Legendary champion racer/performance car builder Carroll Shelby first built affordable “Shelby GT350 Mustang” models, based on the then-new production Mustang, in 1965.
The car was so fast, it even beat Corvettes on tracks. And now a good GT350 is a prized collector’s item that costs at least several hundred thousand dollars.
Shelby is still with us as of this writing, feisty as ever at nearly 90, and must be very proud of the muscular-looking 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang. It’s the latest in a series of Ford Shelby GT500 models built in the last few years, and is by far the best. Some feel that it’s the greatest Mustang ever.
The new rear-wheel-drive GT500 I drove was a coupe that stickers at $48,645, although a convertible version that costs $53,645 is also available.
The coupe looks absolutely ferocious, and the handsome interior has sharp-looking “sport” bucket seats with racing stripe inserts.
The new 155-mph GT500 is largely the work of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT), which carries its signature, with Shelby’s, at various places on the car.
The Special Vehicle Team has much experience modifying standard production Ford vehicles. As with the original Shelby GT350 Mustang, the 2011 GT500 is based on a standard Ford Mustang — the 2011 GT, which has a 5-liter V-8 with 412 horsepower.
In sharp contrast, the new GT500 has a supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 producing 550 horsepower — or 10 more than the 2010 version. Torque remains at a mighty 510 pound-feet. Adding power are such items as an improved intercooler for the supercharger and a more efficient exhaust system that allows less back pressure and a sexier exhaust sound.
The 2011 GT500 has strong, linear acceleration. It does 0-100 mph in 9.1 seconds and sprints through the quarter mile in 12.3 seconds at nearly 120 mph. That’s really moving for a fairly large four-seater that weighs 3,751 pounds. Acceleration in third and fourth gears is awesome, but is average in fifth gear. Sixth gear is strictly a fuel-saving overdrive gear.
The new V-8 switches to a lighter aluminum block, which weighs 102 pounds less than last year’s engine and allows a lighter front end for sharper handling. Weight distribution has been improved, at 55.7 percent front and 44.3percent rear.
The engine is set back for better weight distribution and looks large and wide, much like a “Hemi” V-8, with the supercharger sitting directly in the middle between the valve covers.
The car is a lot more fun to drive than its recent predecessors. It no longer wants to “plow” in nose-heavy fashion around corners and negotiates curves faster and more easily. It’s also more composed under hard braking, with shorter stopping distances.
Power steering now has quick electric, not hydraulic boost, but there’s no significant change in its good feel. Spring rates remain the same, despite the fact that the car is lighter. An optional glass sunroof is newly available for the coupe.
Despite the added power, fuel economy is up 1 mpg in both the city and on the highway to 15 mpg city and 23 highway. This allows the new model to be the first GT500 to escape a gas-guzzler tax.
Power flows through a six-speed manual transmission. It has delightfully short throws and a narrow gate for precise, but firm, shifts. An easily gripped, rather retro large shifter ball resides atop the shifter. The clutch throw is somewhat long and stiff, but wasn’t a bother. No automatic transmission is offered.
My test GT500 had what I consider a “must” option. It’s the $3,495 SVT Performance Package. That’s not a lot, considering the package’s features and that this car isn’t cheap to begin with. Besides, you might not be able to find many Ford dealers with a new GT500 that doesn’t have the SVT package.
The package’s features include stiffer springs, modified shock valving, slightly lowered ride height, new front underbody-closeout panel and a “shorter” 3.73:1 final-drive ratio (versus 3.55:1) for faster acceleration.
The package also has narrower body stripes (a delete option) and wider new Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar summer tires (40-series front, 35 rear) on bigger (19-inch front, 20-inch rear) forged graphite-finish aluminum wheels. The tires provide extra grip, but the wheels always look dirty, although they improve handling.
There still is no independent rear suspension, but the SVT Team has done wonders making the solid-axle rear end behave well, even on bumpy roads. The ride is supple, and the firm brake pedal has a linear action for consistently fast, smooth stops with the big anti-lock brakes.
Doors are long and heavy, but have easily gripped outside handles. The interior is quiet, except for delightful engine sounds when accelerating. Front seats are very supportive, and gauges can be quickly read, although sound system controls are small. Large outside mirrors help driver visibility.
The console’s deep, covered cupholders are conveniently placed. The covered console storage bin also is deep, but set a little too far back.
As with every Mustang ever built, there’s little rear-seat room, although a 6-footer in the right rear should be fairly comfortable—at least for awhile—behind a passenger who moves his seat up appropriately. The center of the rear seat is stiff and hard, not that you’d want to squeeze three occupants back there.
The GT500 is fairly well-equipped with comfort and safety equipment, including air conditioning, decent sound system, power windows, locks and mirrors—and side air bags and traction control.. But there’s no power front passenger seat or even sun visor vanity mirror lights for the money, which is put mainly into the car’s performance items.
The trunk lid opens easily on twin struts and has an interior lining for a finished look. But the size and shape of the trunk opening makes it difficult to load even moderately sized cargo. However, rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat for more cargo space.
The 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 now is the car it always should have been, with such features as more power, lower weight, better tires and an improved suspension. While not cheap, it looks great and offers sizzling performance for the money. It likely will become a collector’s item somewhere down the road, like that 1960s Shelby GT350.
Dan Jedlicka is the former car reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times and has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.