2011 Ford Shelby GT500 Review [video]

Ford’s Shelby GT500 blends the best of the past with the present

2011 Ford Shelby GT500 Review [video]
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If the Tesla Roadster is the way forward for the American auto industry – lightweight, silent, powered by electricity, then the Ford Shelby GT500 is a brutal, booming, belligerent glance at the glorious past of Detroit. With Ford’s announcement that the next Mustang will ditch the retro styling, it might also be the last.

FAST FACTS

1. For 2011 the Shelby GT500 gets a 10-hp increase for a total of 550-hp.

2. An all new aluminum block V8 for 2011 cuts 102 lbs from the car, most of it over the front end.

3. An SVT Performance package adds staggered 19-inch front and 20-inch rear forged aluminum wheels, Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G: 2 tires, a 3.73 rear end, plus a stiffer and lower suspension.

4. Pricing for the Coupe starts at $48,645 – just slightly more than a 430-hp Corvette

550 DAILY-DRIVEN HORSEPOWER

Looking at the specs, you might expect the GT500 to be an uncooperative cretin of a car, with numb steering, brakes that bite like a sopping dishrag and the road manners of a school bus. Remarkably, however, the Shelby is the kind of car you could drive in brutal city traffic without the novelty wearing off. Sure, with its bright paint, contrasting racing stripes and booming exhaust note, you might not want to show up to the country club with it (lest the valet take it for a joyride), but you can go about your daily routine in relative comfort - just don’t expect peace and quiet.

Fire up the Shelby GT500 and you’ll be giddy as the 5.4L V8 gurgles and growls, reminding us of the days when high-power V8 engines had an idle that was lumpier than curdled oatmeal. The 6-speed gearbox, topped off by a retro pool ball shifter is similarly notchy, but let the clutch out and the car creeps forward with minimal drama and effort on the part of your left leg. The 6-speed is fairly smooth for a transmission that requires a certain robustness – with 550 horsepower and 510 ft-lbs of torque, the gearbox needs to stand up to some serious twist, and drivers who will want to use every last bit of thrust.

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More often than not, you’ll find yourself moving slowly during the daily commute, over city streets, speed bumps, railway tracks and other environments not suited for a butch muscle car. The Shelby GT500 performs with a near stoic quality, never putting up a fuss as you putter around at low speeds, always able to dish out torque in any gear, in quantities that will put significant gaps between you and the jerk yakking away on their cell phone while drifting between lanes.

SHAKER SOUND SYSTEM THE AUDIO EQUIVALENT OF A BLOWN V8

The seats are broad and supportive and the driving position is high and wide, letting you spread your limbs out like Manifest Destiny. You can shut out the world by cranking up the Shaker audio system, and assault your eardrums with extreme prejudice. It’s horribly cliché to see a man with a receding hairline blasting Zeppelin in a muscle car, but with such a clear and powerful stereo, it’s impossible to resist. The Shaker isn’t just bombastic fury either. Melodic songs like Neil Young’s Down by the River will have you ignoring the V8 rumble in favor of the concert-hall like sound quality, but if you’re a fan of rap or electronic music, you’re out of luck. The bass heavy tracks sound tinny and washed out, perhaps in a nod to the GT500’s target demographic and their affinity for guitar music.

As good as the Shaker sounds, the system’s operation is an outright pain in the ass that borders on dangerous when equipped with Ford’s much touted SYNC telematics. While SYNC offers voice activation for your cell phone (connected via Bluetooth) and music player, having to call out commands is often a chore, and the alternative method of operation is a touch screen. This wouldn’t be so terrible if the menus weren’t so poorly designed. Many of the menus lack a “Back” button, and when one attempts to operate an iPod with thousands of songs, patience can quickly wane. It’s possible that Ford did this to encourage use of the voice commands, which allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road, but the lack of any alternative is incredibly frustrating, even for passengers.

MODERN STEERING, OLD SCHOOL SOLID REAR AXLE

The electric power steering is without question one of the best systems we’ve ever used, and feels identical to the more tactile, but less efficient hydraulic units on older cars. The Shelby’s steering has a wonderful heft, never feeling artificial, and helps the driver direct the big car’s front end with excellent accuracy and ample feedback.

The GT500’s live axle rear suspension gets its share of criticisms from sports car “purists”. It’s hard, however, to deny that it does an admirable job of providing the right balance of ride and handling. The ride is never brittle, and the vehicle feels nimble and complaint whether it’s barreling around sweeping curves or traversing streetcar tracks on city streets. That’s not to say the setup is perfect. Serious imperfections in the pavement, like potholes or speed bumps, can be disproportionately harsh at anything more than moderate speeds, sending a substantial crash through the cabin. While these sorts of occurrences aren’t too common, it’s a significant blight on an otherwise laudable chassis.

ALL SHOW, ALL GO

Cruising at slow speeds, a lost art in this era of traffic congestion and eco-consciousness, is one of the Mustang’s strengths. With the music cranked up and the tailpipes emanating an intoxicating rumble, the Shelby will attract the attention of everyone, young or old, male or female –well, mostly male, as the GT500 is very much a “dude magnet,” even though in the male mind, it’s the kind of car that impresses chicks.

But prodding around town trying to look tough is a waste of this car’s potential. Floor it in 3rd gear and the car lunges forward like a starving bear on crystal meth. The low rumble turns into a demonic war cry as the big V8 makes its way through the rev range. At an indeterminate point, the supercharger starts to make boost, emitting a soft whine as the needle of the dash mounted boost gauge sweeps towards a maximum reading of 15 psi. The back of the Shelby starts to buck and gyrate like a spring break reveler dancing to a dirty rap song, and suddenly you realize just how fleeting life really is. The rush of the raw power is absolutely intoxicating, and it’s tempting not to up shift and do it all over again.

When you’re ready to obey the speed limit again, the Brembo brakes, available as part of the $2,900 SVT Track Pack, do a good job of slowing you down quickly, but we’ve heard reports that they won’t stand up to the abuse of a lapping day at a road course. Caveat emptor.

AN UNEQUALLED PACKAGE OF PERFORMANCE?

In the future, cars like the Tesla may win over the hearts and minds of a generation of sports car enthusiasts that don’t require a captivating exhaust note or the ability to shift your own gears. For now, the Shelby GT500 is one of the most compelling performance bargains to come out of Detroit. Sure, a Chevrolet Corvette is more exotic, but packs less power, while the Camaro and Challenger are varying degrees of inferior to even the base Mustang, let alone the GT500.

The Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, which boasts a similar supercharged V8 engine, could stand up to the challenge, even though it’s more expensive (and more luxurious), and yet it’s still not much of a threat. Instead, the Shelby’s little brother, the Mustang 5.0, which offers a wonderful 412 horsepower V8 can be optioned nearly identically to the Shelby GT500 – for $20,000 less. The 5.0 is the more rational choice, costing tens of thousands less, sipping less fuel (we saw about 15 mpg in mixed driving) and devoid of the clunky shifter.

THE VERDICT

For all of the logic behind the 5.0, you don’t get the same belligerence and profligacy that you do in the Shelby. Before we know it, we’ll all be driving silent, smog-free paragons of efficiency, connected wirelessly to our social media accounts, smartphones and the great data cloud in the sky. The denizens who eagerly await this era of sanitized vehicles and digitized communication might view the Shelby as a relic at worst, and ironic at best.

Urbanite hipsters who boast of their love for public transit, locally sourced food and social responsibility might not be entirely wrong, but they can never understand the majesty of the Shelby GT500, and the unadultered bliss that comes from driving it. Enjoy it while it lasts.

LOVE IT
  • Outrageous Performance
  • Easily driven in day-to-day traffic
  • Looks like a muscle car, drives like a modern sports coupe
LEAVE IT
  • Fuel economy is what you’d expect - bad
  • SYNC interface is the worst of both worlds
  • Maybe the last time we’ll see a car like this

RELATED READING

2011 Ford Shelby GT500: First Drive
2011 Ford Mustang GT: First Drive
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2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8
2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe Review - First Drive
2009 Nissan GT-R

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