First Drive: 2013 Ford Shelby GT500

662 HP! The 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 is, let's face it, an absolutely insane vehicle. An absurd amount of power, a ludicrous amount of engineering, and a horsepower-to-money ratio that can only be measured on the metric batshit scale. Weirdly, my biggest complaint is how utterly sane it feels.

I should clarify that a bit. Calling the car insane is by no means an insult. The amount of engineering put into the car is staggering. The highest-output production V8, a brand new carbon-fiber driveshaft that is the key to getting a 200+ mph top speed out of the car, six separate and independent cooling systems, that huge supercharger, a very well sorted suspension setup (even with the live axle— more on that later), acceptable fuel economy, the list goes on. A lot of people spent an awful lot of time engineering this remarkable machine. That's not the insane part.

The insane part is why this car has such amazing engineering. All this effort, all this technology and development and testing is to do one thing: make one old man happy.

Full Disclosure: Ford wanted me to drive the GT500 so badly, they flew me out to Atlanta, put me up in some overdone hotel owned by the Panoz guy, gave me food and booze. Plus, they treated me like I mattered, a charade that must have been pretty distasteful.

The old man is not just any old man, he's the late Carroll Shelby. While Shelby American didn't build this car, Carroll Shelby was on hand to consult and act as a sort of spirit guide. They showed a bunch of video of Shelby testing the car, driving it as recently as last April, when the 88 year old got it up to a solid 160, against the safety guys' wishes. I also heard his macular degeneration at the time was so bad he likely could only see blurry colors and shapes— but it takes a lot more than no vision to keep that man from driving, apparently.

View gallery »

The revealing part of the video was one offhanded comment Shelby made: "People want to leave a Corvette in the dust at a stop light." That seemed like just another funny Shelbyism, but that quote is actually the most accurate depiction of this car's purpose than anything. Coming after the engineers' talk about their work, displaying the underside of the car in front of us, with every part that they had redesigned just for the new GT500 arrayed out on display tables all around us— that quote made me realize the incredible lengths people will go just to see if they can. In some ways, it's the ultimate "because racecar."

But it's also crazy. Despite all the talk of the GT500's amazing all-around abilities, from track to dragstrip to road, the truth is only 7% of GT500 owners ever do anything remotely competitive with the car, and that 7% is just dragstrip use. Any other motorsport use or tracking is much less. So, all this capability, all this power will be at minimum 90% untapped. The Ford SVT engineers were very forthcoming about this, freely admitting most of the GT500s they sell will be garage queens that never do anything more than rev loudly at stoplights.

First Drive: 2013 Ford Shelby GT500

And this is a shame, because the car is wildly capable. Let's just look at the specs. The $54,200 you plonk down (closer to $65K with performance and track packages) gets you a supercharged 5.8 L V8 making 662 HP/631 lb-ft, a limited-slip Torsen differential, six-speed gearbox, a very impressive traction control system and pretty much everything— from the brakes to the propshaft— being the most robust you can imagine. There's six separate cooling systems: engine coolant, oil, supercharger, differential, transmission, and the HVAC system. The engine runs so hot they eliminated the mesh of the grille because it blocked too much airflow, leaving the gaping maw that wants to eat you. The car weighs 3852 lbs, with a 56/44 distribution.

It looks the part, too. The new front facia, designed to suck air like a hyperventilating land-elephant, has a great agressive look, with a strong forward rake reminiscent of late 60s-early 70s Mustangs, The car is wide and fairly low, with a steeply raked windshield that I whacked my head on getting out of the car. On the convertible, it's a bit disconcerting for shorter drivers, as the top windshield edge and visors feel like they're right in front of your face. The interior is pretty nice, with great Recaro seats and decent plastics, though there's lots of parts-bin controls. There's alcantara inserts on the wheel, giving an oddly fuzzy feel, and making you imagine the sweet, Muppet-like alcantaras that gave their lives so you could have a novel grip experience.

It's also by far the best horsepower to dollar value out there: $81.87/HP. Compare that to a similarly-powered Ferrari 599 GTB Firoano ($539.21/HP), or the cheaper Scion FR-S ($124.65/HP). So if your goal is to save money by buying horsepower wholesale, this is absolutely your car.

Those are just numbers. You want to know what it's like to drive this thing. Before I drove it, I was a bit nervous— anyone not at least a little cautious before getting behind the wheel of anything with over 600 horsies is either a liar or I guess just used to it. Remember, there were locomotives with less power than this car. All the cars I currently own added up don't even come close to the power this car makes. Based on my past experiences, I was expecting something of a brute.

I was very wrong. The car is incredibly powerful, and you can absolutely feel it. You can hear it and smell it, and when you put your foot to the floor its like a hundred invisible ghosts are yanking you back into your seat by your hair. But what it isn't, incredibly, is savage. The engineers may have done too good a job, in some ways, taming and channeling the force of the beast. I came in expecting a Sasquatch, and instead found a Sasquatch who has an MFA from Princeton and just made me an amazing frittata. This is both the most impressive thing and the biggest letdown of the GT500.

See, you kind of want it to be a bit of a brute— or, more accurately feel like one. It's very composed on the road, the clutch is satisfyingly firm but not grabby, the power delivery is loud, potent, and ultimately controllable. All good qualities.

First Drive: 2013 Ford Shelby GT500

Overall, handling was better than I assumed it would be. The live rear axle (which one engineer admitted was still a "great debate") was set up well enough that I honestly didn't find myself wishing for an IRS rear. Maybe on rough surfaces or a cobblestone track it would make more of a difference, but on Road Atlanta's tarmac, I found it very well composed. The car is pretty neutral with a hint of understeer, and can be made to oversteer enough to keep things exciting. Brakes are incredible, stopping forcefully and without drama, and the transmission is interesting. Great lever, with a fine white simple knob, but the ratios do take some getting used to. For example, you can hit 60 in first, and third is a wildly tall gear that can easily break 100. I'm pretty sure I touched 130 in 3rd gear at one point. You could almost drive the car like a loud automatic in first only around town.

I didn't tap a tenth of what the car is capable of, and I know it. It was fun, and riding alongside the SVT team's drivers was very fun as well, but the truth is despite how capable the car felt, I realized I had more fun last month throwing the FR-S around the track.

The issue may be that driving the FR-S was something much more in tune with my limited skills; I could push it closer to the limit and really thrash it around the track, and have a great time, feeling like the car is a roughly equal partner in the business of whipping around as fast as we can and having fun. The GT500 is so much more powerful, so much faster, and bigger and purposeful that I never really felt like I could let go and just have fun.

I'm a little conflicted, to be honest. On one hand, I resent how much the traction assist and related systems are taming the car, yet I know I could hardly drive the damn thing without them. With traction controls all off, a professional or very skilled driver could easily have me wetting myself with lavish abandon, yet that doesn't do me any good. Traction control on, I get something I won't kill myself in, but you're always aware that you're not getting what you could out of the machine, and that holding back feeling takes some of the fun away.

On the dragstrip, the engineer's skills at beast-taming were even more evident, thanks to a launch control system that can let any novice drag racer (like me) run 12s in the quarter mile at speeds of about 120. Without really working that hard. Skilled racers can, of course, do much better, but it's telling that lots of energy went into making a dragging application for the car that almost any owner can use.

Details like the clutch effort for the launch control reflect this. The clutch release was designed to be more gradual than your gut would tell you to do because they know that the people who actually buy these cars aren't going to want to dump the clutch. Callow, insensitive auto journalists who don't have to repair it are fine popping the clutch, but the launch control is made for the owners.

First Drive: 2013 Ford Shelby GT500

The in-dash little LCD screen (very nice, high resolution) even has "driving apps" that let owners clock their 0-60 times, G-forces, and more, so there's always a way for an owner to play with his or her expensive new toy and get some bragging numbers in the process.

Really, all my issues with this car aren't really problems with the car itself, but rather the idea of this car. I just don't have that much need to drive 200 mph, and what's more, I'm not even sure I'm that interested in that. I found myself wanting less power, less weight, and less size as I was on the track. I'm told the Boss Mustang is a better track choice for many of these reasons.

We know this car isn't likely to be bought and used for the track, anyway. A small percentage will occasionally drag it, which it's good at, but most never will. So what's all this power for? It sounds great, and you can fulfill Shelby's dream of stoplight ass-kickery, but what a few of Ford's product people told me is probably more true. People just like to know they could go 200 mph if they had to. They like the idea of 662 horses under that hood, even if those horses never break a sweat.

When the aliens abduct me and start asking me questions about how things work on Earth, after the easy ones ("What is this thing you humans call "love"?) I'm sure they'll get to the Shelby GT500. "Why would anyone need 662 Earth-Horse-Power in something they hardly ever drive above 80 mph?" they'll ask. And I won't really have an answer. I guess I'll just have to tell them to shove a helmet over whichever one of those fleshy bulbs has their brain in it, and go drive one and see.