Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
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.
A caged beast, the Shelby GT500 left an impression on innocent bystanders.
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.
A supercharger helps this aluminum block engine churn out 550 horsepower.
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.
The SVT package stiffens the suspension, almost unbearably, and adds these Goodyear SuperCar G:2 tires.
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.
Soon we were whooping it up, taking successions of turns at more challenging speeds, getting a good idea what the GT500 could do on a track. During hard acceleration in a 90-degree turn, the back broke free--but in a controllable manner--letting us rotate the car without going into a spin.
The practical side
Although its rough ride and thirsty engine don't exactly lean toward practicality, the GT500 can be equipped, as our car was, with Ford's cabin tech. Sync actually comes standard in the GT500, which we took advantage of by pairing an iPhone to the Bluetooth phone system and plugging it into the iPod port. We also had Ford's hard-drive-based navigation system.
The touch screen is more intuitive to use than an indirect controller, but the interface here could use a style update.
The touch-screen interface is not pretty, but it is intuitive. The navigation system's maps have good resolution, with readable street names, and offer 2D and 3D views. Being hard drive-based, the system reacts quickly to inputs. The associated voice command system also lets you enter addresses by saying city and street names, without having to spell them out.
Route guidance works reasonably well with this navigation system, as it reads out street names and shows useful turn graphics. Using its traffic data feed, it shows incidents and flow on the map, and plans routes around traffic jams when it has a destination. As in other Ford vehicles, the GT500 gets weather forecasts, gas prices, sports scores, and movie listings.
The Sync-driven MP3 player compatibility is, as with other Ford vehicles, a star of the cabin tech. With the navigation system optioned, the music library appears in an easily browsable format on the touch screen. Or you can use the voice command system to say the name of an artist or album name to start playback. A few automakers are starting to catch up with this technology, among them Acura and Mitsubishi.
With the hard drive in the dashboard, you can rip CDs to the car, maintaining an onboard music library. The interface for browsing the hard drive is equally as good as that for a connected MP3 player, and is accessible by voice command. Impressively, with a USB flash drive hooked up to the system, it also indexes the music by ID3 tags, letting you choose music by album, artist, song, and genre, rather than the simple folder and file format shown in other cars.
Although we were awed by the 500 watts of the standard Shaker audio system, the sound quality was much less impressive. Its eight speakers produced a sound that was flat in timbre. On the plus side, it is good at reproducing musical detail, and seems well-balanced between highs, mids, and bass. At high volumes, we heard a lot of speaker hum and rattle from the door panels, which was not pleasant. Ford offers an optional 1,000-watt Shaker system for the car, and we hope the door panels are better dampened with that option.
With a paired Bluetooth cell phone, Sync offers a variety of services, such as 911 Assist and Vehicle Health Reports.
Along with voice command for music playback , Sync offers Bluetooth phone integration, and an ever-expanding set of associated services in the cloud. After pairing an iPhone to the system, it downloaded the contact list, making it available on the touch screen.
Sync also features the capability to dial contacts with voice command by name. We've used this feature very successfully in other Ford vehicles, but it proved problematic in the Shelby GT500. After it failed to hear our voice commands, which increased in volume, we concluded that the excessive cabin noise in the car interferes with Sync.
The Shelby GT500 comes with ambient cabin lighting--a fun little feature. We were able to customize the accent colors in the cabin and the ring colors around the gauges, and choose from preset colors. As the Shelby GT500 is a quintessential American muscle car, we chose the red, white, and blue theme.
Although muscle cars are not supposed to be about technology, the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 bucks the archetype with some notable features. The aluminum engine block, with its nanoparticle cylinders, and supercharger help with horsepower and efficiency. But we would also like to see more fuel delivery technologies in use, as the fuel economy ends up being rather poor. We also liked the handling with the SVT package, but couldn't take the ride quality for long.
Ford's Sync and hard-drive-based navigation system are another set of technologies that might seem out of place in a traditional muscle car, but they add practicality to the Shelby GT500. We like these technologies, but are troubled by the difficulty with voice command in this car. The Shaker audio system proved less impressive due to all the distortion.
As for design, the Shelby GT500 is a winner. The Mustang body is an excellent modern take on a classic, and the Shelby styling makes the car stand out. We also like that the back seats are actually usable--a rarity in a coupe. The touch-screen interface also incorporates a very usable design, although the look is a little rough around the edges.
|Model||2011 Ford Shelby GT500|
|Powertrain||Supercharged 5.4-liter V-8, six speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||15 mpg city/23 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||12.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard drive-based with traffic, weather, and other data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with dial by name|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, internal hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Shaker eight speaker 500 watt system|
|Price as tested||$55,330|