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Story by Jack Baruth, photographs by Jack Baruth and Ford

Highway 1 is Northern California’s “Shoreline Highway”. Green hills to the right, blue water to the left, blue sky above, blue Mustang surrounding me. Second gear in the 2010 Shelby Mustang GT500 reaches above the speed limit on pretty every road in the United States, and it gets there quickly. Traffic ahead but the road doubles back along the coast and I can see the gap. So… See the gap, apply the throttle, make the pass. With a muted supercharger whine, the big blue snake lights both rear tires and transports me to redline in the space of thought. Time for third, I think. It’s good for One. Oh. Eight. Or thereabouts. And it, too, arrives with a tire-spinning fanfare. Across the crown of the road and the “Botts dots” send the rear end wagging. Left. Right. Left. Power is still on. The oscillation is violent but it’s as regular as a grandfather clock. The shift light flashes: a bright red “SVT” logo. Let’s settle it down. Let’s reach for fourth. And that, dear reader, is where we must draw the curtain. For now, anway.

We know the GT500 is fast. In its previous incarnation, we pedaled one around MSR Houston just as quickly as a Lotus Elise. It takes a lot to get a two-ton, iron-block, traditional ponycar around a road course at Lotus velocities, and Ford’s SVT division knows the secret formula to make it happen. But this time, the Blue Oval boys are promising more than just raw speed for the revised GT500. By applying a series of incremental improvements and changes to the platform, many of which were previewed in the mega-buck GT500KR, Ford believes that it has created a pony which is both powerful and refined. “You’ll get some track time,” we were told, “but it’s on the road that you’ll see the real difference in the new car.”

Oh, there’s that phrase. “New car.” Exactly how “new” is the 2010? We covered many of the differences in our 2010 Mustang GT test, but the Shelby is, in fact, more heavily revamped than the normally aspirated models. Not only does it benefit from all of the “regular” changes, there’s far more differentiation between it and the cooking GT than there was in the previous model. Ahead of the A-pillar, only the fenders are shared with regular Mustangs. A new bonnet design addresses the problem of “hood shake”, while Shelby-specific bodywork can be found from the unique nose to the faux-diffuser surrounding the four-inch exhaust tips. The rear badge is applied with wide letter spacing in true Sixties style, a minor touch which required a fair amount of production-line engineering to accomplish. Ford’s worked very hard on the Shelby’s detailing. The overall effect is a visual home run: cohesive, trim, and unbelievably aggressive, all at once. And there’s more to see once you open the door.

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Inside the GT500, there’s bespoke contrast-color leather covering the reasonably supportive seats. Ford’s newest SYNC system is available here, and it greets the driver with a fantastic-looking metallic Cobra on-screen when he (or, of course, she) turns the key. Alcantara “pistol grips” on the wheel look good and remind the driver to maintain that all-important formula-car hand position at all times. If you’re a novice Mustang driver, just remember to keep your hands on the suede stuff, and you’ll be far less likely to fall behind the power oversteer.

And, to paraphrase the recent movie, there will be power oversteer. The 2010 car has unchanged internals but uses a revised intake and remap to generate what feels like a conservatively-rated 540 horsepower at 6200rpm and 510 lb-ft of torque at 4500rpm. Note the rev number for that torque peak. It’s high, and that’s entirely in keeping with the character of Ford’s “mod motors”. The hand-built, iron-blocked, 32-valve variant seen here is a high-revving treat. If you’ve never driven a GT500 before, put aside your preconceptions. There’s plenty of pull across the range, but the power profile is biased towards a feverish three-thousand-rev rush from the mid-threes to the stutter-step limiter. In this respect, it’s very much an appropriate successor to the highly-strung “Cammer” 427 which represents the apex of Ford’s legendary “FE” series. There’s simply no other way to get this level of power for this kind of money (which, since you asked, is a base price of $46,325) but the method in which the Cobra delivers is just as satisfying as the numbers it puts down.

Still, as St. Paul once wrote to the Ponyphilians, “If I have bad-assed styling and a slew of new features but do not have well-chosen damping in the suspension, I am a wheel-hopping moron; and if I have over five hundred horsepower and the stoutest driveline money can buy, but do not have control of that rear axle, I’ll be in the trees ass-first before you can say ‘lift-throttle’.” Our ride-along at Ford’s Detroit test track in a GT500KR last year showed us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that SVT knows how to make a solid-axle car handle at the limit… as long as cost is (nearly) no object. But the 2010 GT500 is more than thirty grand cheaper than the KR. How do you provide the same kind of usable real-world performance without spending the price of a Kia Rio on suspension?

The answer is time. The time spent by SVT on choosing damping and spring rates for the KR paid off in extensive additional knowledge of the platform, and a whole bunch more time spent utilizing that knowledge meant that the new Shelby offers the same kind of unflappable over-the-road handling as the KR. Sure, there’s probably a bit more stiction in the shocks, and around a road course the KR would still pull away in relatively short order, but make no mistake: on a road like Highway 1, the old GT500 wouldn’t see which way this one went.

You can’t change the laws of physics, which means that the nose-heavy Mustang will always want to straighten out any steering input. In a car with this much power, that’s kind of a good thing, but to keep it from being too much of the aforementioned good thing, SVT took some swaybar out of the front end while increasing spring and damper rate. This accomplishes a couple of things. With a thinner swaybar, the weight transfers more readily to the outside wheel as turn-in begins, and the rate at which that weight transfers is slowed somewhat by the damping and stiffer springs. Ideally, this means you don’t overload the tire with a sharp input, and in the real world the new car really does turn-in much, much better. The Mustang GT is still a slightly sharper back-road weapon, primarily because it changes direction with a little less hesitation, but in a car like this, all you need to do is make sure you get through the corner without too much drama before straightening out the wheel and letting that big motor fire you into the next braking zone.

Once you reach that braking zone, be aware that you may encounter some fade. The Brembo-branded front calipers are, really, not quite up to the challenge of repeatedly stopping a two-ton car from triple-digit velocities. A quick chat with a Ford engineer explained why we perhaps saw a bit more of this than most GT500 owners will; our habit of left-foot braking and “trailing in” puts a lot of heat in the rear calipers, which are the same ones supplied in the Mustang GT, and without “free time” to shed the heat, the fluid in the rear lines can boil. So don’t do what we did. Brake the car in a straight line, use your right foot, and thank the Lord above that you can buy a car with this much go-power for the same price as a loaded Infiniti G37.

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After over one hundred and sixty miles on California’s back roads, it was time to hit Infineon for some road course work, a little dragstrip action, and a figure-eight autocross. The necessity of running the dragstrip and road course at the same time meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to run the big pony for consecutive laps of the whole course, and as a result there isn’t that much to say about the GT500’s track behavior. It’s pretty solid over the curbs and the new short shifter makes it easy to get the right gear at the right time. Our performance on the dragstrip and figure-eight would be best described as “mediocre and showboat-esque”, so there’s no reason to dwell on either. Let’s just say that the quoted times of 12.4 seconds at 118mph for the quarter-mile seem easily achievable by a talented drag racer. Can you go faster for less money in a brand-new car? No. Simple as that.

And this car certainly does go fast, in pretty much every sense of the word. The previous car did as well, but there’s one big difference. On the high side of the speedometer, when the back wheels are spinning, time is short, there are multiple traffic problems to solve, and the open ocean is rushing into your tunnel vision like the hyperspace scene in “Star Wars”, a driver really only needs one thing from a car. That one thing is honesty. Do me wrong, do me right, but tell me the deal as it happens. These situations are where the revised Cobra really shows its, ahem, fangs. Behind that Alcantara-trimmed wheel, there’s plenty of information and control for the driver to use. The iron-block engine pulls you straight and sane like a heavy arrowhead, while the differential and multiple-mode traction control (set to limited-intervention “Sport” mode for most of our road drive) put as much of the massive twist down as possible, in as predictable a manner as one could hope. Middle of fourth. Traffic is clear. Here’s the corner. ABS. ABS. ABS. Trail and turn. The song of the supercharger, the lurching scenery, clip and unwind. Time yet again for that massive, enduring, addicting power. In these moments, this car could make a believer of anyone. It certainly made a believer out of me.

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Jack Baruth

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