Take a bigger engine, add a beefed-up suspension, and throw in a very capable chassis. Mix liberally and serve over sticky rubber. It’s a simple recipe for a performance car and one that’s as common these days as bad attempts at baking bread during the pandemic. But while the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 has put that recipe to good use for years in the noble cause of destroying tires, previous generations placed far too much focus on the “big power” part and less so on the suspension and chassis combo. The resulting car, while certainly fast in a straight line, never seriously threatened other performance cars when the track was anything but straight.
So when Ford announced the 2020 GT500 the thing that made me sit up and take notice wasn’t the monstrous 760 horsepower, 5.2-liter supercharged lump in the engine bay, but the fact that the folks at Ford Performance were positioning this as a more powerful version of the hugely capable GT350.
A few years back I made the journey out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (as it was then called) to put the GT350R through its paces and I came off the track completely impressed. Ford had finally been able to create a Mustang that lived up to the potential the nameplate had danced around for decades. In my mind, the GT350 was the best performance car that Ford had ever built. Now Ford wants to take that platform and add more than 200 HP to it?
Color me skeptical. I figured we were back to the days of too much power and not enough balance.
But I’m not an idiot, so of course, I was down to try it anyway. That’s how I ended up in Northern California at Sonoma Raceway behind the wheel of Ford’s newest track weapon, the GT500.
Approaching the car from a distance the GT500 looks like a 350 that’s been hitting the gym and maybe roid’ing it up a bit for good measure. The bulging hood, massive front grill openings, and the picnic table sized rear wing give off a far more aggressive vibe than its less powerful siblings. It’s the same look that Porsche’s GT2RS has when comparing it to other, lesser, 911s. This is a far cry from the EcoBoost Mustang you spring for at the airport when a Nissan Sentra won’t cut it.
Once you open the door, though, the interior is all Mustang. That’s not a terrible thing, as the S550 generation Mustang’s interior isn’t at all bad. It's light years ahead of the last generation. There is plenty of space for a six-foot-plus guy like myself to comfortably fit into. Even with the optional Recaro Sport Seats that are so form-fitting that the designers at Lululemon should be taking notes for their next line of yoga pants.
That being said, the interior still uses a bit too much plastic for my taste. Sure, Ford has sprinkled some Alcantara and carbon bits around the cabin, but honestly, there’s twice as much carbon outside the car as inside. I wish they had spiced up the quality of the interior materials for what is ostensibly the brand's halo production car—excluding the limited production GT.
But really, I’m nitpicking here. Mainly because that’s really the only negative thing I have to say about the GT500. (OK, I technically have two negative things to say. But I’ll get to the second one a bit later.)
But the reason you’re reading this isn’t to hear out about what fabric Ford uses for the headliner. You’re here because of one thing and one thing only. The power. And oh, what power there is.
Seven-hundred and sixty ponies come from the blown V8 with a 7,500 rpm redline and a sound that makes you think that there are literally 760 actual horses under the hood, and all of them are very, very pissed off.
All that power goes through a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox. Nope no manual, and yes I am a bit disappointed in Ford’s decision not to offer one as it would really fit in well with the character of the car. That being said, the Tremec-designed automated manual transmission—it is not an automatic, there is no torque converter—is simply better in every way than any manual could hope to be. In fact, the transmission is the same basic (in function) gearbox that is found in the C8 Corvette, which I raved about a few months ago.
The transmission processes a huge amount of data from the car’s sensors so it can actually sense when the car is loaded up through a corner and can vary the aggressiveness of a shift not to upset the car if you are loaded up through a corner. What that means, in practical terms, is that you’ll never be in the wrong gear ever again. See what I mean about better?
In fact, Ford has so much faith in the performance of the gearbox that Ford Performance Marketing manager Kash Singh asked me to run the car in automatic mode for at least some of my time on track. It turns out that during the development of the car Ford had one of their Le Mans drivers, Billy Johnson, run laps at Virginia International Raceway shifting the transmission manually (via the paddle shifters) and they mapped his shift points and style and integrated that into its programming. So now when you hit the track and have the car in Track Mode, your car will shift like a pro driver.
Being a pro driver myself I figured I needed to see if that was just some marketing hyperbole or the real deal. So despite the light mist that hung over the track, I jumped in the nearest GT500 and headed out.
Most manufacturers today, in their infinite wisdom, run their high-performance product launches in a lead-follow configuration. You have a pro driver out front controlling the pace and journalists following in lines like a bunch of baby ducklings—just baby ducklings who love air miles and buffet shrimp. Usually, that means a less than flat-out pace, as manufacturers would prefer not to sacrifice their entire fleet of cars to a bunch of journalists in over their heads.
Fortunately, in this case, the pro driver leading me was my buddy Brandon Davis, whom I used to go head-to-head with in the SPEED World Challenge series. Brandon wasn't worried about my abilities behind the wheel so as soon as he left pit lane he put his foot down… and promptly disappeared up the road. Great. Here I was on a slightly damp track (that I hadn’t been to in a half-dozen years) with a whole bunch of horsepower trying to hang on to Brandon’s rapidly disappearing rear bumper for dear life. This should go well, I figured.
But here's the thing. As much of a disaster as that would have been in the last-gen GT500—which, again, was great in a straight line and nowhere else, especially when the pavement got wet—the 2020 GT500 has things covered now. Basically, the easiest way to describe it is that the 2020 GT500 is a GT350R with almost 250 more horsepower. And I mean that in the best way possible.
When I drove the 350R I was immensely impressed by how easy it was to extract speed from. You could push right up to the limit and it remained calm and composed. Those are two traits that give a driver extreme confidence and allow them to push closer and closer to the limit without fear of getting bitten.
But just like its little sibling, at no point in time did I ever feel like the GT500 was going to bite me for any small mistake, as the last-gen car would have. I could push hard right up to the limit and the big GT just remained totally calm and composed. There are very few cars on the planet with that combination of power and control.
A lot of the GT500’s track demeanor can be put down to great suspension tuning, the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, magnetorheological active dampers, and the Carbon Revolution carbon wheels (which helps reduce the all-important unsprung weight), all of which you can find on the GT350 (with the track pack option). It’s a seriously potent combination and one that does a great job of hiding the 500’s 4,200-pound curb weight through the corners.
In fact, the only place where that poundage makes itself known is once you try to haul it down from the insane speeds that it can achieve. Try as they might, the otherwise very capable Brembo braking system can’t completely hide the sheer tonnage of the car while trying to haul that much weight down from triple-digit speeds.
Back on track and rapidly losing ground to Brandon, I found it best to focus on just hitting my marks and getting a good launch off the corners to keep him in my sight, leaving the stunningly intuitive transmission to sort out the gearing for itself.
At no point, while I was Automatic mode, did I ever end up in the wrong gear. Even when I did a preemptive downshift when I carried a bit too much speed into the long 180º corner that leads onto Sonoma’s front straight and had to over-slow the GT to get it turned. In fact, the only reason I switched over to using the paddle shifts later in the session was that apparently, I have control issues.
From what I saw under the hood there seems to be an overabundance of cooling, so the 500 shouldn't suffer from the overheating problems that plagued the C7 Corvette Z06. That being said, I would recommend that anyone planning on taking their GT500 on track swap the OEM brake fluid with a high temp racing brake fluid as the weight of the car, combined with the speeds it is capable of, will put a huge amount of stress and heat on the brakes and fluid.
Although the base price for the GT500 starts at $72,900—a tick less than the GT350R—and there are a limited number of options, those that do exist can push the pricing up quickly. The Handling Package (adjustable strut top mounts, an oil catch can, a Gurney flap on the rear spoiler, and splitter wickers and dive planes on the front fascia) adds $1,500. I do recommend that if you’re planning some light track time with your GT500. The Technology Package (navigation, blind-spot monitoring, SiriusXM satellite radio, heated mirrors, and a B & O premium sound system) will add yet another $3,000.
But the Carbon Fiber Track pack is where the dollars really start adding up. It offers a rear seats delete and adds the aforementioned Carbon Revolution supplied carbon fiber wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track tires, Recaro seats, the massive rear wing, and carbon interior trim bits, and also includes everything from the Handling Package and will run you $18,500. If you want the ultimate GT500 you’re definitely going to want to tick that box. And since you’re already spending big baller money you might as well go ahead and add the painted Absolute Black Racing Stripe for another $10,000. If you swiped right on all the options on the order sheet you can drive off the lot with a nearly $107,000 Mustang.
And that leads me to my second issue with the GT500. The price. The $107,000 sticker when loaded puts it in the same league as the Porsche Cayman GT4 and Mercedes-AMG GT. More importantly, it puts it just shy of $30,000 over its most direct competitor, the Chevy Camaro ZL1, which is a bit old at this point but still nothing to mess with.
Fortunately for Ford, the GT500 bests the ZL1 in almost every metric. Although I haven’t had them both on track together (though I should put that on my post-pandemic to-do list.) I have done a very long lapping day in the ZL and while its performance makes it one of the best track day cars I’ve sampled, it still falls shy of the absolute track beast that Ford has served up.
With this being a GT500 “Track Tour” event, there was no option for me to do a road test. But my gut says that the GT500 should be relatively good as a daily. With the active dampers making short work of rough roads and the massive power band doing the same to traffic, the GT500 could probably work in a single-car lifestyle. So long as you don’t have kids, don’t want to go skiing on a regular basis, or have neighbors that mind being woken up every morning by the sound of you firing up a 760 hp monster outside their windows (oh, did I mention that this thing is LOUD?) then it can work. If you want a car with stratospheric power and can live with those “shortfalls,” then the GT500 should be on your shortlist.
At the end of the day, $100,000 for a Mustang is a lot of money. But Ford created a car that is worth every penny if you want the ultimate American track day muscle car. With its massive horsepower underpinning a sublime chassis and transmission, there are very few cars that will be capable of keeping pace with the big Shelby. And that speed isn’t just accessible to pro-level drivers.
The GT500 is such a capable car that it opens up that performance to almost every level of driver who has the wherewithal to take the wheel.
Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships and more.