For most of its history, the Ford Mustang has never really been about handling. Cool? Absolutely. Fast? Yeah, for the most part — though the Malaise Era cars can only be considered as such by the standards of the day, and the V6 ‘Stangs of the early ’90s don’t even get that excuse. But when it came to turning, Mustangs generally were little better than any other car rolling out of Dearborn.
Sure, there were the occasional race-tuned models, like the Cobra R of 2000. But the Mustang, like most muscle cars, was ultimately about straight-line speed — and no version better represented that than the Shelby GT500. Each version was not only more potent than every Mustang before, but arguably wilder and crazier too.
That trend peaked with the GT500 that grew out of the fifth-generation Mustang, a 662-horsepower supercharged beast with a cue ball-topped stick shift and a solid live axle out back that made driving it feel like a carnival ride. It was the ultimate Mustang, a rolling Godzilla that could spin the tires at 60 miles an hour and crack 200 given enough room to run.
It was also one of the first new cars I truly fell in love with. It felt every bit what short-pants Will always expected a muscle car to be: big, bad, empowering. I burned rubber on side streets because it was so easy. I floored it in second gear on empty straightaways just to ride the lightning from 25 to 95. I revved the engine instead of honking in traffic to hear the horny T. rex roar coming out of the exhaust pipe. It was a silly car made spectacular by a supernatural engine.
So when Ford revealed that the sixth-generation Mustang’s version of the Shelby GT500 would not only ditch that engine for a new, smaller-displacement supercharged V8 but would also follow more in the steps of the track-focused GT350 than in the tire tracks of GT500s past — and worse, would be governed to a top speed of 180 mph — it’s safe to say I felt a bit angry. Betrayed, even. The GT500 I loved may have been rude, crude and lewd, but damn it, it was honest about where it came from.
Then Ford invited me out to Las Vegas to test the 2020 Shelby GT500 out on the street, the track and the drag strip. And I walked away loving it.
Ford Performance’s engineering work has, remarkably, delivered a muscle car that feels every bit as fast and furious as an honest-to-God supercar. The wonders they’ve performed on the platform and suspension to extract maximum on-track performance have paid off delightfully, both on the street and in the heat of battle.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 2.4-mile billiard table-flat road course is hardly the most compelling track on the planet for a 760-hp car, given its lack of straights — the last time I was brought there to try a new car, it was the 275-hp Chevy Camaro 2.0T 1LE — but it proved a solid venue to discover how stunningly well-balanced and neutral the new ‘Stang’s handling is. The bevy of Ford Performance tuned software and hardware alike that separates this GT500 from lesser Mustangs turns a front-heavy muscle car into an honest-to-Edsel super sports car, one worthy of carrying the high-performance torch for the carmaker once the GT supercar fades away.
Yet it’s still easy to drive on the road, too. The ride never relaxes past firm, but it’s an O.G. Lexus compared to the last GT500, where pockmarked pavement could actually knock you out of your seat and into the air. There may be a P-R-N-D-M dial where the gear lever once sat, but the paddles behind the wheel — sourced from the F-150 Raptor, as far as I could tell — serve up the delight of choosing your own gear almost as well. There may be no heavy clutch to play with anymore, but you can still slot the drivetrain into any gear you like and feed on the unrelenting power, savoring its force like a fine bourbon.
The weighty steering, never a Mustang strength, is sharper, if not delicate or flowing with feedback. On the winding roads an hour outside of Vegas, the GT500 carved up turns with the intuitive ease of a sports car from Stuttgart, responsive and relaxed even at autobahn-worthy speeds — aided, of course, by downforce-boosting aerodynamics like the louvered hood and rear spoiler. (The $18,500 Track Package package adds carbon fiber wheels, a much bigger wing and splitter wickers, among other racy accessories; unless you’re planning on spending more time on closed courses than open roads, save the money.)
Of course, it still slaughters all comers on the straightaways, too. Indeed, if there’s one place where it feels subjectively less than the old GT500, it’s in how damned easy it is to humiliate almost anything in a straight line. Flooring it from a stop in the 2013 model felt like flying a D-558-II Skyrocket; in the 2020 model, it’s as smooth and simple as takeoff in a Dreamliner.
To prove how easy it is to launch the 2020 GT500, Ford took the assembled mass of media to the drag strip, so we could test out the two features designed to help even noobs squeeze every once of straight-line capability out of it: line lock, where the computer locks the front brakes while you floor the gas, allowing for a perfect burnout every time (which also warms up the tires for maximum grip); and launch control, where the computer holds the engine at just the right rpm no matter how hard you mash the throttle, leaving you to do nothing but lift your left foot off the brake and keep the right pinned to the firewall when the light turns green. Do it right, and you’ll go one-fourth of a mile in 10.7 seconds, hitting 60 mph just 3.3 ticks of the stopwatch after you launch.
Thanks to the spectacular new dual-clutch gearbox, there’s no worry about trying to nail a perfect 2-3 shift with a balky stick shift; it clicks off cogs right on cue in as little as 80 milliseconds. There’s no futzing with the pedals through the quarter, no dancing with the throttle to keep from overloading the tires. If the 2020 model were only easier to drive than its predecessor, it’d be easy to hate on it. The fact that it’s easier and faster, however, simply makes it better.
The 2020 Shelby GT500 may not be the all-American monster that its forefather was, but it’s far superior in almost every way. Whether or not it’s ultimately more worthy of being the reigning sovereign of the House of Mustang than its raw, animalistic predecessor was — well, that’s up to you. But I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me a convert.