5.0 Mustang & Super FordsCar Reviews
Ford Racing FR500: Balanced Performance
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Balance. It's not something we traditional domestic performance enthusiasts are known for. This is the land of 800hp street 5.0 Mustangs, of the 427 Cobra, where too much tire smoke is just right, and where the factory just got around to putting disc brakes and an independent rear suspension on its highest powered sports machine. And yet balance is the key word of some of the greatest philosophies and accomplishments. Religions of all sorts are full of it, our federal government was designed around a perpetual three-way balance of power, the GT40 sports racer of the over-the-top '60s has been heralded for its inherent balance, and now Ford has produced one of the greatest Mustangs ever. And guess what? It's a balanced car. By balanced we mean it has abundant power-and the braking to go with it. The FR500 easily accelerates to huge speeds and has the handling to hang on to the road at those speeds. This car performs on the track as though it had been bred there (and it was), yet it also carries the comforts and refinements of a great GT car designed to make street driving a joy. Get down to the hard currency of enthusiast driving standards and the FR500 is definitely balanced. It turns into the corners with authority, wraps itself around the apex, and can be drifted out to the track's edge with the throttle under exquisite control. This is one rare Mustang. The idea of balance-of the FR500 itself-is the work of Dan Davis, head of Ford Racing. Davis has pushed the FR500 into existence as a technology demonstrator and parts showcase that simply can't be ignored. It's also no secret that Davis is aching to bring the FR500 to market as a production car. Can he do it? No one can tell, not even the whispering walls. But if it takes place, it will require an angel high up the Ford corporate ladder. Where the car will fit into Ford's lineup is open to interpretation. Do we hope the FR500 can be built? Absolutely! This is simply too good of a car to shelve like a sophomore term paper. It's a car with the performance and the panache both worthy and necessary to flagship the Mustang production line-and by extension, the sophistication and technology of which Ford is capable. Furthermore, to cost-effectively manufacture the parts the FR500 is designed to develop, the economies of scale yielded by a production program are almost mandatory. Yes, Ford, by all means build this car! To help explain the FR500's greatness, let's examine the hardware. Even though it is not necessarily the most technically dazzling accomplishment, to us the most distinguishing FR500 characteristics are its 50-50 weight distribution and overall chassis competence. This was gained by using the IRS system from the Special Vehicle Team (SVT) Mustang Cobra in the rear and a new A-arm front suspension in the front. That suspension uses Lincoln LS aluminum rear upper control arms as the front upper control arms, unique lower A-arms, and Cobra spindles-all mounted to a fabricated K-member that extends the wheelbase 5 inches and the track by 1.1 inches. It's putting the front tires 5 inches farther toward the nose that does the big job of shifting weight to the FR500's rear haunches. Oh, and the battery is in the trunk as well.
The way that suspension works is dazzling. Penned by Jay O'Connell, late of Lincoln LS suspension fame, the FR500 has a supple gait backed by firm suspension muscle. Braking also is extraordinary, what with 14-inch, four-piston Brembos up front and 13-inch Brembo rotors and Lincoln LS single-piston calipers in back.
Furthermore, weight has been held in check by substituting money cleverly disguised as carbon fiber. The black weave is found in the metal matrix composite driveshaft, front fascia, hood (23 pounds saved right there), fenders, rocker panels, rear fascia, and decklid. The intake manifold upper section is cast magnesium, and the tubular suspension members save weight over the more typical factory stampings. So even with a multi-amp, multi-speaker JBL sound system and at least a try at sound insulation, the FR500 still comes in at just 3,450 pounds.
While we're on the subject of creature comforts, the FR500 does a great job of selling itself with a bright, inviting interior, featuring Ford Racing Performance Parts' leather front bucket seats and leather seat coverings in the rear. The slightly thicker FR500 steering wheel is fitted, and the rest is quite close to Cobra fare, albeit with some trim color changes. The tach reads to 9,000 rpm and the speedo to 200 mph. Due to their extensive track duty as development vehicles, the three FR500s extant all sport rollbars and five-point racing harnesses.
Of course, it's under the hood where the FR500 is due to build the most aftermarket parts heat, as it has given FRPP's modular engine man, Andy Schwartz, an expansive power-building playground. Unlike the SVT, which went for the displacement gold via the 5.4L modular's long stroke, scarily fast piston speeds, and 100-pound-heavier cast-iron block, the Cobra's 4.6 engine was Schwartz's starting point, retaining its shorter, piston-friendly stroke. The displacement is bumped to 5.0 liters using spray-bore technology-a Ford-patented technique that eliminates the need for iron cylinder liners in aluminum blocks by spraying an iron solution directly on the cylinder walls. The result is reduced weight, faster installation at the factory, better heat transfer to the cooling system, and the most telling of all-reduced cost. Word is the spray-bore machinery was being installed in Ford's Cleveland engine plant at press time, so expect to see it in a Ford near you soon.
And no, you can't overbore a spray-bore block 100,000 miles from now, but you could sleeve it-ironically enough. The stock Cobra crankshaft and rods are retained, but the 9.85:1 pistons are custom-the better to fit the FRPP Four-Valve cylinder head combustion chambers. These heads sport the expected larger valves, lightly revised porting, and funny cams. Schwartz says he thinks he could emissions-certify the engine using these cams, but it wouldn't be easy.
Helping give the 5.0 modular its desired crisp throttle response-even airflow and plenty of it-is the aforementioned magnesium intake manifold, twin 70mm throttle bodies borrowed from the 5.4 Triton truck engine, twin 80mm mass air meters, and twin stock air filters. Custom headers help at the other end, and there is a passel of special supporting parts. These include a uniquely trimmed EEC V computer, a 36mm-thick radiator core, unique six-brick catalytic converters, a stainless steel exhaust, a 170-lph in-tank fuel pump, and a unique oil pan to clear the relocated K-member.
In the driveline, a high-capacity, 8.5-inch, dual-disc Valeo clutch with a vented floating member is mounted to a billet steel flywheel and unique eight-bolt flexplate combination, entirely controlled by FRPP's garden-variety B302 adjustable clutch cable. The transmission is the expected Tremec T56 six-speed manual equipped with a Pro-5.0 shifter. Actually, various shifters seem to be in use, as the two FR500s we drove had different shifters. The IRS has hollow axles and special bushings, along with unique springs that lower the ride height 1 inch. The same is worked into the front suspension geometry.
Put it all together, take it to the track, and what do you have? That's the question FRPP helped us answer by inviting us along on a developmental track day at the Road Atlanta circuit. A challenging road course owned by Don Panoz, Road Atlanta is an excellent testing venue, and in a show of both confidence and openness, FRPP also brought along a Z51 suspended Corvette and a Viper coupe for comparisons.
You know we're going to say the FR500 was well-balanced, and it was. Of the three cars, it was the one that most easily moved to wherever was necessary on the racing line thanks to its sophisticated chassis. Stability was excellent, and as we searched in our bag of road-racing driving tricks, the FR500 always responded readily and linearly. There was really no comparison to a stock Mustang, except maybe the Mustang Cobra, as the live axle Mustangs are simply too schizophrenic at the limit, and have far too much understeer built into the frontend to exploit their great engines.
So where a stock Mustang would have been a what's-it-going-to-do-next white-knuckler, and the stock Cobra on hand seemed a bit soft and-get this-dull by comparison, the FR500 was all steel and nerve. We could easily pick up the front end with the throttle coming off the corners for beautifully controlled drifts, the midcorner traction was quite high, and the control during corner entry and braking was quite good. Only at the highest speed braking-just touching 140 mph and then onto the binders at the end of the back straight-did the FR500's rear end wiggle a bit at this downhill transition. But this is simple physics working a big weight transfer situation-and without a winged aero package-to be expected from any car. It also wasn't enough to upset either the car or driver to any meaningful degree, so to heck with a wing. That's what race car homologation specials are for.
Stability was also good on the medium-speed sweepers and corner exits, allowing us to take the car right up and over the beveled curbs and play excitingly close to the grass while the FR500 humped and skittled over the small bumps leading onto the pit straight. That means there was just enough understeer to give us some steering feel, and balance enough through either throttle or steering to put the power down. Great stuff, this!
We could only squawk at two things, really. The seats-while easy to get in and out of-could have used a bit more lateral support for the 1g follies we were engaged in, and the shifters all proved a bit too long in the throws. This really shows up when reaching for the Third- or Fifth-gear slots. Both issues can be simply cured, and FRPP was well aware of them.
As with all modulars, from the sleepiest Town Car motivator to the hottest factory examples, the FR500's 5.0 is a smooth, smooth unit, but with big rpm on its mind and a broad torque band. Comparisons between the FR500 and Cobra R are inevitable-especially for us-as we drove each car within weeks of each other (it was a good month!), and we have to say the larger 5.4 R-model is easily the stronger of the two engines. Informed sources say the torquier R-engine is really around 425 hp and the smaller, less go-for-broke FR500 comes in at its rated 415 hp, or a tad more. The 5.0 seems a bit cammier, with a voluptuous idle that says performance in a silken way. As a street engine, what a rush it would be. We'd wager a hairless cam would be necessary for emissions-compliance, so we figure the 5.0 modular engine could hit the street at a true 400 hp and with plenty of around-town torque, coupled with excellent manners and sweet throttle response. Kinda makes our right foot itchy just thinking about it.
Because it was a track test, we really didn't get into the stereo, and with a helmet on, the noisy exhaust was merely fun, so we can't give you the entire story on the FR500 as a car. However, we're 99 percent certain this is the Mustang that has taken the ponycar concept to its limit. The FR500 is more pocket-exotic than a workday-commuter- and-weekend-fun-car combination. At 60 large, it would make a superb flagship for the Mustang line.
As a parts development showcase, the FR500 is showing us that the modular program has real legs under it. It can be a fabulous street engine-even with fewer horses-if necessary. The chassis bits are equally good, and in the end, the only question remaining to us real-world enthusiasts is how much those parts will cost. FRPP already has many of the engine bits in the system, which are working their way into the catalog, so don't think this is some PR exercise. I only hope the economies of scale work out.