For those of you who don’t know me personally, about 3 weeks ago I bought a 2012 Shelby GT500. At this point, I’ve driven the car over 3500 miles, including two 1,000 mile road trips and several days worth of commuting 90 miles to and from work in traffic. I’ve also dynoed the car, taken it in for it’s first warranty repair (a minor trim issue with the Recaro seats), and generally beat on it pretty severely. What follows will be my impressions, but first, a little…
First and foremost, I am a car nut from a long line of car nuts. My dad was a hotrodder of the first order, and I grew up reading his old HotRod and CarCraft magazines. And while I generally hate working on cars, that doesn’t mean I can’t. I rebuilt a Buick Grand National turbo V6 in High School, and I understand engines and power production reasonably well.
My first experience driving a quick vehicle was my Dad’s Chevy Luv truck which had that previously mentioned Buick turbo V6 shoehorned into it. Since then, I’ve owned a 91 Eclipse Turbo, a 95 Z28, an 01 Corvette, an 03 Mustang Cobra, a 91 Miata (my son’s car), and an 06 GTO (my wife’s car). Each of these cars I’ve beaten the crap out of, and with the exception of the Eclipse and the Miata, they have all been to the track one or more times.
Now, with all of that said, the GT500 is the first car I’ve bought for myself in nearly 10 years (I bought the 03 Cobra in 2002); So buying it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it pretty solidly since the redesign was announced in 2009. Originally, I was going to wait until the 2013 model came out and the HP jumped up to 650 (along with the top speed limiter being removed and a number of other improvements), but a number of things happened that forced my hand:
- Ford, in their infinite wisdom, decided to stoke the flames and withhold availability or pricing info.
- Pricing ended up being around 10K higher than the 2012 model, but demand is likely to be high enough to cause the first 50% or so to sell for 5-10K over sticker. This basically means that I’m unlikely to be able to get the car until mid-late 2013, as I refuse to pay a markup.
- My youngest son totaled the Miata, meaning I was going to have to buy something anyway.
I decided I was unwilling to buy another junker, and equally unwilling to go into debt for something I don’t want. I also reasoned that for the 10K extra Ford is charging for the 2013, I should be able to get to 2012 into the 750-800 HP range without much issue. So, I went looking for a 2012 with the options I wanted, and quickly found two in NorCal that fit the bill.
The car I bought is equipped as follows:
- Black exterior
- Tape stripe delete
- Black interior
- SVT Performance package
- Navigation system
- Recaro seats
This is in addition to all of the standard features, like the 5.4 liter supercharged DOHC V8 rated at 550 HP and the Tremec TR6060 transmission. Here are a few pictures of the car on the day I bought it:
Currently, the car is still completely stock with the exception of one thing – The wheels and tires. The day after I bought the car, I bought a set of Steeda Spyders in 20×9.5 (front) and 20×11 (rear) along with Toyo T1R front tires and Toyo R888 rear tires. My impressions on these vs. the stock Goodyear Eagle supercar tires on SVTPP wheels will follow, but first here’s a few pics in both old and new shoes:
Well, first, this wasn’t my first experience with a 2010+ Mustang, so I had some idea what to expect. About a year ago I was on a trip and rented a 2010 V6 from Hertz, and was so impressed I said at the time that my next car would be a GT500. The overall impression I got from the car was one of quality and attention to detail, which is pretty much the last two things I ever expected from a Mustang.
Now, don’t get me wrong: A Bentley it’s not. But for a budget minded sporty car for the masses (especially one made by UAW), it’s very well done. From the USB port (along with the line in jack and 12V adapter) nestled in the center console, to the windows that automatically roll down slightly and then back up when you open and close the door to provide for a tighter seal, it’s obvious that someone put some thought and effort into the car. It’s not just a slapped-together pile of metal from Detroit.
So, like I said, my impressions of the V6 model cemented my decision to go with the GT500, but I had still never seen one up close until I got to the dealership to sign the paperwork for mine. Luckily, my dealer (James Ford) had several on the lot to look at when I got there.
Styling and Comfort
The first GT500 I saw on the lot was the most hideous color combo imaginable: a Kona Blue GT500 with red (blurgh!) stripes. A note to James Ford, if you are reading; I have no idea how long this has been on the lot, but it would sell much quicker without the stripes.
Luckily, the second GT500 I saw was a Kona blue with the stripe delete, and let me say right now that if that car had not been a stripped down model (no Nav, etc.), I would have bought it then. Kona blue is a gorgeous color when it isn’t ruined with a stripe.
Anyway, once I saw my car, my first thought was: “It’s beautiful.” This was immediately followed by “The Kona looks better.” This was followed by “The wheels actually look much better in person.”
I spent some time walking around the car, and it looks great from pretty much all angles. I’m particularly enamored with the view from the back, with one minor gripe: The stock back tires aren’t wide enough. Luckily, I was able to fix this through the aftermarket fairly easily, though it did necessitate switching to a (IMHO) worse-looking wheel.
Sitting in the car, the ergonomics are generally very good. The optional Recaro seats are comfortable and supportive, and the leather feels very nice. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is the best I’ve ever used, largely because it has suede inserts where your hands naturally rest when driving hard (2 and 10 o’clock and 4 and 8 o’clock). These are more awesome than you would think because they provide a great texture when you are really wringing out the car, and are probably pretty absorbent to boot (though I’m not real happy about sweating into my leather).
Similarly, the shift knob, shifter, and boot are all really nice pieces and I like them more than I ever anticipated. I generally hate ball shift knobs (I’m more of a Hurst T-Handle guy), but this one feels really nice and comfortable in my hand. The shifter itself is really solid looking brushed aluminum, and the boot is made out of gorgeous grey suede.
The dash has a nice aluminum facing with ‘GT500’ etched into it, and all of the switchgear seems to be of generally good quality, even if it is obviously shared with the base model Mustang. I’m not a plastic snob like Jeremy Clarkson and Co., but I can recognize cheap plastic and there is some of it here; More so than in my GTO, but less than was in my Corvette and considerably less than was in my Cobra or Z28.
The engine is not something you would normally think of when talking about styling, but as with the Cobra, the roots blower sitting on top of the V8 with it’s massive DOHC heads looks positively badassed in a Mad Max, grease-monkey kind of way. Ford paid much more attention to the look this time around than with the 03, and it shows in the Ford blue paint and attention to plumbing, along with the factory-opened heat extractors in the hood (you had to open these yourself in the 03). As with the 03 though, it’s a gorgeous thing to behold and it’s always fun to hear the sharp intake of breath followed by ‘Look at the size of that thing’ when you lift the hood.
Drivetrain and Power
First and foremost, let’s get this out of the way: Bone stock with 1,200 miles on the odometer, the car put down 508 HP (STD corrected) to the wheels. For those of you who don’t know the significance of rear wheel horsepower, let me explain. Cars are rated in Brake Horsepower (BHP), which is the measure of the raw output of the engine when it is taken out of the car, disconnected from all accessories (like AC condensers, smog pumps, alternators, etc), and allowed to just turn an engine dyno. All of those accessories, plus the additional drivetrain drag from things like the transmission and differential, typically reduce horsepower by 15-18%, so an engine rated at 550 BHP should put out somewhere between 440 and 470 rear wheel horsepower (RWHP). 508 is a little higher than expected, and leads to a BHP estimate of around 600, but this is one of the things I love about Ford’s supercharged engines: They tend to be underrated.
On the butt-o-meter, with the stock tires, the car was absolutely terrifying. Seriously, it would go sideways at the slightest provocation in first or second, and even in third you could be in for a wild ride if the tires were cold, the road wet, or you hit a bump while slamming a gear. A week after getting the car, I got it sideways at around 100 MPH, and that is probably the most butt-puckering experience of my life that didn’t involve an actual accident.
I would actually claim that the car is un-drivable in any kind of a fun manner without getting into ‘go to jail’ speeds on the stock tires. You simply can’t get fully into the boost on the stock rubber. However, put those R888’s on the back, and the whole story changes.
The R888’s take all of that power and allow you to focus and apply it directly to the ground. Step on the go pedal, and the car just goes, no drama, no effort, it just surges forward like the hand of God is pushing it. I’ve now driven over 2000 miles on the R888’s, in pretty much every condition except on the track and in heavy rain (and snow, of course), and grip-wise, these are hands-down the best tires I’ve ever used.
Anyhow, before this becomes more of a wheel and tire review than a car review, let me say that, power-wise, with the stock tires, I felt the car was seriously overpowered. Application of boost caused heavy fishtailing, and if you got too heavy on the throttle the car would get seriously out of shape. With new wheels and tires, however, speed happens in such an easy, drama free manner that it feels like a video game. The only downside to this is that you get used to it, and then the car almost feels, dare I say it, underpowered.
Luckily for me, the other big benefit of supercharged Ford modular engines is that they are easy and cheap to modify. Once the warranty runs out, I should be able to get the car into the 600-650 RWHP range for under $2,000, or step it up to 750 RWHP for around $5,000.
Interestingly enough, the car does have traction and stability control, and I have yet to cut it off. To say it’s unobtrusive is an understatement, as I have only noticed it in very obvious cases (like hitting a big bump while heavily accelerating), but it’s fairly likely that it saved my hide on one or more of my ‘sideways’ occasions. We’ll see how much it interferes at the track, but on the street, I would say it’s very livable. This is in complete contrast to the ‘punch you in the chest’ system on the 03 Cobra, and even more hands-off than the system in the GTO.
As far as the rest of the driveline is concerned, let me say that there are folk complaining about the shifting action in the TR-6060, and those folk need to get a grip on reality. Out of over 20 years of driving manual transmission cars, I would say that I have used only two transmissions that have a shorter throw than this one (a modified T-5 in my brother’s Mustang GT, and the stock 5 speed in my son’s old Miata), and none that actually ‘feel’ better.
The throw feels like a slightly dampened rifle bolt; that’s the only way I can accurately describe it. The gates are very direct, and unlike the 2-3 shift in my 03, I’ve yet to miss a shift. There is a little play in the stock shifter, but it’s minor, and doesn’t really detract. To give an idea of how much of a difference this is from the T-56, when switching from the GT500 to my GTO, I estimate the GTO has roughly 200% more overall play (the shifter feels VERY sloppy in the GTO) and at least twice the length for each throw. This is actually the first stock shifter I’ve ever had in a V8 car that I felt happy with right away.
As far as the clutch goes, I would generally categorize the hydraulic twin-disc setup as OK to good. Feel-wise, it’s neither too heavy or too light, and it’s not taxing to press or hold. The release point is easy to get used to, though it does seem to be a bit finicky about quick engagement (more on that in the gripes section). I haven’t noticed any slippage or adjustment, both of which are good signs. I have noticed that it does seem to be much more of a binary on/off type clutch than what I am used to, which may make launching tricky but should help keep it usable for a lot of miles.
Overall, from what I have seen in the drivetrain I have a lot of confidence in it going forward.
Handling and Ride Quality
Here, I’m going to have to make a brief concession: I’m not 20 anymore, and the Corvette showed me years ago that there are cars with handling limits that I am not willing to push. So far, I haven’t even come close to finding the limits of the GT500 on the new rubber.
Now, that being said, it’s not like I’ve been puttering around in it. I’ve driven all the way down the California coast from Monterey to LA on HW 1/PCH, and had a lot of fun generally giving my wife heart attacks on the curves. The GT500, however, was unimpressed. Doing double (and sometimes triple) the recommended speeds on the curves didn’t even cause a twitch or howl from the tires, so I can say that whatever the limits are, they are higher than I’m willing to experiment with at present.
Again, this is partially the car, and partially the tires. With the stock wheels and tires, the car was darty as it followed every groove in the CA roads, and the rear end would break loose somewhat unexpectedly during elevation changes through curves (a hallmark of a solid rear axle). However, with the new shoes, it’s been stable, predictable, and frankly, confidence inspiring.
Now, this is mostly limit handling I’ve been discussing, not daily driving, so let me touch on that. The biggest things that stand out to me about the handling of the car during normal driving is that it feels light and direct, much more like the Miata than any other car I’ve had, despite weighing almost 4,000 lbs. Also, the ride is very smooth, very much like the ride of the GTO when we first got it. However, like the GTO, you feel every bump in the road, and more so than any other car I’ve owned, rough roads are somewhat punishing. Again, the closest analog here is the GTO, but the GTO doesn’t absorb big shocks as well as the GT500 does.
Overall, I really like the feel of the car and I think it likely handles better than a lot of mid-range sports cars with the new tires, but I can see how folk with bad backs might want to opt for the standard suspension instead of the SVT Performance Package.
Like traction/stability control, the car also has multiple steering settings to tune the steering feel for different situations, but like TC, I have yet to change off of the default settings. To me, it feels very good as is, and I can’t imagine the other settings improving considerably, though I expect I will try them eventually.
As a geek, this is one of my favorite parts of the car. I’ve loved Sync since my first experience with it in a rental, and it doesn’t disappoint here. I got pretty much all of the electronic gizmos offered in the GT500, which means the navigation system, internal harddrive, DVD video, Sirius/XM, and Bluetooth audio.
Out of all of these, the basic Bluetooth audio is the feature I use and like the most. However, I’ve been hooked on Bluetooth headsets for a while now, and I listen to music from playlists on my phone almost exclusively, so there really isn’t a better scenario for me. Luckily, Sync is easy to pair and for Bluetooth audio, great quality. I had zero problems pairing or getting it to play using various audio players on either Android or iOS. Furthermore, I haven’t had any strange playback behavior like I have had with some cheaper headsets (I’m looking at you, Jabra).
As far as the audio is concerned, the Shaker 500 system is pretty good for a stock system, but lacks in a few key areas. First and foremost, the system doesn’t have a subwoofer worth talking about (though they claim it has two 8″ woofers), and you can tell this pretty readily once the volume goes up. This is due to the fact that the bass begins distorting pretty quickly as you raise volume, so in order to increase the volume to a level that allows quiet passages in music to be audible, you have to reduce bass to a level that is almost inaudible.
However, to be completely fair, I listen to a wide range of music with a wide range of dynamic levels, so this is probably not nearly as noticeable for someone who tends to listen to specific genres of music. For example, if I set the volume and tone controls for metal (loud and typically dynamically stable), I can get something that sounds decent with most metal music at an adequate volume level. However, if I then listen to soft jazz, it’s nearly inaudible.
Speaking of volume, you need to crank it a little more than you would expect due to cabin noise. Now, believe it or not, I don’t mind cabin noise too much. I love the sound of the engine, and I dislike weight, so reducing the amount of deadening material in the car to increase performance with the side effect of more engine noise is an acceptable outcome for me. That being said, about 50% of the noise isn’t from the engine; It’s from air flow and tire howl, which is a little worse. Luckily, this reduced slightly with the new tires, but it’s still loud enough to make talking a bit of a chore while driving.
On the positive side, the speed sensitive volume feature of the stereo is well done and works properly. Once you dial in the right levels on it, which for me was 6 on the 10 point scale, it adjusts the volume in a seamless and almost imperceptible fashion, keeping the perceived volume at a set level regardless of speed.
My second favorite electronic do-dad is the Nav system, which actually does a whole lot of stuff. First, the nav is a touch screen, but has several well thought out buttons that really improve the system by making needed functions available from all screens without eating up valuable screen real estate.
Speaking of real estate, the nav screen is HUGE. I mean, it’s not going to replace my TV anytime soon, but for a navigation screen, 8” is pretty large. It’s also bright and colorful. As a basic navigation system, it works well, generally telling you where you need to turn well ahead of time and giving you plenty of information. It also has some pretty neat features, like the ability to sort nearby gas stations by price per gallon (usually reasonably accurate), the ability to reroute you based on weather or traffic information, and a cool (but admittedly nearly useless) feature that lets you view a real time radar map of the weather. And, of course, since it’s Sync, you can control it pretty completely with your voice. That being said, it can be a pain to enter in or find the place you are trying to go, but I’ll cover that more in the ‘gripes’ section.
As far as the internal harddrive, DVD player, and Sirius are concerned, other than cursory uses, I just haven’t used them much. The DVD playback looks pretty good, but the system disables playback while the car is in motion, making it all but useless. I don’t listen to Sirius because I listen to playlists on my phone, and I won’t store music on the harddrive because A) There is no way of keeping the library updated that doesn’t involve sneakernet and B) The built-in player doesn’t scrobble. So, while these are cool features, I just don’t use them. However, there are some other cool electronic features that I do use, and which are way cool, and most of them are either just base features or Sync add-ons.
The first of these is HID headlights. This has always been a huge gripe of mine with GM cars; Their headlights seem to be universally dim. My C5 was very dim, and the GTO is the same way, but the ‘03 Cobra was adequate, and the HIDs on the GT500 are nice and bright, which is a welcome change.
After the headlights, as ricer-y as this is, I love the interior lighting. The lights are small and unobtrusive, but well placed and just the right brightness. The allow you to see the interior of the car at night without being so bright that they are a distraction while driving. Furthermore, you can set all of the interior lights to three different levels (bright, dim, and off), and can even change the color to whatever you want (blue, purple, white, green, red, etc.). As silly as it sounds, this is really cool in person.
In addition to the basic interior lighting, you can also change colors for the gauge face lighting. Not only that, but the gauges have a halo, and you can set the color of the halo independent of the color of the lettering on the gauges, which, again, sounds cheesy but is really cool in person.
Finally, you can set both a beep and a ‘SVT’ light inside the tachometer to light up at any RPM you like for a shift light. This is in addition to the entire tachometer going hard red when you hit redline, which is really cool all on it’s own.
Problems and Gripes
Now that I’ve covered my general impressions of the car, let me talk about the things that I don’t like about it. I’m going to organize these by area, and just put up bullets for each issue.
Styling and Comfort
- The car could use more USB and 12V power ports
- The back seat is not a place designed for humans; Hobbits only.
- The steering wheel does not telescope, which I find bothersome but livable.
- The glove box is too small to hold the owners manual, and the door pockets are too small to hold anything.
- The Recaro seats have plastic inserts for a 4-point harness that didn’t fit together well from the factory, and actually fell out during my drive home. This was quickly corrected with a modified part under warranty (TSB 11-10-18), but it didn’t do much to improve the overall first impression.
- Visibility when parking is pretty bad and takes some getting used to. Rear visibility, in particular, is bad enough to really need a rear view cam, and it’s hard to tell where the corners of the car are and avoid curbing the wheels.
Drivetrain and Power
- As always, I would like more power please.
- The exhaust sounds very good, but isn’t loud and obnoxious enough. Ditto for the blower whine.
- I’m having some issues with the 1-2 shift, which is VERY common in the TR-6060. Specifically, occasionally when speed or powershifting the 1-2 at redline, it will balk and grind. This has gotten less common with more miles, and it never seems to do it when I am concentrating on shifting, so it may be something I can train myself to correct, but it is odd and a known flaw with the transmission.
- I’m not a huge fan of the SVT Performance Package’s 3.73 final drive, though I like it a lot better on the new tires.
- As much as I love Sync, I can’t help but wish it were actually an Android or iOS based device. The Sync My Ride website is really cool, and you can update the software with a USB flash drive easily yourself, but I can’t help but feel like the version in my car is going to be out of date and unsupported soon. The fact that Ford has already released a new version of Sync called MyTouch which is completely incompatible with the existing Sync hardware doesn’t help allay this concern.
- I really dislike the fact that the rear view camera doesn’t come on the GT500 with the Nav package. Luckily, there’s a company that has hacked Sync to give me back this capability, so it is at least resolvable.
- I hate the stupid warning that pops up before you can use Nav. I know it’s a legal thing, but it really drives me bonkers.
- The gauge lettering on the speedometer is pretty hard to read. The main increments are 20 MPH, and it takes way too much time to figure out how fast you are going. They really should have either made the gauge full sweep or added a digital readout or something. As it stands, I suppose I will just buy a DashDAQ and use it to give me a readable gauge cluster.
- Similar to the previous gripe, the oil pressure and water temp readouts are of the typical Ford High/Low Hot/Cold type. Seems like on a high performance car, it would be OK to give real numbers.
- Compression is a feature of the Shaker audio system that is listed in the owner’s manual, but isn’t available on my car. I suppose it must be something that only comes with the Shaker 1000 system, which really sucks, because that would be a great feature.
- Text to speech for text messages doesn’t work with any of the phones I own. Not that I would probably use the feature, but it would be cool in case I needed to.
- Voice commands are missing for a lot of things that would be nice, like ‘pause’.
- Speaking of pause, why in the hell is there not a mute button in the whole damn car? I have to keep manually cutting volume up and down, which sucks.
- The nav system works well once you give it an address. However, the database of points of interest is woefully incomplete, and it’s missing some really key features, like the ability to choose/set a specific route. I saw this most on my scenic drive down the coast, where I had to just rely on old-fashioned navigation skills instead of the nav system because it wanted to keep sending me to faster routes. Note to Ford: Replace the nav system with a hacked version of Google maps with turn-by-turn, and you’ve got a real winner.
- I really wish it would pop up and tell you/ask you when traffic or accidents cause it to want to re-route. Instead, it pops it on the screen and you have to touch the screen to get it to re-route, which sucks while driving in fast-moving heavy traffic on an Interstate.
These are areas that don’t fit elsewhere where I think the car really shines:
- Little details. Things like the ratcheting seatbelt guides, the lit ‘SVT’ on the door sills, and the different colored thread on the leather all conspire to make the car feel like someone actually cared about it being good.
- Trunk room, especially once the back seats are folded down. You can actually haul a huge amount of crap in this car. Case in point:
That’s no less than 4 24” monitors with stands all wrapped in bubble wrap, clothes for two people for one week in a full-sized suitcase, a foam roller, exercise mat, pillows and covers for the wife, a full camera backpack, tripod and reflectors, two laptop bags, a 5lb tub of whey protein, two boxes of Quest bars, and assorted computer cables. Oh, and somewhere in there is a cooler and 12 bottles of Coke Zero.
- The ergonomics and driving position. Heel-toe downshifting is easy in the car, and the shifter is in just the right place, unlike Mustangs of old.
- The understated look of the car without the stripes. It’s obvious that it’s not a normal Mustang, but it’s not loudly in your face proclaiming what it is either.
And last but not least, some gratuitous shots of the car…
Most of these were taken on the aforementioned trips to and from San Diego on either CA 1 or US 101.