Keen to capitalize on the Mustang Shelby GT350’s success both on and off the track, Ford commissioned Shelby American to build a new type of fire-breathing Mustang for the 1967 model year. It would serve as something of a counterpoint to the GT350: where the first Shelby Mustang was essentially a homologation car that emphasized at-limit handling and low mass above all else, the GT500 would exist free of racing rule book constraints.
That left engineers free to pursue the essence of muscle car grand touring instead, endowing the GT500 with not only a burly big-block powerplant, but a suppler ride and a stronger focus on creature comforts. So while the GT350 was prize fighter hitting above its weight class on the race track, the GT500 was purpose-built to be the king of the road.
The latter became a template that Ford would use for the GT500 throughout the rest of the ’60s, one which they revived nearly four decades later when the badge returned to the Mustang lineup in 2007. And although Ford made significant strides in their efforts to dial more grace into the car while also elevating its straight-line capability over the following seven model years, the modern GT500 earned a reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool throwback muscle car that was more about theater and bragging rights than outright poise and precision.
But after spending a week with Ford’s latest interpretation of the GT500 on the streets and in the canyons of the greater Los Angeles area, it’s clear that the strategy has changed. This is a different animal – for better and, in perhaps less-quantifiable ways, for worse.
What’s In A Name
It’s been more than five years since Dodge rewrote the modern muscle car playbook with the Challenger SRT Hellcat, and Ford fanatics who weren’t willing to go the aftermarket route have had to watch from the sidelines as supercharged Hemis squared off against the likes of Camaro ZL1s and all manner of exotic hardware from across the pond. But Ford’s patience has its virtues, as the latest Shelby GT500 has brought some fairly significant tweaks to the S550 platform.
The big changes, unsurprisingly, start under the hood. Though it shares its displacement and overall architecture with the 5.2-liter V-8 found in the GT350 and GT350R’s engine bays, the GT500’s mill isn’t simply a Voodoo with boost. Here Ford has chosen a traditional cross-plane crankshaft instead of the exotic flat-plane crank found in the GT350, due to concerns about vibration and the need for durability rather than sky-high revs and lofty compression ratios. As a result, the GT500 gets a redline of 7500 rpm and a compression ratio of 9.5:1 versus the GT350’s 8250 rpm and 12.0:1.
The benefit provided by those changes is obvious, though, as the GT500’s Predator V-8 is able to confidently support far more power. Equipped with a 2.65-liter Eaton supercharger that’s mounted in the valley between the cylinder heads and produces up to 12 psi of boost, the all-aluminum wonder dishes out an eye-watering 760 horsepower and 625 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful production engine in Ford’s 117-year history.
But perhaps the bigger change is what’s behind it. To corral all that grunt, Ford turned to performance transmission supplier Tremec. But rather than spec out a beefed-up version of the GT350’s six-speed manual, Ford opted for an all-new, seven-speed dual clutch gearbox here. It’s a first for the Mustang, and it’s the only transmission available with the GT500.
Along with the new eight-speed dual clutch that serves as the exclusive means of shuffling gears in the C8 Corvette, this new breed of DCTs are likely harbingers of things to come across the performance landscape as the demand for three pedals continues to erode year over year, even among performance enthusiasts. We’re at a point now where the technology has finally become affordable and refined enough to find its way into mainstream high-output applications, and it’s a key part of how the GT500 effectively gets its prodigious horsepower to the ground.
To reign all of that potential pace in, Ford has outfitted the 4,100-pound GT500 with massive Brembo two-piece 16.5-inch rotors up front and 14.5-inch discs in the rear, while all examples of the new boosted Shelby are outfitted with MagneRide adaptive damping as-standard.
Although the cabin of the top-dog Shelby will feel largely familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an S550, aside from the slightly odd rotary dial gear selector fitted in place of a traditional shifter, the GT500’s exterior makes it clear that this is no garden-variety pony car. Like the GT350, it retains the front end shape of the pre-2018 refresh, but with its gaping front fascia, bulging and vented hood, and widened fenders, the GT500 adopts a distinctively mean look of its own.
Behind The Wheel
Considering the cache of weapons-grade hardware on tap here, you’d rightfully expect the new GT500 to be a bit of a handful, much the way its predecessors were. A cold start does little to change perception, as the supercharged V-8 barks to life with gleeful authority. Blower whine is far more subdued than the banshee wail of the Hellcat, but a bit more perceptible than that of the LT4 under the hood of the Camaro ZL1.
Either way, the Mustang’s active exhaust system is very much the center of auditory attention here. There are three distinct exhaust modes to choose from – Normal, Sport, and Track. All of them are loud, so you might as well stick with Track mode to get the full effect.
Venturing out onto LA’s busy, pock-marked streets quickly reveals some clear distinctions between the GT500 and the GT350R we spent time with a few years back. The latter’s track-tuned suspension and wide Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires paid dividends on a good mountain road, but the car’s brittle ride quality and eagerness to tramline quickly wore on our nerves during normal driving.
The GT500, by contrast, is surprisingly compliant in its default drive mode setting, soaking up pavement imperfections and tracking straight down all but the most chewed up roads. It’s a far better road trip companion by that measure, though its small gas tank and truly incredible thirst for fuel do play against that to a notable degree. Regardless, it’s a much more civilized place to be, and in many ways it feels like you’re behind the wheel of a garden-variety GT when you’re plodding along in traffic or at cruising speed on the highway. We’re not sure that’s necessarily a compliment in a model that commands roughly twice the asking price, though.
Open up the taps, however, and you’ll immediately know where that money went. Through a combination of sheer horsepower, clever gearbox tuning, and sophisticated traction control software, the GT500 accelerates with a level of urgency that’s almost McLaren-like. Even without switching over to Drag Mode and initializing the car’s launch control function, the GT500 is an absolute screamer even from a standstill, typically exhibiting just a hint of a wheelspin before catapulting you into the next area code. The DCT’s shifts are almost seamless on boil, whether left to its own devices or commanded by way of the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, the latter of which proved to be just as responsive as any of the dual-clutch gearboxes you’ll find in the latest German or Italian sports cars.
More was revealed during our stints on the winding tarmac of the Angeles National Forest. Though it’s certainly capable of holding its own on a mountain road, up there it’s a noticeably less engaging affair than its naturally aspirated Shelby brethren are, owed in part to the additional weight up front as well as the lack of physical involvement offered by a manual gearbox.
It’s here where we should probably point out that our tester was not equipped with the Carbon Fiber Track Package — an $18,500 option — and one which likely would have changed our perceptions of the car both around town and up in the hills. Far more than some lightweight aero bits, the package includes not only carbon-fiber wheels and track-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, but also revised front suspension geometry, unique springs, and retuned MagneRide dampers.
Those tweaks bring the car more in line with the mission of the GT350R versus the standard GT350, so we’d expect a more visceral driving experience, but don’t be surprised if it comes at the detriment of the car’s everyday usability.
All in, the GT500 showcases just how far technology has elevated today’s performance cars. This is a thoroughly modern Shelby, one which is just as happy to dispatch the daily commute as it is to fire off low 11-second quarter-miles or run a white-knuckled session on a road course.
Interestingly, though, it also illustrates how the numbers don’t always directly correlate to the overall experience. Indeed, this Mustang is brutally fast and surprisingly usable on a day-to-day basis. But where it loses some ground to alternatives like Shelby’s own GT350 is in the less tangible metrics. Set to its own devices, the GT500 ultimately asks relatively little of the driver – it stays on top of the gear changes, it deftly manages the torque, and it’s constantly working in the background to keep the shiny side up.
That’s undeniable progress, and it yields a machine that’s both faster and more approachable than its predecessors. It’s a bit of a shame that it has to come at a cost to the overall sense of fun, though, the kind of driver involvement that makes you feel like you accomplished those feats.
Still, most will likely welcome that change. And for those that don’t, there’s always the GT350R.