Payne: Mustang GT500 is the baddest, best pony car ever

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Since it hit the showrooms, the sixth-generation Mustang has topped the Camaro everywhere but on the track. Media comparisons have consistently given the Chevy the handling nod. Ford got so sick of hearing about its rival's track superiority that it went and made a Corvette-inspired Terminator.

The 2020 Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 is a front-engine Corvette in drag.

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the Blue Oval’s pony car stable. Forget the GT500s of old — they were crude, solid rear-axle, straight-line hammers. This Mustang is more supercar than muscle car. Nostalgic for the front-engine Corvette now that the mid-engine weapon has dawned? Take a look at the GT500. Like the supreme 755-horse Stingray ZR1, the GT500 supercharges its V-8 to a mind-blowing 760 horsepower.

For road-sucking downforce, it’s available with a ZR1-like track package that includes a huge carbon-fiber rear wing and front splitter and wicker. It has Recaro seats, magnetic shocks, launch control, electronic rear-differential and a quiet mode for long road trips. Tires? Fat Michelin Pilot Sport 4S or near-slick Pilot Cup 2 that stick like glue. Heck, the GT500 even reached into the mid-engine C8’s toolbox and mated its supercharged tornado to a lightning-fast, dual-clutch seven-speed transmission from Tremec.

The 650-horse Camaro ZL1 and winged ZL1 1LE is Camaro’s top-of-the-line. The GT500 is its match, plus 100 horsepower.

The Mustang is a relentless, apex-carving cyborg on track. Despite its heavy V-8 up front, it defied the law of physics (or more precisely, mastered them) around Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 2.4-mile Outfield Road Course. Thundering through the tricky high-speed “bus-stop chicane,” I overcooked the entry and braced to bounce over the next apex curb. Nope.

A quick flick of the steering wheel, and the GT500 stayed on course. It's a 4,000-pound rhino in tennis shoes.

“That’s the 550 pound-feet of downforce working,” Ford racing driver Billy Johnson told me later. Johnson — who knows a thing or two about supercars, having piloted the mid-engine GT at Le Mans the last four years — was deeply involved with GT500 development long before it debuted at this year’s Detroit auto show.

This is a muscle car with degrees in aerodynamics, materials and mechanical engineering. If Tony Stark hadn’t invented Iron Man, he would have flown around in a GT500.

With good themal mangement, the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 can do repeated launch control runs - while its big Brembo brakes never saw fade on the track.

Drive the Shelby hard on public roads and it’s a T. rex on wheels. Put your boot in it and the familiar overhead-cam, 5.2-liter Mustang V-8 gurgle turns into a bellow. Add a touch of supercharger whine and it’ll send goosebumps up your spine.

Thundering around corners through Red Rock Canyon Park in my Twister Orange tester, I could see the necks of road-side tourists already turned in my direction — What in Moses is THAT? I didn’t keep my foot in it for long for fear of attracting every cop in the southwest.

If you want to have fun on public roads, ignore the GT500 and buy the nimble, turbo-4-powered Mustang High Performance Pack I reviewed last month. Its 332 horses are plenty for the street. Affordably aimed at the Camaro V-6, it’s entry-level performance for the enthusiast.

Not that anyone with $71,395 in the bank account will listen to me.

The GT500 will be coveted by the Woodward cruiser crowd. It has serious road presence. Its huge front jaws can swallow Toyota Priuses whole. The fascia is a sci-fi work of art; even the headlights remind  one of Hollywood’s Terminator. Heat exchangers stuff every crevice to feed the nuclear reactor inside. The GT500 eschews adaptive cruise-control because there’s simply no room in the grille for radar.

Option the GT500 with signature Shelby stripes (white or black) for added effect. The standard version comes with eight-way leather seats, digital instrument display with configurable drive modes, lap timer, lowered stance and multiple exhaust modes.

But so does the GT500’s little brother Shelby GT350. Indeed, the 526-horse GT350 was designed by Ford Performance chief troublemaker Carl Widmann and his merry band of engineers as the driver’s car of the pair. The GT350 is more raw, more viscerally engaging.

Available in manual only, you can row the GT350’s normally aspirated, flat-plane crank (just like a Ferrari!) V-8 to a goosebump-inducing 8,250 rpms. Downshift into turns and it’ll produce more tailpipe flatulence than Shrek. If you want to swagger around town and shred the occasional rural road, buy the GT350 for $10,000 less.

But if you want to know what a front-engine muscle car is capable of on track, the GT500 is your weapon.

Howling down Las Vegas Speedway’s front straightaway — the dual-clutch tranny firing off millisecond shifts — I thought the Shelby might join the F-16s taking off from nearby Nellis Air Force Base in flight.

But stomp on the Brobdingnagian Brembo brakes — with red calipers the size of Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet gripping massive 16.5-inch rotors — and the striped rocket is brought immediately back to Earth. Brake fade was non-existent.

Then this otherworldly cyborg really showed off its skills.

The Tremec downshifted rapidly — WHAP! WHAP! — as I rotated into the corner with trail-brake oversteer. A manual GT350 can’t pull this off with nearly the precision.

On the desert roads west of Las Vegas, the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 had a chance to stretch its legs.

Suddenly on top of the apex, the GT500 was surprisingly neutral despite all that extra plumbing up front. Then another surprise: the GT500 wanted me to use all 760 horses on exit. With every successive lap I fed the beast more throttle without any alarm from the Michelins. Try this in a Dodge Hellcat and it’ll turn your hair white.

Unleashed again, the V-8 roared, the landscape rushing by at warp speed. It doesn’t make the same high-rev music as the GT350, but it’s still a glorious sound. I never turned on the radio in a day of driving. We spent the afternoon doing 11-second quarter-mile launch-control hole shots down Vegas’ dragstrip.

It doesn’t come cheap. Equipped with the $18,500 track package, racing stripes and bolstered Recaros to keep you upright under high G-loads, my tester cost an eye-watering $94,385.

The Ford Mustang shoulders a lot of responsibility these days. It must not only beat the Camaro and Challenger in the muscle car race, it must also carry the Blue Oval’s electric car aspirations with a Tesla-fighting Mach E performance ute coming next year.

Being top dog in the former assists with the latter. Thus the 2020 GT500, the best Mustang ever.

2020 Ford Mustang GT500

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Price: Base price $71,395, including $1,095 destination charge ($94,385 as tested)

Powerplant: 5.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 760 horsepower, 625 pound-feet of torque  

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.3 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 180 mph (governed)

Weight: 4,171 pounds (about 4,080 with carbon-fiber track package)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 12 city/18 highway/14 combined 

Report card

Highs: Intimidating styling; track hero

Lows: Will land you in jail if driven hard on public roads; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.