Wow! A car packing the world's most powerful production V8 engine carries a pretty distinctive claim to fame. At 662 horsepower, the GT500's supercharged 5.8-liter DOHC engine churns out positively astonishing peak power.

But unlike powerful old muscle cars we might recall from the 1960s that used huge engines built with race-ready parts, the GT500's engine is as docile and well mannered as any other in the Ford lineup. And, at 15 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, its gas mileage betters last year's model, a car with "only" 550 hp.

Although 662 hp might sound almost otherworldly, there is nothing unmanageable about the GT500's power delivery. It starts off strong and goes up from there, but the engine is smooth and the power delivery is linear and predictable, so the car is easy to drive, maybe unexpectedly so.

Unlike so many other high-horsepower cars, the Shelby doesn't threaten to severely punish over-exuberance by spinning you into the nearest ditch for the slightest mistake, in the manner of a first-generation Dodge Viper. But even though its power is supremely manageable, this car positively annihilates at the racetrack.

In two days of testing, the GT500 shredded the road-race track at Road Atlanta, rocketing down the straights and cornering almost like a racing car. We didn't get to do comparison laps, but Ford engineers said the GT500 laps the track faster than the legendary Ford GT supercar. At the dragstrip, it made us feel like John Force as the Shelby vaulted down the quarter-mile in less than 12 seconds. Ford test drivers topped 200 mph in testing at the Narḍ circuit in Italy. Just incredible.

Cabin Pressure

The GT500's running gear is nothing short of amazing, which pumps up customers' expectations for the rest of the car. Ford packs in gadgets like SYNC voice control and adjustable color for the interior lights. The front seats are provided by Recaro, the go-to brand for top-notch performance seating.

But otherwise, the interior is blighted by an excess of hard, ugly plastic. It's less than in cheaper Mustangs, since Ford has covered some surfaces in leather and padding, but it is still fundamentally, disappointingly cheap-looking.

Ford knows how to make good interiors, even in affordable cars like the base Mustang. The interior in the Focus doesn't just set the standard for its compact competitors, it is excellent by any measure. When the redesigned Mustang appears in a couple of years, it and the GT500 will surely enjoy best-in-class accommodations. But not now.

Bargain or Budget Buster?

Another matter with the cheap-looking interior is the GT500's price, which with a few options quickly becomes as breathtaking as the car's performance. Our test car, outfitted with the glass panoramic roof, stickered at an eye-popping $65,075.

That's Corvette Z06, Cadillac CTS-V and BMW M3 territory. Yes, the Shelby outguns them all, but it is distinctly less refined than any of them, and only the Corvette struggles with similarly cheap interior appointments. Also, none of those cars are available in base versions that start in the $20,000s, so they enjoy more perceived exclusivity. At least the Shelby's starting price is a bit more reasonable, at $54,200.

It's a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty proposition: You can be thrilled that the world's most powerful V8 can be had for only $54,000, when much slower cars can be many times more expensive. Or you can be shocked at the prospect of a $65,000 Mustang with a supercharger.

If you like the idea of your Mustang packing the world's most powerful production V8, jump on it! This GT500 is your car. But if you are put off by cheap-looking plastic and doors that rattle when you close them, or if you need a prestige badge on the hood, steer clear. There are plenty of other fun options in this price range.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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