Mustang Shelby GT500: The King Of American Sports Cars (for now)

The Ford Mustang is one of those rare cars that runs on history and tradition – that’s what happens to cars when they’re instantly successful. And that’s certainly the case for this American icon, which saw almost a million units sold in the year following its launch at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

The downside of such enormous and sudden popularity is that diehards and long-time fans never stop clamouring for a repeat of the original success. Just ask Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones or U2.

In the case of the Mustang, it’s all about shape and mechanical configuration. Musts include a long hood, a short trunk, lines reminiscent of the first classics of the 1960s and rear-wheel drive on a rigid axel.

Ford never stopped producing the pioneer of pony cars despite occasionally losing their way with abominations like the Mustang II from the 1970s. However, performance became a priority again in Detroit a few years later with the first GTs, including the 5.0-litre V8 that produced a mere 161 horsepower.

Return to the top and new rivals
Two decades later, Ford hit another homerun with the 2005 Mustang, specifically the GT equipped with a 4.6-litre engine and 300 horsepower. Its body was modern while still conjuring very strong images of the first Mustangs. Same goes for the passenger compartment and the dashboard. With solid performances and handling, sales followed.

Then the new Camaro and Challenger appeared on the scene to face the Mustang again in a battle of big engines and retro bodies. The war was back on, like in the golden age of the first pony cars and muscle cars more than forty years ago. And the arms race was escalating between all the competing sides.

Ford came out swinging for 2011 by seriously increasing the power, sharpening the handling and paying careful attention to the Mustang’s fit and finish in the  passenger compartment. A new 3.7-litre 306-hp dual overhead cam V6 engine replaces the single cam 4.0-litre 210-hp V6.

For its part, the GT against finds itself powered by a 5.0-litre V8, capped this time with dual cam cylinder heads and four valves per cylinder. It produces 412 horses, which is about 100 more than the 4.6-litre single cam V8 that it’s replacing. What’s more, these two new engines feature manual and automatic transmissions that have six speeds instead of five.

Now within a few horses of the Camaro, the Mustang is lighter than its V6 and V8 rivals by fifty and one hundred kilos respectively. It’s not surprising that they perform better and use less fuel.

A more civilized monster
And that’s not all. Ford is also pulling another even more formidable version of the Shelby GT500 out of its hat (even though it was already updated a year earlier). The manufacturer notes that it marks the 45th anniversary of the first seriously sporty Mustang, the G.T.350 created by Carroll Shelby in 1965.

You can also read a first test drive of the Shelby GT500 by Sylvain Raymond on this site.

This improved Shelby GT500 becomes the most powerful production Mustang ever made with its 4.5-litre turbocharged V8 that produces 550 horses. This engine’s capacity is unchanged, but it’s an improved version of the V8 from the Ford GT with a central engine produced in 2005 and 2006. Every V8 engine is assembled by hand and bears the stamp of its author. The blue cylinder heads are reminiscent of the Shelby G.T.350’s engines.

This big V8’s most important asset is the aluminum block that reduces its weight by 46 kg, and significantly improves balance and handling while lightening the front end. Overall, this new Shelby has lost 55 kg and its structural rigidity has been improved by 12%. Its suspension has also been updated and it has been equipped with an electric power steering with rigid bearings for more precision.

But to take full advantage of the new king of the Mustangs, you must opt for the SVT Package that includes an anti-slip differential with gear reduction, wider and lighter alloy wheels, specially made Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires, firmer springs that lower the body 11 mm in front and 8 mm in back, and different shocks and stabilizer bars.
The SVT Package also adds contrasting stripes, a rear spoiler and a white knob for the stick shift like the classic GT500s. All of that is worth the $2,000 asking price. The Kona dark blue colour of our test car suits it very well since it reduces the contrast with the simple black plastic case of the large air intake on the hood. The Shelby deserves scoops on its body like those of its ancestors.

Three circuits and the road
My first time seeing the GT500 in person was at the Calabogie Motorsports Park circuit, where the 2011 Mustangs were introduced. With the SVT Package, it’s in every way superior to the GT, even though the GT has also progressed in terms of power and handling. It’s lower and feels more pinned to the track, not to mention the significant torque of the engine (at any speed) that helps you adjust its performances with your right foot. And the V8 makes a delightful roar in flat-out accelerations, softened by the two bazookas under the rear bumper. And unlike the previous models, you hardly hear the turbocharger whistling in flat-out accelerations and it never groans.

My second encounter with the GT500 was for the filming of the test drive for the Guide de l’auto television show on Canal Vox. On the roads leading to the Sanair Super Speedway, the GT500 displayed commendable smoothness and quietness for this type of car, like a stallion whose calm demeanour belies its muscle and nerve. Only prominent bulges or deep cracks will bother its rigid rear axle, but we’re talking about jolts and not constant bucking for the king of the pony cars.

On the track, the GT500 feels right at home. With somewhat light but precise steering, tires that really grip to road and a reasonably firm suspension, it flies into turns full blast and turns on a dime. The engine’s 510 lbs-ft of torque are always there to maintain balance, provided you haven’t deactivated the anti-skid. The Shelby takes on turn after turn with ease, leaving behind a long trail of bluish smoke.

Rest assured that no new tires were harmed for this test drive. Our GT500 arrived from the launch in Ontario with tires that were already showing the signs of wear and tear from numerous laps around the track. The only fault that I noticed at Sanair was that the stick shift was heavy and stiff. The clutch is progressive but the pedal is heavy, which is not very surprising in such a muscular American sports car.

The third and final act was the AJAC’s annual evaluations at the end of October, when the GT500 was up against the Mercedes E 550 Cabriolet and the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe for the title of Best New Sports/Performance Car over $50,000. Forget about the German vehicle, it was smooth and refined, but much less sporty.

The CTS-V Coupe was a serious contender, also featuring a turbocharged V8 with nearly identical power. It’s heavier, but it has a slightly better 0-100 km/hr time (4.9 to 5.1 seconds) mainly because it’s very hard to launch the GT500 without fishtailing. It also got the better of the Mustang for 80-120 km/hr pick-up and for 100 km/hr braking, but not by much.

The Cadillac Coupe is a little better than the GT500 when it comes to handling and comfort, but it’s mainly because of its style, and the luxury and finish of its passenger compartment that it comes out on top. In a direct comparison, we are reminded that that muscle and pony cars have a rich history and diehard fans, but manufacturers have learned to combine power with sophistication.
Adversaries on the horizon
The Shelby GT500 is not only the best production Mustang ever made but it’s also the best current muscle car and pony car. But the story doesn’t end there. Chevrolet will soon launch the 2012 Camaro ZL1, featuring a turbocharged V8 that’s almost identical to the one in the CTS-V, with a 6.2-litre engine capacity and 556 horsepower. For Mopar fans, there’s also the new Challenger SRT8 392 with a 6.4-litre 470-hp naturally-aspirated V8.

But the most serious adversary may well be the new Mustang Boss 302, which, in 2012, will mark the rebirth of another American performance icon. Introduced as the ultimate version of the Mustang GT, the Boss 302 will be powered by a more souped up version of the 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V8 producing 444 horses. At 86 kg lighter, its promises to be fast and agile, especially the race-ready Laguna Seca version.

So bring on the test drives of the new Mustangs! We want to see the descendents of the cars that wreaked havoc in the Trans Am Series back in the day. In the meantime, the Shelby GT500 is the undisputed king and the worthy successor to the best Shelby and Boss models of the good old days, whether the road is straight or winding. And the SVT Division’s sorcerers are undoubtedly cooking up an even more accomplished and wilder version to put the Boss and other would-be usurpers in their place.

Test Drive Report:

Test drive vehicle: 2011 Ford Mustang
Trim level: Shelby GT500 Coupe
Price range: $60,549-65,249
Price as tested: $64,849
Options: Navigation system ($2,300), SVT Package ($2,000)
Freight: $1,450
Finance at: $1,442 (6.9%) info
Warranty (basic): 3 years / 60,000 km
Warranty (powertrain): 5 years / 100,000 km
Competitors: Chevrolet Camaro SS, Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (2012), Cadillac CTS-V Coupé, Dodge Challenger SRT8 392
Strong points:
  • Great big V8
  • Solid handling
  • Classic and modern silhouette
  • Impeccable seats
Weak points:
  • Sensitive rear axle
  • Mundane interior finish
  • Actuation in acceleration
  • Stiff gearbox