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First Drive: 2011 Ford Shelby GT500

Julia LaPalmephotographerEric Tingwallwriter

Chevrolet hasn't even acknowledged its existence, but the engineers at Ford's Special Vehicle Team know that a supercharged Chevrolet Camaro Z28 is on its way. That car could be the first direct competitor to the Ford Shelby GT500, as its closest competitors today either come up short in horsepower (Dodge Challenger SRT8, Camaro SS) or fit into an entirely different class of car (Chevrolet Corvette). To combat the Camaro Z28 before it even arrives, Ford has freshened its hottest Mustang, making it a leaner, more powerful, and more agile muscle car.

Fewer Pounds, More Ponies

The biggest change comes as a result of switching from iron to aluminum for the 5.4-liter V-8 engine block. The switch is more dramatic, both on the spec sheet and from behind the wheel, than you might think. Ford claims a massive weight savings of 102 pounds, which suggests that the old iron block might have been carrying some unnecessary mass. The updated engine block features cylinders that are finished with a spray-on coating, rather than a steel sleeve. In addition to saving 8.5 pounds over the traditional steel-sleeve aluminum block, the spray bore reduces friction and increases heat transfer from the combustion chamber to the coolant. Power climbs 10 ponies to 550 hp at 6200 rpm, while torque is unchanged at 510 lb-ft. Fuel economy also increases to 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. That's one extra mile per gallon in both ratings, which allows the GT500 to escape the gas-guzzler tax that ensnared last year's car.

New Performance Package

An optional $3495 performance package is new for 2011. It lowers the car eleven millimeters in front and eight millimeters in the rear, and features springs that are 20.5 percent stiffer in front and 9.5 percent stiffer in back. It also includes a shorter, 3.73:1 final drive ratio, a Gurney flap on the spoiler, narrower stripes on the hood, and a white cue-ball shifter. Forged aluminum wheels, measuring 19 inches in front and 20 inches in back shave a total of fifteen pounds off the base car's weight. The gorgeous, graphite-finish wheels are wrapped in Goodyear's new Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 summer tires.

Other new features include an optional glass roof on the coupe ($1995), convex blind-spot mirrors, standard high-intensity discharge headlamps, and fold-down rear headrests that greatly improve visibility. Pricing starts at $49,495 for coupe and $54,495 for convertible.

A Better Balanced Beast

We were given the opportunity to drive the 2011 Shelby GT500 against the 2010 car back-to-back on Virginia International Raceway's full 3.27-mile course. It wasn't an apples-to-apples comparison, as the 2011 GT500s were equipped with performance packages, an option that wasn't offered in 2010. Still, the track time highlighted how removing weight from the front end has altered the Shelby's character. The 2010 car is significantly more sensitive to how it's driven. Trail brake or get on the throttle too early and it's happy to wag its tail. Take a corner too fast, and the nose-heavy machine will plow toward the outside of the turn. It's certainly manageable behavior, but it takes patience and experience to learn exactly how to control this snake. The 2011 car, on the other hand, is much more neutral, requiring more deliberate or more ham-fisted inputs. The new car also stays much more stable and level over VIR's esses, with their unsettling camber changes.

As with all 2011 Mustangs, the Shelby switches from hydraulic steering assist to an electric motor mounted on the steering rack. The steering feel isn't quite as connected when you're unwinding the wheel, but it's still a great calibration that builds effort naturally and communicates nuances in the road. The steering"s most frustrating attribute is the lack of a telescoping column. The suspension is unquestionably firm, but we never found a spot of pavement on 180 miles of road driving where it became uncomfortable. Of course, that could be a function of the well-maintained roads rather than the suspension.

The power is predictably awesome. Ford claims that 80 percent of torque is available from 1750 to 6250 rpm. To publicize the engine's authority, Ford has switched the exhaust system from an X-pipe to H-pipe configuration while the plumbing has increased a quarter of an inch to a 2.75-inch diameter. The result is a note that's just as raucous as before but offers more burbles and snaps for a livelier personality.

Small Changes Add Up

The changes made by Ford's Special Vehicle Team are quite subtle on the spec sheet and from outside the car. But from the driver's seat, they add up to a substantial difference that makes the GT500's capabilities more accesible and its handling more predictable. Topped with cherries like a more aggressive exhaust note and better visibility, the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 is a truly meaningful enhancement. Bring on the Z28.

2011 Ford Shelby GT500 coupe

Base price (with destination): $49,495
Price as tested: $52,990

Body style: 2-door coupe
Accommodation: 4-passenger
Construction: Steel unibody

Engine: 32-valve DOHC supercharged V-8
Displacement: 5.4 liters
Power: 550 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 510 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: Rear-wheel
Fuel economy: 15/23/19 (city/hwy/combined)

Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Turning circle: 37.0 feet
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Live axle, coil springs
Brakes: Ventilated discs, ABS
Tires: Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2
Tire size, front: 265/40YR-19
Tire size, rear: 285/35YR-20

Headroom F/R: 38.5/34.7 in
Legroom F/R: 42.4/29.8 in
Shoulder room F/R: 55.3/51.6 in
Hip room F/R: 53.4/46.8 in
Wheelbase: 107.1 in
L x W x H: 188.2 x 73.9 x 54.5 in
Track F/R: 61.9/62.5 in
Cargo capacity: 13.4 cu ft
Weight: 3820 lb
Fuel capacity: 16.0 gal
Est. range: 304 miles
Fuel grade: 91 octane