2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 First Drive – Approachable Power

Cinched into a five-point racing harness, with a head-and-neck support device attached to my helmet, I felt a bit of nerves as I awaited my turn to pilot the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 at full-tilt-boogie around a road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Without the benefit (or restriction, depending on your point of view) of a pro driver riding right-seat.

Just a tiny bit, anyway. I’m no Bark, but I have track experience. I’d just handled a similarly powerful Hellcat Dodge Charger at an arguably more difficult track with no drama just a few weeks prior. And unlike some of the folks who fill up the press-junket buffet line, I know my limits. If I’m slower than some buff-booker with an extensive resume of laps, so be it. I’m not going to drive off into the desert in service of my ego.

That last bit helped keep me calm while waiting for my turn, but there was also this bit of knowledge on hand to keep my heart rate down: If the Mustang’s on-road behavior was any indicator, this 760-horsepower muscle/pony car wouldn’t be half as intimidating to drive at speed as it looked. This snake would be a sweetheart.

(Full disclosure: Ford flew me to Las Vegas, put me in a nice hotel on the Strip, fed me, and sent me home with a paperweight made from a Shelby engine part. We got a brief look at the Shelby museum/shop, and a ’67 GT500 was on hand to drive – although I ran out of time to get a chance behind the wheel.)

Quick refresher on the basic specs: The 2020 GT500 has a supercharged 5.2-liter V8 that makes 760 horsepower and 625 lb-ft of torque. There’s just one transmission choice — a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. A 3.73:1 Torsen limited-slip differential is out back, and 20-inch by 11-inch wheels host either Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires in 305/30R20 sizing (315/30R20 in the rear). The available Track Package widens the rear wheels by half an inch, and they’re shod with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup (Sport Cup 2s at rear) in the same size as the Pilot Sports.

Like the Hellcat I drove earlier this month, the GT500 offers a thumping V8 soundtrack at idle, with plenty of volume even in quiet mode (the others: normal, sport, and track). The exhaust mode can be altered separately from the drive mode (normal, sport, track, drag, slippery), although it of course matches whatever drive mode you pick by default (sport=sport, track=track, and so on). Same goes for the steering, which can be separately placed into normal, sport, and comfort modes.

The Shelby is underpinned by a double-ball-joint MacPherson strut system with stabilizer bar (36 mm) and independent rear suspension with coil springs and stabilizer bar at rear (24 mm, 25.4 mm with Track Pack). Magnetic damping is standard.

Before we could track, we were assigned a quick drive towards Mt. Charleston and back. “Quick” being an understatement. I was mostly behaved during my drive — our Grabber Lime test car stuck out like a sore thumb, especially with the hood scooping and the big ‘ole wing that all GT500s have (fun fact – the best way to ID a Track Pack GT500 at a glance is to look for the bigger wing). That didn’t stop me from passing tourists in rental cars at warp speed, grinning like an idiot while doing so.

It’s not just the right-damn-now acceleration that addicts, it’s also the sound coming out of the pipes. Pure V8 bliss, with nary a hint of supercharger whine.

When pushed on the mildly twisty roads around the mountain, the GT500 felt quite easy to drive. Steering feel was pretty vague on-center in normal mode, but the electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion unit tightened up nicely in Sport mode.

Easy describes the power application, too — while making those passes mentioned above, the power never came on too harshly. It came on as gently as possible while still being instantly available.

Ford talked up the DCT’s ability to shift quicker than a human, but while the shifts themselves are crisp, it occasionally was slow to downshift on-road when the paddles weren’t used to spur it on.

Part of our drive included three drag-strip runs, which were mostly a way for Ford to show off the car’s line-lock and launch-control systems. Line lock has a slight learning curve, but it’s easier to manipulate than Dodge’s similar system. Launch control is also easier to set up, and with an automatic trans, it’s not hard to left-foot brake while your right foot is planted to the floor mat. Release the brake when the light turns green, the car takes off with some wheelspin/wheel hop, it hooks up, then you just keep it out of the wall until you pass the finish line.

On the road course, the car shines. Whatever nerves I had vanished as I got up to speed, since the Mustang is almost as easy to drive on track — even for a middling auto journo — as it is on road.

There was a bit of understeer in one particular decreasing-radius corner that required more patience with the throttle than I apparently possess, and on my final hot lap I goosed the gas a bit early coming out of a dog-leg corner and got the rear end a bit loose, the kind of easy slide that was corrected by a combination of the safety nannies and a bit of steering/throttle adjustment. It wasn’t the kind of worrisome that requires a change of underpants, but it was a reminder that having that much power on hand requires precision.

Brembo brakes help make for quick, mostly drama-free stops from speed — track-side talk was about how the car could travel deeper into the braking zone that Ford advised before one jammed on the binders. There was a bit of squirreliness under the heaviest braking, but nothing that truly worried me. The Brembos were stout enough that sometimes I got more brake than I wanted.

Most, if not all, of the cars we drove on track had the $18,500 Track Package, which deletes the rear seat, adds carbon-fiber wheels with the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, Recaro seats, carbon-fiber instrument panel, carbon-fiber GT4 wing, adjustable strut top mounts, splitter wickers, and a wheel-locking kit. I took a Track Pack-equipped car out on the street and found it unsurprisingly harder to live with in relatively mundane driving than the standard car.

The ride is harsher and the steering even more vague on center, while the supercharge whine is more pronounced. The lower weight is noticeable, as the car feels a bit less stable. Unless you’re tracking your car constantly — in which case, you’re probably putting more moolah into it, beyond the Track Pack — you have no need to lay down nearly 20 large. A GT500 with the $1,500 Handling Package will be plenty beastly for your street needs, and well-suited to a few track days per year.

To be fair, you needn’t sacrifice infotainment, A/C, or Apple CarPlay to get the Track Pack.

Reviewing cars this good is a tricky proposition, especially on these virtual pages — we’re supposed to pull no punches. We have a reputation for not being as rosy-eyed as the rest of the well-fed wolfpack of journos. But we’re supposed to the tell the truth — it’s right there in the name — and the truth is, there’s not much to find fault with when it comes to the Shelby.

There are things I don’t like about the car, but some of those things involve the types of tradeoffs one makes to buy a car like this. Of course the loud exhaust will get tiring on occasion, even when the exhaust is in quiet mode. You know it’s gonna suck fuel down quickly (12 mpg city/18 mpg highway/14 mpg combined). The available Recaro seats are overbolstered for the street. The on-road ride isn’t always going to be comfortable — and I’m sure it’s far worse on Midwestern roads than it was on the tarmac near Vegas, where it was tolerable. The steering is a bit vague on center, as noted. Most, if not all, of these gripes won’t deter the Shelby buyer. Indeed, he or she will gladly put up with them.

Other issues include the fact that the Mustang interior is getting a bit old, even if the aircraft-inspired toggle switches still look sorta cool (although some only toggle one way, making menu cycling a pain). You’re still stuck with Ford’s wonky Sync infotainment system. And despite a few touches — a dash plaque, a cobra steering-wheel logo, a cobra icon on the switch that accesses the track functions, the optional Recaros — the interior doesn’t feel that much more special than what’s on offer in the four-cylinder EcoBoost car, especially if you don’t opt for the Track Pack’s carbon fiber.

Ford has found an interesting little gap in the American muscle/pony car class — the Shelby is probably better suited to the track than the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, and it has a large horsepower advantage over the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (although that car has a much lower base price — about ten grand if you get your Chevy with a clutch, and around $8K if you’re going automatic vs. automatic). Speaking of manuals, as sad as the lack of a manual is for us stick-shift fans, I didn’t miss it that much (although the rotary shifter doesn’t make for a good hand rest).

Perhaps the biggest competitor to the GT500 sits within Ford’s lineup — the Shelby GT350 is cheaper and offers a stickshift. Ford folks compared the two cars by saying that the 350 is for the track purist, while the 500 is for the buyer who simply has to have the newest iPhone.

If that latter description fits you, be prepared to pay $70,300 to start. That gets you performance goodies like launch control, line lock, track apps, magnetic damping, 3.73 axle ratio, Brembo brakes, engine oil cooler, and transmission oil cooler; plus Sync, Apple CarPlay, satellite radio, dual USB ports, dual-zone climate control, Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel, digital instrument cluster,  and other features.

The Handling Package adds Gurney flaps and splitter wickers, while the Recaro leather-trimmed seats on my test car ran $1,595. An available Technology Package adds blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, premium audio, and voice-activated nav for $3,000. A car cover ran $395, the black roof $695, and gas-guzzler tax hit at $2,600. With the $1,095 destination system, my tester ran $81,180. Some clicking around the consumer site got me into the six-figure range, thanks in part to the addition of a painted racing stripe for $10K.

Ford’s Shelby GT500 is the flagship ‘Stang. Want cheap power? Go EcoBoost, especially with the High Performance Package. Want V8 muscle? Check out the regular GT. Want the coolest Mustang? Here’s a Bullitt, buy one while you still can. Want pure track ability? See the GT350/GT350R.

Want the muscle, the cool factor, the track ability, all in one? That’s what the GT500 is for, although you won’t get one cheap.

You do get what you pay for, however. You get brawn and brains, without intimidation. Reptiles aren’t exactly cuddly, but this is as close as you’ll get.

first published on TTAC

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