Expert Reviews

2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 First Drive Review

Approach the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 in Twister Orange with vinyl racing stripes, and you know you’re in the presence of something of quite special: It radiates star power – before you’ve even turned a wheel.

The Carbon Fiber Track Pack certainly adds to the drama. A $24,995 option, the package includes an exposed carbon-fibre instrument panel, a rear seat delete, leather-trimmed Recaro seats, front splitter wickers, adjustable strut top mounts, a massive exposed-carbon-fibre GT4 track wing, 20-inch exposed-carbon-fibre wheels (with locks to ensure they don’t grow legs and walk away with a new owner), and Michelin Pilot Cup Sport 2 tires measuring 305/30R20 up front and 315/30R20 in the rear. Pilot Sport 4S rubber comes as standard equipment.

The interior will feel familiar to anyone who has sat in an S550-generation Mustang of any trim level. Aside from the steering wheel, seats, and Shelby-specific badges, it’s pretty much business as usual and the gear selector dial is obviously lifted from the Ford parts bin, shared with the likes of Fusion and Escape. Money had to be saved somewhere and the cabin is still a big improvement over its predecessors. As is available in lesser trims, the 12-inch LCD instrument cluster can be customized and prioritizes different information depending which drive mode is selected.

All Shelby models (GT350, 350R and 500) get a Torsen differential with a 3.73 rear axle ratio. The exclusive transmission available is a Tremec seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (a Mustang first) with manual mode and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. That’s right, the GT500 is no longer available with a manual transmission. Like it or not, it’s the way the world is going. Thankfully its stablemate GT350 still allows its driver to row their own gears. For now.

Unquestionably the GT500’s closest competitor, the Camaro ZL1 offers a 10-speed automatic as well as a six-speed manual transmission. It may be lighter and substantially less expensive, but its supercharged 6.2L V8 mill also makes 110 less horsepower than the Shelby.

Pushing the starter button eagerly brings the 5.2L Voodoo cross plane crank V8 to life in a raucous symphony of combustion, echoing through the active dual exhaust before settling into an enthusiastic growl. Even the most reserved mode of the four exhaust settings is still anything but. Under the slatted hood resides a supercharger helping churn out 760 tire-shredding horsepower and 620 eyeball flattening lb-ft of torque.

Maximum horsepower resides at 7,300 rpm. Letting the motor freely wind up to its 7,500 rpm redline rewards your senses with robust, linear acceleration and sounds that will make you want to turn off the nine-speaker sound system and wind down the windows. A 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system is part of the $4,000 Technology Package, which also includes heated memory mirrors with turn signals and Cobra puddle lights, blind spot detection with cross-traffic alert, and a voice-activated touchscreen navigation system.

The beauty of the GT500 is just how effectively it gets that power down, transferring internal combustion to forward velocity without protest. Previous generations featuring a solid rear axle were famous for melting rubber, slipping and sliding, even skipping over road irregularities mid-corner. The 2020 GT500 feels like a much different, more refined and worked-out beast.

During an all-too-brief drive up the Angeles Crest Highway over the San Gabriel Mountains, the GT500 didn’t exhibit any such behaviour. Granted, we were driving on street tires on public roads so we weren’t able to stretch the Shelby’s legs as much as we would have liked, but it remained deceptively composed through a variety of road conditions that would have easily upset its counterparts. The Pilot Cup Sports grip like a slot car in situations where you’d be swapping ends and staring back from whence you came in the likes of a C7 Corvette Z06. The acceleration may be shocking, but the handling is sublime. The gargantuan wing and MagneRide suspension should get a lot of the credit. Firm and planted but not jarring on uneven asphalt, the various modes dial in spring rate and damping. Electronic power steering is variable, but nicely weighted, predictable and precise. Perhaps I was too enamored with the sound of the exhaust to notice, but I didn’t detect any whining from the supercharger, which can often be the case.

Endowed with the largest rotors ever installed on a production Mustang (15.5-inches up front and 15-inches in the rear), the red Brembo calipers grabbed hard and didn’t seem to fade during our brief but brisk drive. Unable to experience its true glory due to concerns of public safety and preservation of my driver’s licence, the GT500 deserves to be let loose on a high-speed racetrack to reach its full potential and fully prove its mettle.

Expecting to lament the lack of a manual transmission, the dual-clutch seven-speed won me over with its speed and precision. Perilously close to the speed of a Porsche PDK setup, the short throw of the paddle shifters swap gears without perceivable hesitation whether driving in a slow, civilized manner or when turning up the dial and looking for some fun.

While I’d definitely recommend the Track Package and personally forego the Technology Package, the as-tested price of $123,835 for this GT500 is not cheap. It does, however, provide a tremendous amount of value that is tough to match. Sure, the 797 hp Hellcat Redeye trumps the ’Stang when it comes to pure power, but the Dodge is really only good for going in a straight line and showing off with big, smoky burnouts. It has power, but it’s not useable or remotely practical. For those who want to scrimp, the starting MSRP is “only” $94,675. Our tester rang up $2,315 just for its paint and stripes – $550 for the Twister Orange paint, $500 for the Ebony tape stripe, and $1,265 for the Ebony racing stripes – so it could definitely be configured cheaper.

Despite starting off with the same chassis and engine block, the GT350 and GT500 are very different cars. The GT350 feels more visceral and raw with its six-speed manual transmission and 8,200rpm redline, while the GT500 is more potent and refined, quickly and stealthily approaching supercar territory. The reality is, whichever option you choose, you win.