Steve Turner
Former Editor, 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
September 3, 2010

When the modern Shelby GT500 entered our consciousness, we were instantly smitten by the thunderous supercharged engine. For us, it made it much easier to overlook the foibles of its plush suspension and stuttering clutch take-up. It was a bigger, better, retro version of the Terminator we so loved, and we just knew that it would be eagerly embraced and enhanced in the aftermarket.

Obviously, that's just the way it played out, but it's not only the aftermarket that polished the facets of this rock-rough boulder into a gem. No, Ford's Special Vehicle Team built a solid foundation with the car, and engineers knew they could improve its capabilities on many levels. They did just that with the '10 model, which offered a quantum improvement in handling, driveability, and power.

We've had to slowly condition ourselves that it is possible for engineers to continually make these cars better, which brings us to the '11 Shelby GT500. It's not quite the leap from '09 to '10, but in its Performance Pack dress-which is the only version we've had the chance to sample-the '11 model expounds on the strides of the '10, yet engineers told us there's still plenty of "low-hanging fruit" from which to make future improvements.

What the '11 Shelby GT500 will most be remembered for is the move to the aluminum 5.4 block, which enthusiasts have called for since the moment the car was introduced. Knowing the Ford GT had such a block and the GT500 made due with the iron-block was just too tempting. Give credit where's its due, as SVT Chief Nameplate Engineer Jamal Hameedi made mention of the wild exploits of twin-turbo Ford GT owners as a reason for moving to the improved-version aluminum 5.4 block. His reasoning was based on those cars reliably supporting over 1,000 hp at the wheels with a stock aluminum 5.4. He explained that this should give SVT plenty of room to grow should another manufacturer want to engage in a horsepower war.

Many hard-core enthusiasts converted the GT block for use in their GT500s, but Ford took that swap a few steps forward with its efforts. Most obvious among the improvements in the aluminum-block are its new cylinder liners. Supplanting the heavy steel liners are liners created with Ford's proprietary Plasma Transferred Wire Arc technology, which works in concert with a unique cylinder machining. The block is machined in an alternating pattern so that the 35,000-degree jet of melted steel covers the peaks and valleys, and hardens into an interlocking fashion for maximum durability. In result, the cylinder liner is lighter and smoother than a traditional sleeve, which contributes to the engine's efficiency and 102-pound diet.

"Ford's Global Research and Advanced Engineering looks to all industries for advanced technologies, and this comes from aerospace. It's the same technology you would find on aircraft engines," said Glenn Jorgensen, SVT Powertrain Team leader. "We've invented a coating as a replacement for cast-iron that delivers improvements in power, performance, and fuel economy."

Aside from the block, the 5.4 is familiar in construction, but it also benefits from external upgrades like Electronic Power Assist Steering. The EPAS is already familiar to us in its transparency. It's impressive that the EPAS delivers just the right heft and precision, but doesn't leave you longing for a power-steering pump. In fact, the SVT engineers said their work on getting the steering just right for its high-performance package resulted in hardware improvements that benefitted the GT and V-6 Mustang, where we also found the EPAS a delight.

While EPAS undoubtedly freed up a couple ponies, the SVT engineers credit most of the power boost to the 0.25-inch up-tick in exhaust diameter to 2.75 inches. We know from experience with aftermarket exhausts that jumping up the pipe size is definitely good for a power boost, even with the catalytic converters. In fact, the SVT guys say getting the big cat helps with both emissions and backpressure reduction. All told, the backpressure reduction dropped by nearly 40 percent, while the new pipes and mufflers deliver a big more authoritative sound.

As we have come to expect, SVT engineers didn't rest on their powertrain upgrade laurels. They followed a familiar protocol in retooling the suspension and chassis, as they built from the ground up, starting where the rubber meets the road. "These tires are as close as you can get to a race-car tire. We have a tire that's way more capable with better grip, and is firmer and more race-oriented. From there, we tuned the chassis around it. The tires told us what we had to do," Eric Zinkoksy, SVT technical specialist, said of the Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G2. "We took some lessons from the Shelby KR program and applied them to these tires. That was our first attempt at a similar compound and we learned a lot, and rolled those lessons into the new Shelby to provide an even better tire."

With a road-gripping tire underfoot, SVT engineers tuned the shocks, springs, and sway bars to work with the new tire and drastically improved weight distribution. "The SVT team continues to push the performance standards of the Shelby to even higher levels and better refinement," said Jost Capito, director of Global Performance Vehicles and Motorsports Business Development. "All the changes we made reflect a desire for even better handling and outstanding driving dynamics-from weight savings and improved balance."