, very composed fashion, the Shelby is the pick. The whine of the supercharger is constant, making a very smooth torque curve and a seamless, disturbingly quick jaunt to triple digits. Steering with the throttle is a dicey proposition. The Goodyears are a little grippier than the Pirellis on the Boss, but they aren’t as predictable.
The Boss does everything a little more slowly than the Shelby, but it’s more exciting. The transmission isn’t as smooth, but that seems to make each shift a little more thrilling. The rear end is predictable and willing to dance in comparison to the Shelby. It’s the more “raw” of the two cars-you get a lot more feedback from the Boss, and it seems more amenable to having a two-way discussion.
Surprisingly, the Shelby seems to be more refined in its delivery of power. I wonder if that has something to do with the target audience of the cars? The Shelby seems like it would be quite at home being piloted by a lead-footed man in his fifties, while the Boss seems more like the Gen X car.
I don’t disagree with his conclusions, although I prefer the Tremec transmission in the Shelby. I have a suspicion that it will last longer. In fairness, I’ve never had a missed shift with either on-track. In concession to my loathsome taste in food, Bark agrees to eat at McDonald’s with me despite the likely effect on his P90X workouts. We spend half an hour answering questions about the cars, and then it’s time for me to head to VIR.
My partner in crime, the infamous Vodka McBigBra, has always wanted to see the “Natural Bridge” in Kentucky, so I plot a 350-mile route down the mountain two-lanes and we set off. The two-mile hike to the top of the rather unique rock formation is a bit tiring, but amazingly enough in this liability-conscious era we are permitted to walk along the top. An attractive, predictably-tattooed couple is attempting to take a self-shot with the girl’s iPhone. “Let me take the photo for you,” I offer.
“Nope,” she replies, “we’re trying to do this the reverse way. For once,” she snarls at the boy, and I can’t repress the chuckle.
“My advice,” I tell him, “is to cancel your XBox Live account.” Youth is wasted on the young.
As Kentucky Route 80 enters Hazard County, (yes! that Hazard County!) it becomes a wide two-lane with long stretches up the mountains and lumbering trucks dragging clumps of frustrated cars in their wake. I squeeze the steering wheel three times as I always do in the pace lap. Time to grab third and light the fire beneath this intercontinental ballistic Mustang. Across the dotted line and there’s one car gone already, then twothreefour — there’s a shape coming my way — fivesix – I can now clearly identify the oncoming car as a Camry — seveneight — yes, it’s a black-grilled SE — ninetentruck! I step off the throttle as we pass the Freightliner’s cab and the Shelby sonic-boom rattles his doorhandle. The Camry doesn’t even bother to honk. He’d been prepared to be angry but the GT500 eats traffic like a B-58 Hustler on the afterburners and I’d never really been in his way.
We do it again. And again. And again. Finally, as we blast up what looks like a six percent grade, someone takes offense. He’s at the head of the line in a boosted Cummins diesel Ram and I see his vertical cab pipes blast a twin Mount St. Helens of smoke as he spots the Shelby coming in the mirror. He’s full-throttle, leaping from the car behind like a drag racer. I know from experience that some of these tuned-up trucks can be deceptively fast. Some of them run in the elevens, and we still have three or four cars to get past. He catches my eye in the mirror and smiles. I smile too. The programmable “SVT” light on the dashboard flashes, and while I still have his eye I reach down… Fourth! There’s a mild squeak — my God, I just chirped fourth — and I step off the throttle as we blast by.
Boom bap, bitch.
I look in the rear view. The man in the Cummins has his hand out the window and is showing me a finger. Not the finger. His thumb, straight up. Fairly beaten, firmly impressed. How could he not be? This is probably the most powerful American production car in history. It isn’t a toy, as we will see in Part Two. It requires respect and a gentle hand. Still, it isn’t a Hemi Dart or anything like that. It cruises windows-up at 72mph on the freeway, delivers twenty miles per gallon, chills the cabin, plays Sade’s “Love Deluxe” with appropriate fidelity, doesn’t cook the luggage in the mail-slot trunk, rides acceptably on bad pavement, looks spectacular, costs less than a loaded German mid-size sedan, will be sought-after in the used market as long as there’s a gallon of gasoline to be had anywhere. It reaches for the road ahead with incandescent aggression and remains stable long after the fenceposts have blurred into invisibility.
Of course, it will all fall apart at the racetrack. Or will it?