Normally, corners like these aren't the ideal circumstance to revel in a new engine, but this time, it isn't about power.
Imagine, a car with a supercharged 550-horsepower 5.4-liter V8 that isn't about power.
Then Why Bring Up the Engine?
In a refreshing reversal of trends, Ford has reduced the curb weight of the GT500 for the 2011 model year by 100 pounds. This doesn't sound like a significant difference in a car that weighs 3,800-ish pounds until you consider that nearly all of the weight has come off the nose. Specifically, it has come off the engine. The result is a car that not only makes power but also can handle it.
The modern Ford Shelby GT500 has always packed a supercharged version of the 5.4-liter "modular" V8 with its cast-iron block. Robust and cheap as dirt, an iron block is also dense — as in, it weighs a lot. The Ford engineers have worked hard to come up with an aluminum block that could significantly reduce the engine package's weight and yet not compromise either the engine's ability to contain all that horsepower under supercharged pressure or that whole cheap-as-dirt thing. The result is a new, German-built aluminum block that lops off 102 pounds from the GT500's engine package.
You remember the Ford GT, of course, which also packed a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 with an aluminum block. Ford has revisited the engineering know-how that went into the midengine supercar's block and updated the design for the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500. Were it not for the GT engine's dry oil sump and iron cylinder sleeves, the Ford engineers could have just plucked the sports car's engine block right off the shelf, but instead they had to accommodate not only the GT500's wet sump but also new, liner-less, plasma-sprayed cylinder bores.
The plasma process for finishing the walls of the cylinders — similar to that used by AMG Mercedes on its 6.2-liter V8 — eliminates the weight and complication of inserting durable but heavy iron liners into the aluminum block in the time-honored fashion. Instead, a hard surface just 0.006-inch thick coats the cylinder bores. Ford claims less friction, lighter weight, lower cost, better durability and improved cooling performance.
Meanwhile, an exhaust system with a larger bore has liberated 10 horsepower more, bringing the total to 550 hp at 6,200 rpm, while peak torque remains unchanged at 510 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. Last, a larger-capacity radiator in the intercooling circuit more effectively staves off heat soak from the process of supercharging the intake air, which helps keep the power output more consistent when you're beating on this engine with the throttle pedal.
As a result, Ford reckons that the 2011 GT500 shaves a tenth off the 2010 car's run to 60 mph, now doing it in 4.2 seconds, and the 2011 model's quarter-mile performance has also improved to 12.3 seconds at 119 mph. That's said to be 0.2 second quicker and 3 mph faster than the outgoing model.
You Want the SVT Performance Pack Option
Other changes to the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 are less dramatic. Electric-assist power steering replaces the hydraulic system, while the lighter engine necessitated another pass at the suspension calibration, which is said to now be a hair softer than the 2010 model.
Enthusiasts also have a choice to make in the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500. New this year is the availability of the SVT Performance Package, a $3,495 option that adds firmer dampers, stiffer springs (20.5 percent stiffer than the 2010 car's calibration in front; 9.5-percent stiffer in the rear), a shorter 3.73:1 axle ratio in lieu of the car's standard 3.55, and a slightly lower ride height. There's also a new wheel and tire package, and these new forged-aluminum wheels save a few pounds per corner and jump to a diameter of 20 inches in the rear.
It's this package's tires that are the key bit. The Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2s are wider and built with a far stickier tread compound than the standard tires, and the associated stiffer underpinnings in the suspension provide the control necessary to exploit them.
On Track at VIR
To demonstrate the efficacy of the package, Ford turned us loose on Virginia International Raceway in a 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 equipped with the SVT Performance Pack. There, we ran laps back-to-back with a 2010 GT500.
Now, we're fans of the 2010 model, a car which took top honors in not just one comparison test, but also a second. Though its nose-heaviness is something we've come to accept, the 2010 GT500 proved to be out of its element here on this fast, winding road-racing circuit (we managed not to hit the historic tree at the hairpin), feeling sloppier and a lot more vague than we'd have predicted.
The new car with the SVT Pack has a more cohesive array of handling traits. It turns in with more immediacy and less understeer, and the steering itself (much to our surprise) increases in effort in an intuitive way that the former car did not. To be sure, part of the 2011 GT500's sharper nature is due to the SVT Performance Pack's tauter underpinnings and improved tire choice, but there's no denying the effects of removing an entire boat anchor's worth of mass from the nose of the chassis. Such are the benefits of a useful reduction in polar moment of inertia, and it shows; when you turn the wheel, you go.
There's noticeably more grip in the 2011 model, too, and the tire adhesion breaks away more progressively. The 2011 GT500's ability to inspire confidence is the biggest difference between new and old. When you drive the 2010 GT500 hard, it feels like wrestling, while in the 2011 GT500, it's more like dancing.
Even so, the rear end of this GT500 is upset if you encounter a bump with one rear tire but not the other. This bump sensitivity is part and parcel of the live-axle rear suspension, and no amount of fettling or honing has fully banished it. After snaking the GT500 through VIR's esses at speed, we rethought our usual berm-climbing ways and decided to stay off the curbs.
Out and About
Power delivery is predictably keener in the new car by virtue of its shorter axle ratio, but really, the GT500 has always had more than enough ability to boot you down the road when you put your size 10 to the floor. The only the difference is, now there's more than more than enough.
Piloting the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 on the public roads of Virginia and North Carolina near VIR reveals a ride that is firm but not punishing. There's adequate compliance to deal with pavement irregularities, though we'll reserve final judgment for when we can pound it down familiar highways and byways. Still, this is undoubtedly a great GT car as the improved aerodynamic stability and reduced cabin noise make for relaxed high-speed travel.
Ford engineers insist that the exhaust note is more aggressive in the new car, too, but we had a tough time noticing much difference. Sounds good, though.
Fuel economy has also been improved, which sounds like a "who cares" scenario until you consider that the improvement eliminated the GT500's $1,000 gas-guzzler surcharge. This means that the 2011 starts at less than a grand ($920) more than the outgoing model.
The uptick in price for the 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 is small potatoes unless you, like we do, consider the SVT Performance Pack a mandatory selection. Once you factor this into the bottom-line calculation, you're talking $53 grand for the GT500, which is a full $20,000 more than a 2011 Mustang GT equipped with the track-friendly hardware you'll want.
The 2011 Ford Shelby GT500 is without question the most capable Mustang ever, and few cars can touch its performance at the price. However, there used to be loads of performance airspace between the GT500 and the lowly Mustang GT. Now the 2011 Mustang GT has made a tremendous leap forward in ability while the GT500 has simply taken a large step. If you're looking for the best performance value, the GT is it.
Too many good Mustangs is a problem we're certain nobody has an issue with, unless your name is General Motors.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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