Your car has stole my heart away.
I'm gonna learn to drive it if it takes me all night and day…
Apologies to Chuck Berry for that clumsy paraphrase, but Carroll Shelby was rightly proud of the last car to bear his name in his lifetime: the Shelby Ford Mustang GT500 has the power to move you in mysterious ways, much like the Shelby Cobras of the early 1960s, and the Shelby Mustangs from later that same decade.
A 2013 Shelby Mustang has the punch of Sonny Liston, the charisma of Jay Leno and the desirability of (insert your choice of favorite hottie in here), yet its hp-per-dollar ratio is without comparison. For $55,000, you could have a very worthy 300hp-plus four-door sedan packed with a huge choice of options. Or you could have a reasonably practical 662hp coupe that reminds you that sometimes it's good to go driving for the sheer thrill of it.
Sure, there are days – especially once you're the wrong side of 40 – when you'd take the easy option, when you'd choose the luxury sedan that does everything except give you a foot massage and fake your résumé to include successful forays into atom-splitting. But unless you find the right road – twisty and radar-free – such cars feel sedate and sedated; after a long journey, they leave you impressed with their abilities, without ever allowing you the chance to flex your own.
A Shelby Mustang couldn't be more different; it's a born soul-stirrer, a challenge to drive well, but hugely rewarding. And the existence of such cars should be welcomed. You see, by the time you reach the second half of your natural existence, you've learned that the best things in life require some effort. A Mustang will never be as relaxing to drive as an Audi A6 or a Lexus LS. But if you can accept that, even this Charles Atlas-spec version is a remarkably easy machine to live with and run every day. And when you want to start using some of its talent (and a whole lot of your own), it rewards in a manner that few other new cars can do.
That doesn't mean it's a tame pony. Far from it. The Shelby lives up to the word “Mustang” which, according to my dictionary, is “a small breed of horse, often wild or half-wild, found in the southwestern U.S.” Trust me, the GT500 is fully wild. Exiting RACER's parking lot in the red menace for the first time, my right foot proved less delicate than necessary, and I abruptly found myself putting on an unintentional drifting demo. My inner Vaughn Gittin Jr. got things back in line and earned a thumbs-up from the SUV driver who pulled alongside me at the next set of lights. Yeah, totally intentional was the message I tried to convey in response but Thank you for not being a cop was what ran through my mind.
So treat this car with clumsiness or disrespect at your peril. Wheelspin in third on a dry surface is easy even with the traction control on, despite packing 20in. x 9.5in. rear tires (fronts are a mere 19in.). Sharp crests in fourth with the supercharger wound up will chirp the tires, too, especially if you've been foolish enough to set the Bilstein dampers to their hardest level. That setting should be reserved only for track work, since it not only sends itty bitty vibrations through the steering and your backside, it also causes the mechanically sympathetic driver to cringe whenever the car rolls over anything larger than a dime.
Asking the Goodyear Eagles' sidewalls to provide all the shock absorption seems a cruel step too far, given that they're taxed quite enough in transmitting all that power to the road. Some people have bemoaned the fact that the taller gearing (which improves fuel economy over the previous GT500) has stunted the Shelby's performance, but let's get things in perspective here: Car & Driver magazine proved this car will crack 60mph from standstill in 3.5sec, and hit 100 in 7.9. And with 631lb-ft of torque, it's got all the mid-range pick-up you could desire.
And that taller gearing truly is appreciated on a cruise. OK, you don't buy a Shelby Mustang for great gas mileage, but it's helpful when you're uncertain where the next gas station is and the car has only a 16-gallon tank. At a steady 85mph, the 5.8-liter (354cu.in.) engine is yawning on its divan at an indicated 1,750rpm, and the trip computer is telling you that you're returning 22mpg. Given the car's potential, those figures are fairly remarkable. In one regard, however, the engine's flexibility is a pity: the short-throw 6-speed gearbox is beautifully accurate and the clutch pedal is meaty without being overly stiff.
Still, you have to accept that this is a car centered around its engine. How could it not be when it's packing the most powerful road car V8 in production? The GT500 predictably sounds like a NASCAR stock-block on start-up and, once idling, those standing at a rear three-quarter angle will be treated to aural oscillations that bear a striking resemblance to those from a two-bladed Huey helicopter. When not providing 'Nam vets with lurid flashbacks, though, the car sounds aggressive, brutish but never strained, even as it heads toward its 7,000rpm redline. And from inside the car, you have a bonus treat – the addictive warble of the supercharger laid over that rolling thunder. Imagine locating yourself in the timpani section of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra but with the flautist sat just a couple of feet in front and you get some idea of the scale and range of sounds transmitted to the cabin when you're flexing the muscles of what is a true muscle car.
If the 2013 Shelby Mustang's straightline performance is way beyond that of its 45-year-old forbears which, even in 7-liter (428cu.in.) form, had some 300 fewer ponies under the hood (at least, for official ratings), those who have driven both old and new say there are two remarkable similarities. For instance, that engine remains too far forward for anything but understeer to occur if you go into a corner too fast and have to come off the gas. But resolving that situation is where new emulates old once more: 662hp sent through huge 21st century rear tires bears a striking resemblance to 360hp through skinnier '60s-standard rubber, and so understeer can be counteracted (and over-compensated for!) by punching the gas pedal. You need quite a bit of room to do it, though.
These sorts of antics wouldn't be possible if the steering in the current GT500 wasn't so accurate, but while it lacks feel (why do so many car manufacturers mistake increased steering weight with true feedback?), the Mustang's steering in the two heaviest of its three settings can learn to be trusted. A horribly raised and diagonal road “repair” on I-5 – encountered at night while changing lanes at typical freeway speeds, I should add – launched the car, and obliged me to apply what felt like a quarter-turn of opposite lock for what felt like a full second. Memory has certainly exaggerated the extent and length of the correction, of course, but my point is, that wasn't as unnerving a moment as it would have been in a less trustworthy car. Equally reassuring is the car's behavior under hard braking: the Brembos are wonderfully fade-free in hard use on the road, and the car doesn't nose-dive or shimmy its rear end.
If familiarity makes the Shelby Mustang predictable, still it could never be described as tame. It's slightly unfair for me to directly compare the GT500 to its chief rival because I drove them some five months apart, but hey, life ain't fair. The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is the more docile machine, and not only because it's 82hp lighter and 236lbs heavier than the GT500. The ZL1's c-of-g feels lower and its track wider, which builds confidence on initial turn in, its rear feels more solidly planted at the apex, especially on uneven surfaces, and its power delivery is slightly more linear on corner exit, despite also packing a supercharger.
If practical considerations really are considerations, then the Mustang has the edge over the Camaro with a bigger trunk and a less claustrophobic cabin due to its larger glass area. As for their interiors, well, neither is going to make a Bentley driver jealous in terms of quality, nor even a Dodge Challenger driver envious of the space available. (Unlike the Challenger, the Camaro and Mustang shouldn't even pretend to have rear seat accommodation.) Thereafter, it comes down to personal taste in design: personally I prefer the Camaro's dashboard because of its unashamedly retro appearance, but the Mustang's is a model of clarity, despite a few retro cues.
But what really sets the ZL1 and GT500 apart are their natures. The Camaro is very evidently a supercharged super-quick version of its lesser V8 and V6 brethren. By contrast, the regular Mustang driver who encounters the Shelby model for the first time will recognize it by its appearance, both exterior and interior – but its multiple organ transplants have put the driving experience on a whole different level. A great level, one that demands some commitment, but one which also raises your game as a driver, keeps you on red alert…basically, turns you into the driver you're supposed to be every time you drive any car.
If that makes you think this very special Mustang is a high-maintenance hothead, rest assured that it can cruise as well as bruise; I drove a 1,000-mile round trip (interrupted by just three fuel stops, by the way) and the Recaro seats were comfortable, the steering perfectly weighted, the pedals perfectly placed, and I emerged as fresh as if I'd driven a Mercedes-Benz S-class. Sure, maybe the stereo was a little loud to compensate for the noise intruding into the cabin, but it wasn't a hardship and to expect anything less would be absurd. In fact, my only enduring aggravation with the GT500 is one that afflicts all stick-shift Mustangs: a Venti Starbucks in the cup-holder prevents you changing gear.
So what some drivers might assume would be issues – the hard suspension, the numb steering, the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it soundtrack – became mere foibles that form the GT500's character. Or at least, that's my opinion and I admit I'm biased. After a few days, I'd grown addicted to this car, had found any and every excuse to drive it and was truly gutted when Ford took it back. The Mustang Bullitt of five years ago had a similar effect on me, to the extent that I still regularly check used prices and dream. But that was a car I felt comfortable taking to its limit. With over twice the Bullitt's power, the GT500's potential far exceeds my own, but occasionally corralling this Mustang is an unforgettable experience, and one that I'd urge every car enthusiast to try.