Secrets of the 2020 Shelby GT500, revealed

2020 Shelby GT500

The 2020 Shelby GT500 is the greatest pony car of all time.

Period.

No qualifications necessary. 

Choose any measure of supremacy you like, and the Maximum Mustang will gratify you. Do you value straight-line speed above all? The GT500 will dip into a 10-second quarter-mile with no more input than the press of a button and a two-pedal brake stand to start. Are you a track day rat? Then you’ll appreciate the hilariously untroubled way this Iowa-class coupe makes raw road course pace while being remarkably parsimonious with consumables. What if you don’t care about either, but are entirely focused on the Cars-and-Coffee scene or the Friday-night cruise-in? Not a problem; be one of the first to take delivery, and all eyes will be on you. 

Which is not to say the GT500 is perfect. It has two flaws, to be discussed at the end of this article. Before we get to those, however, let’s dish the dirt about a few of the alpha-pony’s secrets.

#1: They know you’re going to swap the supercharger pulley...

Eaton’s largest OEM-fitment supercharger absolutely shines on the GT500; it’s also present on the Corvette ZR1, but in this application it feels more alive and more responsive than it does on the Chevrolet. At peak output, it takes over 100 horsepower to operate but it still delivers a 235-horse gain for 760 hp at 7300 rpm and 625 lb-ft of torque at 5000—all from an engine that displaces “just” 5.2 liters. If that’s not enough, we confirmed with an Eaton rep that this setup was successfully tested with smaller pulley sizes “just for purposes of stress and measurement.” The supercharger relies on a separate oil supply; its bespoke lubricant can maintain temperatures of 150 degrees Celsius.

2020 Shelby GT500
Ford

#2: This dual-clutch transmission shouldn’t need exotic-style service

Tremec’s TR-9070 DCT is an absolute tour de force in this application, perfectly mimicking a fluid-drive automatic in stop-and-start use and drag starts but meeting or exceeding the fully-loaded performance of the systems fitted to current McLaren, BMW, and Porsche track specials. Some of those systems are notorious for requiring frequent repair, which is generally considered part of exotic car ownership but won’t sit well with the Mustang crowd. How often will the two primary clutch packs of the Tremec need replacement?

“We don’t know, because we aren’t wearing them out in testing,” Tremec’s Mike Kidd told us. “The clutches don’t show measurable wear.” The secret, apparently, is a system that allows the clutches to run “dry” during most engagement scenarios to prevent slippage but can apply fluid when necessary to manage temperature. The clutch packs themselves are massive, which leads to another question: What’s the weight penalty? “60 pounds over the equivalent manual… but that doesn’t include the clutch assembly for the manual, which is weighed separately.”

#3: The GT500 is easy on tires and brakes, by design

Look through the CarbonRevolution wheels (on GT500s so equipped, as part of the $18,500 Carbon Fiber Track Package)  and you’ll see a very simple-looking Brembo setup with plain (non-drilled) discs. In an era where even SUVs are coming with carbon-ceramic brakes, why equip a warp-speed two-ton car with oversized iron brakes? The answer is cost—not cost of purchase, but cost of usage on-track. Pad compound is shared with the GT350R, and it’s remarkably adequate to the task of repeatedly shedding 50 to 90 miles per hour on corner entry. The tires are “FP” spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 models. They use three different rubber compounds—the non-FP aftermarket “MPSCs” use two compounds—and are “conservatively” rated at 180 treadwear. We witnessed the cars put their tires through dozens of heat cycles in a day without significant degradation. It’s possible that the big Shelby will be cheaper to run as a track day car than the majority of its high-horse competition. 

2020 Shelby GT500
Ford

So, what’s it like to drive?

Ford’s press launch for the GT500 gave us a chance to drive a non-Carbon-Track-Package car on a 93-mile loop outside Las Vegas, followed by laps of the outfield 2.4-mile road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (with Carbon Track Pack) and a half-dozen dragstrip runs (without). 

First impressions: This may be a $101,000 car when fully equipped, but you wouldn’t know it from the interior, which offers just a splash of carbon fiber and a few contrast stitches on the doors to distinguish it from Premium variants of the GT and EcoBoost Mustangs. The metal-ringed rotary shifter is frustratingly flimsy. This isn’t just a Ford problem—every other car to have this sort of transmission control has the same issue, so why not choose a different method? 

On the roll, however, the Mustang feels like it’s milled from the proverbial steel billet. Put the active exhaust in quiet mode, and this is a livable long-distance cruiser. The optional Bang & Olufsen sound system is good enough, by pony car or exotic car standards, but Ford and their partners at Harman know how to make a better sound system and they do it in the entire modern Lincoln range. 

Most owners will be too busy listening to the exhaust, which lacks the GT350’s contralto scream at high revs but still flirts with the exotic in full-throttle situations. Think first-gen Audi R8 through an aftermarket cat-back. Thankfully, the engine control computer is content to merely rev-match and shift gears without the completely fake flatulence noise so beloved of VW and Porsche’s transmission engineers. From the outside, the Tremec DCT almost sounds like the ultra-quick conventional automatic deployed in the Camaro ZL1, but the flow of power is utterly uninterrupted despite the audible slur of the shift. 

Obviously, the GT500 looks properly serious, although the visual aggression comes at the cost of some outward visibility courtesy of the priapic bonnet and rearview-mirror-bisecting tail. It won’t be confused with a GT350—or an EcoBoost High Performance, for that matter. There are three spoiler packs—the base model which is remarkably aggressive, a $1500 optional extension package which adds depth to the front splitter and rear spoiler, and the Carbon Track Pack which is most readily identifiable by the endplates on the wing. 

2020 Shelby GT500
2020 Shelby GT500
2020 Shelby GT500
Ford

Be warned that this car will spin the rear tires at 80 mph when you call for a full-throttle downshift, and that the traction control will permit enough squirm at the rear in that situation to make you think twice about doing it again. In practice, however, this mild wiggle-waggle is preferable to an intrusive torque cutout. A greater concern is the rate at which the GT500 picks up speed on the public road; it’s not that far off a modern literbike in that respect, right down to the two-second gap between most shifts. 

At the Las Vegas (drag)strip, your profoundly incompetent and NHRA-ignorant author turned a 11.38@128 and an 11.42@130 on the base-package Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires. One Ford engineer took a turn and returned a 10.97@127. There’s no trick to it; as with the ZL1, this Shelby has line-lock and launch control adjustable in 100-rpm increments. As you’d expect, these times are traction-limited, with the computer struggling mightily to keep things in line well into third gear. 

It was around the LVMS outfield course that the Shelby truly shone. To begin with, it has the sanest and most admirable tire size choices ever seen in a modern American performance car: 305-20 in front and 315-20 in back. This negligible 10mm “stagger,” compared to the 50mm of difference on a 7th-generation Corvette, is the key to the GT500’s impeccable on-track demeanor. You turn the wheel, and the Mustang turns in. Simple as that. If you ask too much, the nose pushes a bit—but this is easily canceled with a bit of extra “maintenance throttle” in the middle of the corner. 

Body roll is almost nonexistent; plenty of Mustang racers in NASA and SCCA would kill for this kind of chassis control. They’d also love to have the ABS, which under normal track conditions is felt as a light rumble beneath the pedal and in a Katy-bar-the-door situation like a deliberate late-brake on the roller-coaster entrance to LVMS’s Turn One swells to a mild vibration underfoot even as the two-ton bulk of the GT500 is putting clear air under its tires at triple-digit speeds. No front-engined sports car in this author’s experience has been this stable under braking. Certainly not one with this frankly Nero-esque excess of both weight and power.

2020 Shelby GT500
Ford

Really, the magic of the GT500 is that it never feels heavy at speed, not even compared to its GT350R sibling. This is a trick that GM engineers have pulled twice now, with the fifth-generation Z/28 and the sixth-generation 1LE cars, but Ford hasn’t cracked the code prior to 2020. Now that it has, those of us who preferred the Camaro as a sporting proposition will be harder-pressed to justify that car’s visibility and interior-quality shortcomings. 

Yes, you can drift this Mustang at the exit of 90 mph corners, with no penalty whatsoever. The stability control permits just enough slide to imply heroism to observers without terrifying the driver. Countersteer to correct, or don’t—it makes no difference, you’ll leave the turn nose-first. The 2013 “Trinity” GT500 did not suffer fools with anywhere near the level of cheer exhibited by the new model.

The combination of brilliant turn-in, tremendous lateral grip even on broken track surfaces, an ability to swallow most curbs as if they do not exist, and kindergarten-simple throttle adjustability on corner exits… well, those are the ingredients for true greatness in a track day car. There are just a few current-production cars which have that combination, and even fewer below a hundred grand. The Lotus Evora 410, the C7 Grand Sport, the Camaro ZL1 1LE… that’s just about it. Add the GT500 to this list, while noting that is a vastly superior daily driver to everything else on said list. 

There are two reasons not to buy it. The first is the lack of a clutch pedal. Some people will buy a GT350R for this reason, and they’ll swear into their chinbars when they have a GT500 in their mirrors at an open-lapping day. The Tremec DCT is flawless and hugely impressive. It should be a flawless and hugely impressive option. 

The second problem with the big Mustang is, frankly, price. The Shelby is obviously worth every penny—compare it to how much car Porsche gives you for the same amount of money, or with something like a BMW M4 GTS—but nevertheless, it’s knocking on the door of $105k before the inevitable dealer markup. As with the current Navigator, this is a case of Ford’s recently-discovered tendency to give you everything you want, and make you pay dearly for it. And yes, you could do without the Carbon Track Pack, particularly if you never plan to take it off the street --- but you’ll get tired of justifying that choice to everyone you meet.  

If you don’t mind letting the car shift for you, and if your HELOC can stand the strain, the GT500 is recommended without reservation. A slightly more characterful experience can be had from the GT350R, the same approximate on-track pace can be had for $30,000 less at the Chevrolet dealer, and Chrysler will sell you a widebody Hellcat for a similar level of main-street appeal. If you want the complete package, however—if you want the finest pony car ever made, one that makes supercars seem ridiculous and one that will make you the envy of everyone from corner workers to the auctioneers of the year 2050—well, in that case, there’s just one choice. To paraphrase Scrooge, there’s more of Ferrari than of Falcon about the GT500. You’ll want one.