July 1, 2006

Horse Sense: Along the way to getting thestory on the GT 500, we picked up a few hints about the next refresh onthe Mustang. It's apparently "well underway," and it looks to add a moredefined character to the car, especially on its currentlyextrusion-smooth flanks. This next iteration was also described as "verymodern," so perhaps it's a move away from pure retro to a modernprimitive look like the Camaro concept, which is sure to hit around thesame time the Mustang is freshened. Gotta love competition.

Thanks to 480 lb-ft of torque and an intuitive traction control, it'spossible to lay rubber with ease in a Shelby GT 500. You still want toturn off the traction control for the full smoke-show effect. Fordprojects a 114-mph trap speed, which should equate to high-11-secondpotential.

Anticipation could not have been higher. Ford has been teasing us withshow cars for so long we almost couldn't believe it when the invitationcame along to drive the real thing. Sure, our own Tom Wilson drove anearly engineering car months ago, but these cars promised to be muchcloser to the production version, though Job 1 isn't scheduled till thissummer. As I rounded the corner at California Speedway in Fontana,California, there they were--practically every Shelby GT 500 prototype inexistence and even the man himself, Carroll Shelby, stood watch wearingall black.

These cars really do exist! Somewhere between 7,500 and 8,000 luckyMustang performance enthusiasts will be able to buy a 500 hp,supercharged, 5.4 Mustang bearing the name of the most famous Mustangtuner ever. Better yet, the car is largely the product of Ford's SpecialVehicle Team, which has long produced some of our favorite vehicles.Because the media program was hosting a larger group of scribes andthere were few cars--we only drove two on the road course inside CalSpeedway--I had to wait for the first group to have its way with thecars while I scoped out the little details.

Opportunity Cost

Amazingly supple, forgiving, and balanced on the road course, the GT500's suspension tuning quickly communicates any flaws in the pavementonce you hit the street. By the way, those stripes can be optionallydeleted--either just the over-the-top LeMans stripes or the top and sidestripes. Convertibles get only side stripes, but they can be deleted aswell. Unlike the GT supercar, the GT 500's stripes are all decals.

If you're one of the many in line to buy a Shelby GT 500, it's likelyfor the same virtues on which SVT was founded: performance, exclusivity,and value. At a projected $41,950 sticker (includes destination and delivery charges) for a base coupe, the GT500 is an incredible value. Of course, if you want one right away,you'll have to be willing to pay an early adopter tax that we've seenrange from $5,000 to $25,000 over MSRP. That kind of capitalism,combined with the car's horsepower ratings, has pushed the car intounfair comparisons with the much lighter, much pricier Corvette. Well,the Mustang has never been and never will be a Corvette. You can't takeyour wife and kids out for ice cream in a Corvette. But you'll likely beable to outdo a Corvette at the drags, and by the time the initialfrenzy dies down, you can do it for the kind of price that makes thiscar such a performance value. Ford is committed to building 8,000 to10,000 GT 500s per year for three years. So if you're patient, you mightjust be able to buy the most powerful Mustang ever built.

Our group finally made its way to the track. I grabbed a helmet andjumped in line. I took the second car, a Tungsten Gray coupe with SatinSilver stripes, which just happen to be the colors I would want. Afteradjusting my seating position and getting settled, the interior feltquite familiar to anyone who has driven an S197 Mustang, but thepresentation is a bit more upscale. As I pulled away down the accessroad, I immediately noticed two things. The clutch pedal effort was justa notch more than a GT's and much less than a Terminator's, which issurprising for a car with more power. According to the SVT engineers,the clutch in the GT 500 is a metalliceramic unit sourced from theFR500C racer, but the effort is indeed reduced by 17 pounds (33 versus50 in the Terminator).

I noted the cars seemed really quiet while other cars lapped the track,and only a bit raucous when throttled from a standing start. Theserenity is even more pronounced inside the car. Exhaust and blowernoise are minimized, even with the pedal to the carpet. I'm alwaysconservative at drive programs, as I don't want to be the guy who wrecksthe car, but even as I gained confidence and began carrying more speedon track, it didn't feel as fast as I had imagined. Sure I'm probably asjaded as the come. I've driven more than my fair share of cars with 400and 500 hp at the rear wheels, but few have tipped the scales at 3,920pounds. I chalked it up to a heat-soaked blower and my unrealisticexpectations.

It was the handling that exceeded my expectations, though it reallyshouldn't be a big surprise. SVT has a history of making mammoth rides,such as the Lightning pickup that handles like much smaller vehicles.With all the improvements in the S197 chassis and a few more weldedseams, strengthened panels, and both shock tower and lateralfront-crossmember braces, the '07 Mustangs are even more robust. Allupgrades but the braces will make it to all '07 Mustangs, while thelateral crossmember brace will make it to all convertibles. Obviously,SVT spent considerable time striking a balance between road-course gripand street civility.