Car Reviews First Drives

2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 Review: This Changes Everything

42.875% better than the already brilliant GT350, it’s a world-class supercar-killer

42.875% better than the already brilliant GT350, it’s a world-class supercar-killer

“My gawd,” was the first thing, the only thing I could say after hot-lapping the 760-horsepower 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 on a track. “What a thing!” (C’mon, Walton, pull yourself together, use proper descriptors.) “I mean, a helluva thing, a monster!”

I was literally a few words shy of speechless, the Shelby GT500 was such a revelation. Like the mid-engine 2020 Corvette does, this American icon pushes the limits, and the Europeans, to the edge of what we once thought possible. I don’t write glibly when I say it is both a sobering and enthusiastic realization.

The car had such explosive power, controlled and exploitable through the brilliantly tuned Tremec twin-clutch seven-speed automated manual transmission and Torsen limited-slip differential. Think Porsche GT2 RS. Yes, I just wrote that. It also provided so much mechanical and aero grip that it attacked racetrack curb hopping and wide-open sweepers with equal poise and confidence. Think Jaguar XE SV Project 8. The seatbelt-straining brakes and fingertip controllable steering produced nearly equal 1.3 g loads in their respective directions. Think Mercedes-AMG GT 63 S 4Matic+.

This isn’t the best Mustang ever, nor even the best Shelby GT ever. It’s one of the best sports cars in the world right now, ready and willing to go wheel to wheel for lap times and pinks. Brrrring it.

WTF CFTP?

To be clear, the Shelby I had just driven was equipped with the $18,500 USD Carbon Fiber Track Package (CFTP), elevating, not inflating, the new-for-2020 GT500’s base price from $73,995 USD to $92,495 USD. Although they sound and “go” the same, the base car and the one equipped with the CFTP feel like completely distinct cars. The largely aero, suspension, and lightweight package alters the GT500’s demeanor from criminally loud, fast, fun, well-sorted, and highly predictable sports car—with more power than it sometimes knows what to do with—to a limited-production track-focused world-class supercar that excels and thrives because of that power. That it also provides so much driver feedback in such a neutral and balanced fashion is a real rarity. I’ve been fortunate to drive a few race cars, and this is as close as one can get to that with a fully outfitted interior and enough road manners to live with daily. That’s not an exaggeration, nor is it easy to achieve.

Fo_d Mustang Shelby GT500R
(There, I fixed it)

When I asked, “Why not call the car equipped with the too-many-syllables-by-six ‘Carbon Fiber Track Package’ simply the GT500R?” “Um, well, something, something, marketing, heritage, GT500KR …” was always the reply. Boo. I heard more than one Ford rep slip up and call it the “R,” then quickly correct themselves.

Without knowing it (perhaps), the engineers and vehicle dynamics development drivers at Ford Performance endowed the GT500R (that’s what I’m calling it) with the same spirit mission as McLaren “LT” and Porsche “RS” badged cars. During the GT500R’s development, the team had driven Camaros and Hellcats, sure, but also McLarens and Porsches. It’s not hard to imagine why this new, specially equipped Shelby embodies and provides that same level of no-compromise total performance in a limited production series. Based on the production capacity of the bespoke carbon-fiber rear wing and carbon-fiber wheels (first seen on the GT350R), Ford’s current estimate for the GT500R for model year 2020 is currently one-third of total GT500 production. These estimates will, of course, increase over time; both suppliers are currently ramping up to produce more parts.

Money Matters; or Not

Am I saying the $18,500 USD Carbon Fiber Track Package is worth every single penny? Yes, I am, indeed, and a $100,000 USD-plus Mustang is possible by adding painted “Over-the-Top” racing stripes ($10,000 USD) instead of $1,000 USD vinyl stripes. Besides a black roof ($695 USD), other options include a Technology package ($3,000 USD) that includes a Bang & Olufsen 12-speaker audio system with CD player, HD radio, and in-trunk subwoofer; blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; heated exterior mirrors with memory; signature Cobra puddle lamps; a six-way power driver’s seat with three memory settings, and voice-activated touchscreen navigation with SiriusXM traffic and Travel Link. That’s about it.

Shelby GT500R

So, what makes the “R” so special? It’s equipped with new (and adjustable) front suspension geometry, unique springs, and the latest-generation active/adjustable magnetorheological dampers, both tuned specifically to take advantage of the 20-inch carbon-fiber wheels (11 inches wide up front, 11.5 inches rear) that replace flow-formed aluminum and are 35 pounds (16 kg) lighter per corner. Tires go from excellent Michelin Pilot Sport 4S to legendary Pilot Sport Cup 2, developed specifically for the package. New so-called “splitter wickers” combine the effectiveness of a front splitter and dive planes into one cohesive piece. Combined with the rear diffuser and a manually adjustable exposed-carbon-fiber rear wing, the car’s “downforce” is up to 550 pounds (250 kg) at 180 mph (290 km/h). The “added lightness” comes at the expense of deleting the rear seat. Racy, to be sure, but also livable, and with less of the telltale bare-bones road noise and tramlining one would expect from sticky 305mm- (12-inch-)wide front and 315mm-wide rear tires. Side note: Next to the comparably subtle GT350, the intimidating GT500’s front fascia openings are doubled in scale and thus flow 50 percent more air. When combined with the six heat exchangers and 6-foot square hood vent, Ford Performance reports it can evacuate more than 230 kW (784,793 Btu per hour) of thermal energy. A typical home furnace is rated for 100,000 Btu/hour, so that’s about the same amount of cooling effect required to offset eight homes running the heat on high.

 

Predator > Voodoo

Early rumors surmised that the GT500 would be running a forced-induction version of the GT350’s aluminum 5.2-liter flat-plane crank V-8 that makes 526 horsepower. The GT500’s block, indeed, has the same bore x stroke as the 5,163cc Voodoo however, it’s spinning a traditional cross-plane crank. Engineers on hand said they simply didn’t want the inherent vibration or need the high revs (8,250 rpm) nor the high compression ratio (12.0:1) to make the Predator V-8’s targeted horsepower and torque; rather, they accomplished it with a 7,500-rpm redline and 9.5:1 compression ratio. Indeed, intake air is compressed, as Ford succinctly puts it, by an “inverted 2.65-liter roots-type supercharger that generates up to 12 psi of maximum boost with an air-to-liquid intercooler tucked neatly into the V-8 engine valley.” Inverted, meaning the pulley and heavy aluminum supercharger vanes are unconventionally positioned below the chilled airbox, thus lowering the center of gravity of the approximately 50-pound (23-kg) blower by a few inches. Incidentally, the supercharger draws 90 horsepower at its peak speed.

Both power units feature forged-steel connecting rods (though beefier in the GT500), DOHC heads with four sodium-filled valves per cylinder, and tubular stainless-steel exhaust headers, but the GT500 gets an integral oil pan with clever hinged baffles that keep the oil in the middle of the pan. Their specific outputs (horsepower per liter of displacement), though, are staggeringly different: The GT350’s naturally aspirated figure is impressive at 101.9 hp/L, but the blown GT500 makes 147.2 ponies with each liter of displacement. For reference, the stunning 715-hp Aston Martin DBS Superleggera 5.2-liter twin-turbo V-12’s specific output is 137.4 hp/L. Think about that for a moment.

A Trip to the Strip

Ford invited us to the adjacent, prepped dragstrip to see if its claim of a “sub-11-second quarter mile” was possible in a base GT500 fitted with the Michelin PS4S tires. Ford chose the base car over the R because it said the PS4S has nearly the same longitudinal grip as the PSC2, and the R’s aero drag would produce slower trap speeds at the end of the dragstrip. After a primer on accessing Drag mode, using the standard line-lock to heat the rear tires, and how to set the launch rpm, times began appearing on the big board. Mid 11-second runs were common. Low 11s began to appear, but in our group of 14, none of us managed to do the deed. I saw one 11.12-second pass. So close!

My quickest? “ET: 11.287 MPH: 130.19.” The last 650-hp Camaro ZL1 1LE with the 10-speed automatic I ran did an 11.5-second quarter mile at 124.0 mph (200 km/h) on an unprepared surface, and my quickest race time in the 797-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye was 11.8 seconds at 128.0 mph (206 km/h).

The challenge all of these cars have is putting the power to the pavement without wheelspin. Although Ford calls its selectable-rpm system launch control, it is not. It merely allows the driver to press both pedals to the floor at a determined rpm before releasing the brake. Like the Porsche PDK transmission, the clutches engage inside the twin-clutch gearbox at a predetermined rate, but unlike a Porsche, there’s nothing “looking” at wheelspin and attempting to reduce/optimize it. You’re on your own to “pedal” the throttle. A couple tricks Drag mode does is to soften the rear dampers for better rear-bias weight transfer and what the Tremec engineer called “over-torque” shifting, which is a lot like a “no-lift” shift in a manual transmission. Unlike the 80 millisecond shifts in Sport or Track modes that briefly pause the throttle/engine inertia before seamlessly engaging the next highest gear, over-torque maintains wide-open throttle and slurs two shifts together to exploit the surge of inertia, and you can feel it in the small of your back. They’re not the quickest shifts, but they do produce better ETs at the drag strip. These are impressive times, and we can’t wait to get a loaner and experiment with some different launch techniques. I bet there’s a 10 in it.

Where’s the Pimple?

Honestly, the only letdown is the GT500’s interior. The seats, both the base units and the optional Recaros, are absolutely fabulous and supportive. The faux suede steering wheel is perfect. The full-color LCD dash is clear and easy to navigate. The rest of it, though, looks, feels, and functions just like a $43,000 USD Mustang GT Premium. There are hard plastics on the dash and trans tunnel. The new rotary shifter doesn’t look racy or feel particularly robust or substantial. Slapping some carbon fiber on the dashboard isn’t enough. The sense of occasion one feels when driving the car or looking at its outrageous body doesn’t carry into the interior.

GT500 in Perspective

I realize this review largely ignores the base car. The reason for this was because the base car is what I expected of the GT500: Come for the power, stay for the slides. On the same racetrack, the base GT500 was brilliant in the way it does not have enough grip to control the power or the lateral forces the R can. There’s more body motion, so it feels alive and feisty and just plain fun. It’s also utterly pleasant on the road, quiet enough for easy conversation, but with power and noise in reserve when you want it.

The GT500R, on the other hand, was completely unexpected. It’s one of those cars that comes out of nowhere every few years that leaves folks like me speechless until I have time to absorb the experience and reflect on what it means. What it means is that American muscle has arrived on the European supercar scene, and it means business. I can’t help but think of those early Shelby Cobras and later the Ford GT40s grabbing the podium spots at Le Mans in the 1960s. This isn’t that, but in the civilian world, something like that is happening right now. Go, Team America! To nominate the 2020 Ford Mustang GT500R to participate in next year’s MotorTrend Best Driver’s Car is a no-brainer; the GT350 came in second place this year. The GT500R has an even better shot at winning. Watch this space.