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Driving the Shelby GT500, the most powerful car Ford has ever made

The 760-horsepower Shelby GT500 is the most powerful factory-produced car Ford has ever made. But that alone doesn’t mean it’s good. This a performance car, not a power generator, so it needs a whole lot more than just an engine.

Fortunately, the GT500 brings it all.

I test drove the GT500 outside of Las Vegas. We started out near a drag strip, but the first thing Ford did was point me toward the Nevada desert so I could drive it on roads that twisted through massive rock formations and up steep hills. The Nevada Highway Patrol was already on the alert for people in brightly colored Fords with big black grills. So there would not be an opportunity to test the power from the GT500’s 5.2-liter supercharged V8 on this route. I’d have to wait for that.

It was a fine way to spend a morning, though. The views were spectacular and the ride, at roughly the speed limit, wasn’t nasty or jarring. The transmission was especially impressive in this low-key role. The GT500 has a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Without getting all technical, a dual-clutch transmission provides whip-quick gear changes and a very direct feeling of connection between the engine and the wheels.

These sorts of transmissions often feel their best when the gas pedal is pressed hard, but the GT500 is perfectly happy to amble along with the engine making a comforting burble from under the hood. Even the optional Recaro racing seats, firm and thin, were comfortable. If it weren’t for its truck-sized appetite for gasoline — it manages about 18 miles a gallon on the highway — the Shelby GT500 would be terrific for a road trip.

I was in for an even bigger surprise later on when we moved to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s race track. I was strapped into a version of the GT500 with the optional high-performance tires and was given instructions to try out the brakes. There was no question I’d be doing that. I was very concerned about cornering ability and knew I’d be slowing down a lot before I threw this car into a curve. I’d driven the last generation of the GT500, which went out of production in 2014. That one had a 662 horsepower V8 engine and it cornered like a loosely packed wagon load of bowling balls. Ford engineers told me they’d improved the handling a lot on the new GT500.

And they were right. The steering could be a bit sharper and, personally, I’d prefer a car with less mass in its nose, even if it meant less power. But still, the GT500 provided absolutely no unpleasant surprises.

The brakes were huge and stopped the car quickly. They were also easy to control. I learned to trust the rest of this car and whipped the GT500 through turns faster and faster. It felt balanced and confident. Then I got a little too relaxed and went into a curve with too much speed. The front tires lost their hold and the GT500 slid sideways across the asphalt. A little steering adjustment bought everything easily back into line. I credit the car, more than my own skill, for the easy save.

I also wanted to see how that transmission handled the track. The GT500 has steering wheel paddles so I could choose when to shift gears but I let the car do that. As I sped toward a curve, amber lights reflected in the windshield to tell me the engine was approaching its redline — the maximum speed before it would need to shift gears. Then it shifted instantly to that higher gear until I hit the brakes and it downshifted to a lower gear. It was already in just the right gear as I blasted out of a curve and sped on to the next one. The GT500 never fumbled and every gear change was carried off with amazingly fluid smoothness.

The only downside of the transmission, and one of my few disappointments with the GT500, is how you put the car in gear. Like a lot of new Ford cars, it has a knob for selecting Drive, Park or Reverse. That’s just fine in a Ford Edge but in a 760 horsepower tire-shredding performance car, turning that big knob makes track day feel just a little too close to laundry day.

Finally, I went to the dragstrip. The GT500 makes this stuff easy for amateurs. An automatic Line Lock feature holds the front brakes while the back wheels spin for ready-made smoky burnouts to heat up the back tires. Launch Control makes for quick starts — zero to 60 miles an hour in 3.3 seconds — then the rest is just holding the steering wheel straight and the gas pedal to the floor for a full quarter mile. Running the quarter mile in under 11 seconds is possible, according to Ford. I managed it in a couple of tenths over 11 seconds, reaching 130 miles an hour as I crossed the finish line. This was paint-by-numbers racing. All the hard work was done for me.

With performance like this, the Shelby GT500’s $73,000 base price seems not so bad. With options, some versions I drove cost a good deal more. Still, for this kind of horsepower and speed, you’re usually looking at half-million-dollar supercars from Italy, not Mustangs from Michigan. There are a number of cars that are more fun in ordinary driving on normal roads but the GT500 is for those who want the ultimate in performance. If that’s what you’re after, it’s a hard deal to beat.

CNN

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