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The 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 is a Mad Max kind of a car, its blower making a satisfying whine with the engine running above 5,000rpm. But you would have to be on a race track or a lone desert highway to hit that engine speed in any gear but second. With 550 horsepower, the GT500 is pure muscle.
And with the SVT Performance package, you would have to be on a track to really enjoy this car. Stiffer springs and Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 tires combine to give the GT500 surprisingly good cornering capabilities. But drive over the often pitted pavement of public roads, and the car becomes a torture chamber, transferring every jolt to the passengers in the cabin.
A striking car
Our GT500 came in white with red racing stripes, an attention-getting combination, but a color scheme that we did not particular care for. A bulging hood and Cobra badges around the car marked it as a Shelby. We were amused to see the cosmopolitan denizens of downtown San Francisco make every effort not to look at the car, whereas a road crew stopped work and stared, open-mouthed, as we rumbled by.
And rumble is what this car does best. The supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 starts off with a roar, then idles with a steady burble. Let the engine speed run upwards, and you can practically hear the 550 horsepower in the exhaust note, with the supercharger adding its high-pitched whine under acceleration.
Put the 510 pound-feet of torque to the test with a fast, or even moderate, start, and things can get out of whack quickly. As we dropped the clutch, we felt the back end start to wag as if it was so eager to get going it wanted to overstep the front wheels.
With its blue valve covers and bulbous supercharger mounted on top, the engine looks like a work of automotive art. An aluminum block and Ford's nanoparticle-cylinder-lining technology lowers the weight over the previous model's cast iron engine, and contribute to a 10-horsepower increase over the outgoing model.
Lacking are efficiency technologies such as variable-valve timing or direct injection.
Ford boasts that the 2011 Shelby GT500 is the first of these models not to be saddled with a gas guzzler tax, citing its EPA-rated fuel economy of 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. We put the car through a variety of driving exercises, including high rpm cornering and top-gear freeway driving, coming up with an average of only 12.7 mpg. It takes some gentle driving to hit the EPA numbers.
An upshift light on the speedometer tried to help us get better fuel economy, as it continually urges us to move into higher gears. With all the horsepower, we were able to drive the GT500 at 40 mph in sixth gear, or vice versa, drive it at 60 mph in second.
While driving through the city and down the freeway, the GT500 took its toll on our body. The jarring ride battered muscles, and the headrest repeatedly smacked us when we went over some rough sections of the freeway. Gear changes required a bit of wrestling to push the shifter through the gate, and we found it easy to get lost in the gear pattern. The GT500 might qualify as the fastest exercise machine in the world.
The initial clutch take seemed inordinately high, but in the car's favor, it was also easy to modulate. We expected the big engine to result in a lot of low-speed lurching, but we were able to handle parking lot maneuvering smoothly. The new GT500 also gets an electric power-steering unit, which might dismay purists, but proved well-tuned for low and fast speeds.
We didn't expect a muscle car to do well on our favorite winding roads, but the SVT package made all the difference. Coming up on the first 30 mph corner, we entered tentatively, but as the tires showed no signs of losing grip and the body stayed flat, we put some more power down. We stepped up the pace for a 25 mph corner, and the car's rigid suspension and the lack of understeer increased our confidence even more.