Review: 2011 Ford Shelby GT 500

Up Front

The rear-wheel-drive Ford Shelby GT500 is one of the all-time best muscle cars ever to hit the pavement, and the 2011 is the best GT500 ever. It ranks right up there with such great sportscars as the comparably priced Corvette Grand Sport.

If you want one, however, move fast: Ford has restricted production of the 2011 GT500 to 5,500 units, and a spokesman says sales already are "very close" to the cap. Keep in mind that General Motors is rumored to be bringing out its much-delayed and superpowerful Z28 Camaro for the 2012 model year. The Z28 will probably be announced right after the arrival of the new Camaro convertible in early 2011. If you prefer the new Camaro's radical, narrow-windowed styling to the Mustang's retro, pony car look, it might be worth waiting a year, because the Z28 will probably match the Shelby's performance.

Meantime, the 2011 GT500 is the best there is. The rap on the previous GT500 was that it was too heavy, with too much weight in the front end. Ford's Special Vehicle Team, which also developed the F150 SVT Raptor pickup truck, fixed that by replacing the iron block in the car's big honking V8 engine with aluminum, excising 102 lbs. in the process. The change helped reduce the percentage of overall weight in the front end to 55.7 percent—still not ideal, but enough of a difference to improve handling significantly.

The SVT designers also gave the 2011 a new electric power-assist steering system and managed to raise the rated power of its supercharged, 5.4-liter V8 to 550 horsepower, 10 horses more than the 2010 model (and 45 more than a Corvette Z06). The GT500's engine produces an incredible 510 lb.-ft. of torque, enough to give the Shelby near supercar-style acceleration. The only transmission is a six-speed manual.

Add-ons That Are Worth It

Starting price is $49,495 for the GT500 coupe and $54,495 for the convertible. Expect options to add another $5,000 or so, however. Notably, the $3,495 SVT Performance Package is a must. It adds larger wheels, high performance tires, a limited slip rear axle, a sportier suspension setting, a rear spoiler, and unique racing stripes (which can be deleted if you want a more sedate, wolf-in-sheep's-clothing look). I can't see buying a car like the GT500 and not paying up for these add-ons.

The 2011 GT500 no longer carries a gas-guzzler tax, because it's rated to get 15 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway, for an average of 17—one mpg better than before. That puts it about in the middle of the pack among comparable stick shift coupes. Ratings are 17/26/20 for the Mustang GT, 16/24/19 for a Camaro 2SS, 14/22/16 for the Challenger SRT-8, and 14/20/16 for the BMW (BMWA:GR) M3.

The GT500 should give Ford a small boost in its fierce battle with the Chevy Camaro, which (as I predicted in my review of the 2010 Ford Mustang GT) for the first time in years is outselling the Mustang. In the first seven months of this year, overall Camaro sales soared 139.3 percent, to 53,864, while Mustang sales jumped 17.4 percent, to 47,524. With the Camaro convertible and Z28 on the way, it's going to be tough for the Mustang to catch up.

Behind the Wheel

Good as it is, the GT500 is far from perfect. The rear seat is cramped and holds only two passengers. The interior has too much unattractive vinyl for a $50,000-plus car—and 50 grand is a lot to be paying for a muscle car, anyway.

More particular to my situation, top-speed in my test car was limited to 80 mph, and Ford was unable to get me the proper ignition key to remove that annoying restriction (part of Ford's "My Key" feature that allows owners to program the key). This made test-driving the GT500 a little like making love while wearing a raincoat. Making matters worse, Ford wouldn't give me permission to drive the car on a racetrack.

So why am I giving the GT500 my top, five-star rating? Take one out for a test spin, and you'll immediately understand. This car is just sooooooo sweet to drive. I fell in love with it almost as soon as I started the engine. Among other things, it has one of the most appealing exhaust notes of any car in existence. The engine rumbles, growls, and howls in ways that absolutely define the muscle car experience.

The Shelby GT500 is almost obscenely fun to drive. Car and Driver magazine clocked the 2011 coupe in 4.1 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, four-tenths of a second faster than the previous GT500. That's about the same as a Corvette GS and several clicks faster than the 2011 M3 coupe, which BMW rates at 4.5 seconds.

Easy on the Driver's Muscles

Adding to the excitement, shift throws in the GT500 are extremely short and tight. You cuff the glassy white cue-ball shifter hard, and the change of gears is immediately achieved. The electric steering is precise and requires relatively little driver muscle. The recalibrated suspension and improved weight distribution keep the car well-centered during hard cornering. The huge Brembo brakes, standard on all four wheels, bite even harder than before.

In a pinch, the Shelby GT500 is sufficiently comfortable for daily driving. Even with the Performance Package, the suspension is stiff but reasonably smooth except on very bumpy roads. And the clutch is easy on the driver's thigh muscles. It doesn't have the powerful spring that makes shifting gears in old-school muscle cars like doing one-legged squats in a gym.

I see GT500 more as a second or third car, however, than a daily driver, a vehicle to be taken out of the garage mainly on weekends and special occasions. That's partly because the fuel economy in muscle cars is so lousy, but also because the engine is so powerful the car is difficult to control, especially on gravel (and, no doubt, in snow). This is a two-door coupe, and getting into the rear seats is a chore. And there's only enough space to accommodate two kids comfortably.

The GT500 has some of the usual comfort and convenience features but lacks others. Cruise control, a power driver's seat, and Ford's Sync multimedia system are all standard; the convertible comes with a power soft-top. A $2,340 electronics package includes a navigation system and a hard-drive-based CD and DVD player with satellite and high-definition radio. A glass roof costs an extra $1,995.

Niceties such as heated and ventilated seats, full leather interior, backup camera, and rear-seat entertainment system are not offered as standard options.

Buy it or Bag It?

The typical buyer of a GT500 is a well-heeled male of a certain age. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), 90 percent of buyers are men; only the BMW M3, at a mere 8 percent, has fewer female buyers. The average GT500 buyer's age is a relatively elevated 48, according to PIN, compared with 46 for the Challenger SRT-8, 45 for the Camaro 2SS, and just 42 for the BMW M3.

With an average selling price of $53,491, according to PIN, the GT500 coupe is relatively pricey. It's a bargain compared with the 2011 BMW M3 (average selling price: $68,845), but it's far more expensive than a 2011 Chevy Camaro 2SS ($37,465) and 2010 Dodge Challenger SRT-8 ($44,116). Ford's own 2011 Mustang GT Premium coupe, which is powered by a 412-horsepower V8, starts at mere $33,695.

You get macho good looks and plenty of power for thousands less in a Camaro, Challenger, or Mustang GT. But if you want the best car in the class, you have to pay up for the Shelby GT500, at least until the Camaro Z28 finally makes its appearance.

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