The 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 arrives late this year fresh from its third major makeover in the last four years, Ford's master chief in its battle for pony car dominance. Thanks to an influx of beefier hardware and clever software, the Shelby GT500's performance amazes in every dimension -- almost too much so.
There's no more fitting tribute in the wake of Carroll Shelby's passing last week than to note when Ford engineers vowed that the 2013 version of the street-rocket Mustang bearing his name would hit 200 mph, Shelby accused them of "bulls**ting" him. They told the truth.
The changes wrought on the 2013 Shelby aren't just the monstrous increase in horsepower from 550 hp to 662 hp with 631 ft-lbs of torque, making the 'Stang capable of a 0-60 mph time of just 3.7 seconds. The braking system scrubs excess speed with larger, 6-piston Brembo calipers. To shed weight gained from the bored-out 5.8-liter supercharged V8 engine, Ford installed a carbon-fiber driveshaft and a plastic fuel tank. The engineers worked tirelessly on multiple cooling systems and with Bilstein on an optional performance package, bringing the suspension and handling in line with the hefty increase in power.
The front end sports a more aggressive design and a grille-free opening that contains endless fairings and flaps, increasing front down force by 66% -- crucial in getting the car over 200 mph without reviving the Mustang as an airborne object. The rear end has the new for 2013 taillights and a not-so-subtle quad exhaust producing the bellow of a waking giant.
With my car fitted with the optional "Track Pack" that increases cooling even further -- and bumps the sticker price to $65,120 from the $54,200 base number -- I took to the Road Atlanta racetrack. I braced for a punishing ride that would make me earn my lap time, and instead found a companion as calm and eager to reward as a day-care teacher. There was no understeer to speak of, and the rear was planted on power down. The gear ratios from the beefed-up Tremec six-speed manual were so long that the car tricks you into thinking you're going slower than you actual velocity. The car will do 60 mph in just 1st gear, and I was still in 3rd at 140 mph. It felt, dare I say it, tame.
And I didn't want it to.
I wanted to manhandle the car, holding my breath every turn, praying I would emerge from the other side without bending metal or myself. I worried that in their drive to wrangle this herd of wild horses, the Ford engineers had actually done their jobs too well.
The same was true when I hit the country roads. The 242 additional horsepower in the GT500 over the upgraded Mustang GT barely made its presence known -- in part because the GT500 only makes its maximum when the car "over revs" from its normal redline of 6,250 rpm to 7,000 rpm in eight-second bursts, and the tall gear ratios prevent the chiropractic snap you'd expect when nailing the gas pedal. As a cruiser, it projects all the coolness a Shelby should, but I wasn't there to prance about. I brought spare boxer shorts and I expected to need them.
The next day brought us to the drag strip, and there the spirit of Carroll Shelby emerged. The long gear ratios suddenly made sense, perfectly matched for the task of producing an 11.7-second quarter mile time, just a bit faster than the GT500's archenemy, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Credit Ford's launch control system, perhaps the best on any production car today, that lets drivers pick an engine start limit by 100 revs at a time to match the conditions on the track. It was far smarter than I was, and no matter how hard I tried with the traction control turned off, I couldn't beat the system.
Carroll Shelby was famous for saying, "Whatever the competition comes up with, we're going to kick the hell out of them." In a drag race or lapping around the Nurburgring, the 2013 Shelby GT500 probably will. It's a car that Ford claim can do everything -- and back it up. It's a great car to cruise down the highway or over country roads. It can drag race with the best and can lap a racetrack like a car half its size. It's fantastic -- and yet I feel a little let down.
The Shelbys of decades past were many things, but like Carroll Shelby himself, "refined" wasn't one of their selling points. All the best of his muscle cars carried a madness that makes them magical. If you want to go blisteringly fast in a straight line and reign as the king of the stoplights, then buy this Shelby. But if you want your pony to provide a rush of adrenaline, the more unpredictable, wild Mustang GT will let you live at the limits for less money. With the GT500, you can leave your spare boxers at home.
Alex Lloyd has raced the Indianapolis 500 four times, and was the IndyCar rookie of the year in 2010. He's been racing competitively since age 8. Visit his website here, or follow him on Twitter.