2011 Ford Shelby GT500 First Drive

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2011 Ford Shelby GT500 First Drive

2011 Ford Shelby GT500 First Drive

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Smoky burnouts, lurid powerslides, brutalized rev-limiters. These are all things you might expect from the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500, and you'd be right to, based on previous versions. But that's not what we're giving you. Instead, we're giving you what the 2011 GT500 gave us: a surprisingly good time on one of the best road courses in the country.

The 2010 Shelby GT500 isn't a bad car by any means. Brutally powerful, competent enough in the curves and fundamentally comfortable, if not all that luxurious for a car in the neighborhood of $50,000. But the 2011 massages the 2010s faults, tosses in a little more civility and manages to turn up the performance as it gears up to chase down much more expensive and refined grand tourers.

Disclaimer: Ford flew us out to Virginia International Raceway, let us run the full course, and stuffed us full of buffet-line food as we sampled the 2011 Shelby GT500.

We've already given you the full run-down on the 2011 model-year improvements to the GT500, but here's the crib sheet: 10 more horsepower, a Ford GT-derived 5.4-liter wet-sump aluminum block, 120 pounds in weight savings, 1 mpg better fuel economy for a 15/23 mpg rating that evades the gas guzzler tax, electric power-assisted steering (EPAS), and a sharper new SVT performance package that includes super-sticky new Goodyear tires, forged aluminum wheels, and a shorter 3.73 rear-end ratio.

Better Tires, Better Suspension

Sharper, more balanced and controlled handling is the first thing you'll notice if you get the chance to drive the 2010 and 2011 GT500s back-to-back as we did at VIR this week.

The 2010, while still quite quick if you keep your inputs in check, simply feels less sorted. Some might say it's deliciously uncouth, but we just find it to be a bit sloppy. The rear end wants to wander around under very hard braking, and also tends to step sideways under acceleration, mostly thanks to its very nose-heavy weight distribution. The softer, less coherent suspension setup makes transferring weight back and forth, as you have to through the Snake or the Esses at VIR, a nerve-wracking proposition at high speeds. Even the steering is a bit vague.

But not so in the 2011 GT500. Apart from a stiffer, more aggressively damped suspension that helps to control the car in all situations, the lighter aluminum block engine contributes to less weight on the front axle and a better overall distribution that's directly and noticeably reflected in the car's dynamics: tail-wagging is kept to a minimum whether under brake or gas, and mid-corner, the car feels much more balanced, though it does still tend toward understeer if you don't plan properly.

The stiffer springs and 11 mm lower front and 8 mm lower rear ride heights with the SVT package contribute to the more planted feeling, while a Z-brace stiffens the chassis and foam in the A-pillar stiffens the car further in the convertible, a 12 percent improvement over the 2010 GT500.

Specially-developed Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G: 2 tires deserve a lot of the credit for the 2011's improved all-around feel and grip levels, too. Whether diving over a crest into a blind left-hander or powering through an undulating uphill section, the tires inspired confidence. Progressive breakaway, plenty of noise when working at the limit, and simply huge levels of grip mark them as some of the best road-going tires we've experienced.

This concoction of tires and suspension makes the most of the 550 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque on tap in the 2011 model--up 10 horsepower from the 2010 GT500, and though we went into the day with the dread of numb-feeling EPAS, we were pleasantly surprised to find feel of the 2011 better on the whole than the 2010. The tires, upgraded suspension, and better weight distribution all surely play a role in this as well, but it's worth noting that Ford got it right where many carmakers, including sports/luxury marques, have failed.

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