Pros: Astounding power; track-worthy handling; menacing looks
Cons: Doors that rattle when closed; interior is better but still cheap; $65,000 as-tested price is high for a souped-up Mustang
What's New: The 2013 GT500 adds 112 hp thanks to an improved supercharger design.
Wow, the latest Shelby GT posts some big numbers! The 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 exploits a recent breakthrough in supercharger design by Eaton to produce an eye-popping 662 horsepower. That's enough power to push the hot-rod Mustang to more than 200 mph! The car should come with a stash of exclamation points in the glove compartment so you don't run out while answering bystanders' questions at the gas pump.
At the moment, there are some pretty muscular cars out there, some of which-the Dodge Viper, for instance-aren't always very easy to drive or very comfortable to live with. Others, like the Mercedes-Benz SLR, are maybe too comfortable, considering their performance mission.
Ford's engineers have chosen to tread a middle ground, building a GT500 that drives like a regular car while always reminding the driver of the immense power on tap under the right pedal.
The Shelby comes only with a six-speed manual transmission, so don't get the idea that the GT500 drives itself. But the dual-disc clutch pack provides sufficient clamping force to put the engine's incredible power to the ground without excessively high clutch pedal effort. You won't mistake the Shelby's clutch effort for that of the Focus, but the force required is very manageable, while the clutch's friction point and takeup are good.
The same is true for other parts of the car that influence drivability. As with the Mustang Boss 302, the power steering has three settings that let the driver choose among regular, low-boost sporty and high-boost comfort settings. The Shelby adds adjustable Bilstein shocks with the same three settings.
For sporty driving and track days, the sport setting is best, while the regular and comfort settings have their obvious benefits in more common circumstances. But don't forget that the softer comfort setting has some performance potential of its own at the drag strip, where softer rear shocks can help transfer weight to the rear tires for your quarter-mile run.
Comfort & Utility
What and what? Are you kidding? But seriously, while we might have little reason to expect any car that can go 200 mph to be able to deliver either comfort or utility, the GT500 serves up acceptable amounts of both.
This has always been a cornerstone of the pony car category that the Mustang established in 1964. Yeah, it looks sexy and goes fast, but it also has to be able to take another couple along on a double date, and you need to be able to pack everything you need for a week at the beach into the trunk.
The GT500's back seat is pretty cavelike, more so today than in the Mustang's early days because of head restraints and thick roof pillars that meet modern crush standards. But the space is there for your buddy and a date.
Or, considering the car's price and likely buyer, you can put two kids back there.
Ford turned to the go-to high performance seat supplier Recaro for the GT500's front buckets, and they are better than standard-issue Mustang seats, with good side bolsters to hold you in place.
Performance & Fuel Economy
There is the expected amount of performance and a perhaps unexpected bit of efficiency. We've gone over the stupendous performance numbers, but some less likely numbers are the 15 mpg city and 24 mpg highway fuel economy numbers from the EPA. The GT500 won't win any green awards, but it does escape the government's gas guzzler penalty, and it tops the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1's score by 5 mpg, so we'll call it a small victory.
The engine gains its power over last year's 550-horsepower version through two sources. One is more displacement. A new plasma-transferred wire arc technology deposits a 150-micron hardened layer on the bare aluminum cylinder bores, eliminating the need for the previous iron sleeves. That allows bigger pistons, resulting in an increase in displacement from 5.4 to 5.8 liters.
The Eaton TVS supercharger is an entirely new design from that used on the 2012 GT500. It benefits from breakthroughs in blower design achieved using computer-aided design tools that revealed the true inner workings of a running supercharger. Now the device does a better job of efficiently compressing the incoming air rather than wasting energy by making a lot of noise and heat. That means that it can now pack 14 pounds of boost rather than the previous nine pounds, which means more power.
Technology is the single reason that it is possible to build a 200-mph car for $55,000 and that the resulting car is civilized to drive. In other cars, the kinds of technology that draw notice are Ford's SYNC voice command system and touchscreen navigation. In the GT500, technology enables its astounding performance.
Tungsten counterweights in the crankshaft and a smart electronic engine management system work together to let the engine overrev-pulling for as long as eight seconds beyond the regular 6,250-rpm redline to a temporary maximum of 7,000 rpm.
Computer-aided design contributed to the redesign of the front fascia-the plastic around the bumper and grille-to help stick the front of the car to the ground. A tiny Gurney flap lip on the rear spoiler helps keep the rear end on the pavement. It's named after racing driver Dan Gurney, who discovered its effectiveness.
Every detail of this car has been engineered thoroughly, with very little carryover even from last year's 550-hp model. "We didn't touch the back seat," joked chief engineer Jamal Hameedi.
Safety in the context of a 662-hp, 200-mph car has different meaning than it does for a minivan. In this instance, changes to increase downforce on the front wheels by 66 percent at high speed make the car decidedly safer, as do the monstrous 380-mm, six-piston Brembo front brakes.
The electronic stability control system has driver-selectable settings that let an enthusiastic driver dial back from the regular-strength anti-slide controls to permit on-track exuberance without entirely disabling the electronic safety net. The third setting is full off. You had better be very sure about that choice in this car.
The Shelby GT500 works as if it lives in your imagination. Rather than being musclebound and difficult, the thing is almost unbelievably fast without ever giving you the feeling it might make an unintended move. The fat-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel unfailingly points the car where you want, without the kind of front-sliding understeer that is more typical of American V8 cars.
The engine makes a lovely noise under acceleration. The only possible criticism is that it is too civilized on overrun. The crackling burble that electrifies the exhaust note of the Boss 302 when you lift off the gas is absent here, and it is sorely missed.
The GT500's dynamics are nearly perfect, but the disappointingly cheap, plasticky interior that blights the Mustang family stands out even more sorely in a car with an as-tested price tag of $65,000, even with some leather dress-up parts added.
The Mustang will get the interior it deserves when it is totally redesigned in a couple years, maybe in time for the car's 50th anniversary in 2014. Surely at that time, Ford will also finally eliminate the door flutter, that cheap rattling sound the doors make when you close them.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1-The Camaro uses the same Eaton supercharger but comes up shorter on horsepower than the Shelby. That could crimp sales with these cars' specification-conscious buyers.
Dodge Challenger SRT8-Chrysler is not really in this game, because the normally aspirated Challenger performs at the level of lesser Mustang and Camaro models. But they are all plenty fast, and they all look good and sound great, so choose the one that strikes your fancy.
Aston Martin Vantage V8-The Aston Martin wears the same long-hood, short-deck proportions as these domestic pony cars, is propelled by a 420-hp V8 engine based on Ford's Modular V8 and has the rumble familiar to American muscle car fans. The Cobalt Blue hue is even a ringer for Ford's Grabber Blue on the Mustang Boss 302. Of course, its price is double that of the GT500, even if the Ford is faster. But no domestic can match the Aston's exclusivity, no matter how fast it is.
The choice really depends on the driver's purpose. For driving around town or periodic trips to the drag strip, the base $55,000 GT500 is more than sufficient. If you plan to spend time lapping your local road-race track, you're going to need to pony up the extra cash for the optional track package, which includes an array of coolers for various parts that get too hot otherwise in track duty.