Shelby GT500 on the autobahn

200mph, on the public road, in the dark, driving a 662bhp Shelby GT500 Mustang that doesn’t like the wet. Can it be done? Jethro Bovingdon heads for some derestricted Autobahn to find out

Suddenly this seems like a very bad idea. It’s Sunday morning. Scrub that, it’s still Saturday night as far as I’m concerned. And it’s dark. That thick, syrupy, inky black you only get as winter sets in. And while the rest of the world sleeps, I’m chipping thick ice from the windscreen of a Ford Shelby GT500. Today is going to be a big day. I’ll be driving from Northamptonshire to Stansted airport to meet photographer Dean Smith, then on to Folkestone to catch a 7.30am Channel Tunnel crossing. Once we reach sunny France we’ll drive through sunny Belgium and then on to sunny Germany. At least I hope the sun makes a guest appearance, as our mission is pretty simple: find out if the Shelby GT500 does over 200mph. Oh, and drop the GT500 back to Ford in Cologne by midnight.

The draw of delimited Autobahns will never diminish for us Brits. I’ve been driving there for many years now, but a glimpse of a black diagonal on a white roundel still seems incredibly exciting, and settling into a fast cruise at 120mph or so gives an unmatched sense of liberation. So when I heard that the new super-Mustang has a claimed top speed of 202mph, it seemed only natural to start tapping-up the whole evo team for the best stretches of ’Bahn they know. Funnily enough most of them could only seem to recommend the A1 that leads towards the, er, Nürburgring. We have been to other places in Germany. I’m sure we have. 

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However, forget adrenalin-fuelled liberation for now. It’s trepidation that I’m feeling within about 200 yards of my house and my lovely warm bed. The Shelby doesn’t like the cold, doesn’t like slick wet tarmac, and it seems it doesn’t much like me either. At the very first roundabout I nearly spin at about 23mph. With the traction control well and truly ON. I’m nowhere near sharp enough to drive this thing unaided at 4.30am but it seems the electronics take a while to wake up, too. The nice people on the radio are talking about torrential rain across the southern half of England. Something about a large weather front ‘moving in from northern Europe’. I turn off the radio.

While we’re on route to Germany we’re hoping to get under the skin of the GT500, which is a fascinating car. Like the Autobahn, these huge and comically powerful cars from the US are endlessly fascinating. However, similar to reaching Germany only to sit in heavy traffic through endless road works (it happens, regularly), the reality is often highly frustrating. On paper though, the GT500 should have plenty going for it. The headline-grabber is the 5.8-litre supercharged V8. It produces 662bhp at 6500rpm and 631lb ft at 4000rpm. In the US, independent tests have recorded 0-60mph in 3.5sec and 0-100mph in sub‑8. For this extraordinary performance our American cousins pay $54,995. On the very day we’re heading to Germany the exchange rate puts the price at £34,695. Even when you consider that a BMW M3 costs from $60,100 (£37,916) in the land of the lucky, that’s one hell of a deal.

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Below the engine is a thoroughly revised chassis, a raft of electronic systems to help manage the V8’s fury and some pretty impressive brakes. The GT500 retains the regular Mustang’s live rear axle, but with the optional Performance Package there are also electronically adjustable monotube Bilstein dampers at each corner. You’ll want that $3495 (£2200) Performance Package as it also brings a Torsen limited-slip diff, forged alloys, stiffer rear springs and the cue-ball gearshifter.

You can toggle between four settings for the traction control. However, that roundabout incident suggests the modes are ‘Off’, ‘Still Off’, ‘F*ck Off and Sort It Out Yourself’ and ‘You’ve Gone Off, Idiot’. There’s also adjustable launch control, you can alter the EPAS steering weight and there’s a diversionary ‘Track Apps’ function that lets you measure 0-60mph, 0-100mph and quarter-mile times, plus the obligatory G-meter and lap-time functions. It’s an intriguing mix of old-school heavy industry and modern instant electronic gratification. Ford even claims that the GT500 produces genuine downforce at speed, although I doubt Adrian Newey is studying it particularly hard in search of tips for 2013’s RB9.

The rain slaps the windscreen in great waves on the M25 and the Goodyear Eagle Supercar tyres are plainly pining for California. The GT500 rides on unique 265/40 19s at the front and 285/35 R20s at the rear, which sound positively puny in the light of that 662bhp but feel about three feet wide on standing water. Never mind 200mph, we’re struggling to drive at the UK national speed limit for now and the GT500 will wheelspin on half throttle at 50mph in fourth gear – a gear that’s good for about 170mph.

By the time we arrive at the Channel Tunnel terminal I think Dean and I are both mildly shell-shocked. I’d be pretty gutted to return from a 200mph mission having only scored a white-knuckled 85, but unless that weather front has saved its worst for the UK then I genuinely don’t think we’ll be going much faster. Absurd, but true.

Mercifully, as France’s smooth autoroutes shudder abruptly into Belgium’s coarsely surfaced road network and then finally we’re welcomed to Germany, the skies do lighten a little and the rain is sporadic and fine. Our tentative pace slowly rises and the odd foray to 130mph or so proves that the Mustang is relatively stable and ferociously fast.

At lower speeds you’d bet your house that the Eaton Roots-type supercharged 5.8-litre V8 has nothing like 662bhp. It feels pretty mighty, of course, but no more extreme than something like a C63 AMG and certainly not even close to a 911 Turbo or Nissan GT‑R. Perhaps it’s the curiously linear delivery of the engine, the incredibly long gearing and the chunky 1750kg it’s hauling, but it’s very hard to equate the numbers with the sensations.

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Up above 100mph things are different, though, and when you hear the supercharger whine ramp up at the top end, the GT500 hauls really, really hard. The big V8 usually revs to 6250rpm but there’s an eight-second over-rev function that allows 7000rpm, and when you’re in that zone you start to believe that maybe, just maybe all those horses are present and correct. Suddenly 200mph seems like it might just happen, too. If only everyone else would go home and settle down to an afternoon in front of the telly. It’s Sunday so there are no lorries on the Autobahns – it’s the law and a bloody good one at that – but traffic is still heavy, so we meander down to the, er, Nürburgring to soak up the sights and sounds and wait for the A1 to clear.

On the smooth, fast roads that sweep towards the famous circuit, the GT500 is a curious beast. It feels absolutely huge. You sit really high up, the sort of height you’d expect of a 7-series or S-class, and the steering wheel is vast, too. The bonnet swells up in the middle and every time you turn the car you see it tipping left and right with the body roll. The six-speed Tremac ’box is really nice to use with a short throw but a heavy, mechanical feel, and the big 380mm Brembos are manfully strong. But this is not a car you feel inclined to hustle. The steering is light and feel-free, even in Sport mode, the ride is agitated and the rear axle cracks and shimmies and leaps over ridges. Over crests and into compressions the whole car floats and then crashes.

But all of this pales next to the ultimate Mustang’s complete inability to deal with slippery surfaces. It slides when you so much as breathe on the accelerator and falls into momentum-induced under- and oversteer if you try to carry speed on a steady throttle instead. I love a bit of sideways fun as much as the next man, but I quite like to know when it’s going to happen and what I’ve done to provoke it, too. In the GT500 I’m just hanging on and wondering what the car will do at the next corner. By god it looks good in the Nürburgring car park, though. But that’s where it stays for a while. It’s raining again.

That inky black returns and by the time it does I’m feeling a bit more on top of the ’Stang. I think the huge burden of horsepower has actually detracted from the usually clumsy-yet-benign and refreshingly honest recipe. However, the initial spookiness of its general lack of grip and traction does fade and you realise that, in a straight line at least, it can use that mighty engine in fourth and fifth gears without anything nasty happening. So Dean sets up his camera, hops in the back seat and we decide it’s time.

The fuel tank is three-quarters full with Germany’s best super unleaded, the tyre pressures are at their optimum for high-speed running. The A1 is just two lanes in each direction but it runs derestricted for mile after mile with excellent visibility, and traffic is scarce. Of course, as your speed starts to rise to double what most people are ambling along at, that scarce traffic becomes a constant flow of cars being sucked towards you, and sooner or later one of them is sure to pull out to overtake… It happens over and over again just as the GT500 begins to chomp its way from 165 to 170mph. The Shelby really hits its stride at about 130mph and all that float and sense of skating over the road is gone, and although it’s not rock solid, it’s not at all scary piling quickly through 150mph having grabbed fourth at 140mph(!).

And then it clears. I can see three pairs of red tail lights dotted a good quarter of a mile apart, each set travelling at roughly the same speed. No danger of any of them catching and overtaking the next. So I pin the throttle, the deep bellow of V8 brays back through the cabin, joined, as the revs rise, by the manic drill of the supercharger. The GT500 stomps past 160mph and there’s no let‑up as we reach 170mph.

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The road is climbing now, just enough to slow the rate of acceleration, and the speed showing on the VBOX teeters from 175mph to 176, then 177, 178, 179… The final digit flickers between 9 and 8 over and over again but there’s nothing left to give. 179mph is all the GT500 can muster. Dean has been snapping the digital display for what seems like an age and later we work out from his camera files that we were travelling at over 170mph with the throttle flat to the floor for over three and a half minutes. It might have been ten, but fighting against that gentle gradient the Shelby was never going to go any faster.

Then it rains. Hard. The road is glistening, the wipers are groaning heavily across the windscreen at anything over 140mph and my heart sinks. One-seven-nine! My reputation at the office will be in tatters. Again. We’ve already had a full English breakfast, a full German currywurst and various other pig-based snacks, but with the rain beating down it seems there’s nothing for it but to have some roast pork in a lonely service station and consider our options.

I’m resigned to the fact that we’re not going to hit 200mph today. There is no way in the world this huge hunk of metal will hit 200mph without being dropped from space. It is a mightily fast car once it’s up and running, and considering its huge frontal area and gaping intakes, a GPS-verified 179mph isn’t too shabby. Dean and I decide to call it a night and head to Cologne.

Between the hours of 4.30am and about 5pm I hated this car. In the cold and wet conditions of the UK it was simply hopeless. The ride is jittery and yet body control is poor, the engine doesn’t feel close to 662bhp, the car feels unnecessarily huge and completely incapable of using the power it does have, and the interior and general quality doesn’t befit a £13,000 machine, never mind one priced at £34,000. But here and now I’ve softened slightly. The GT500 is in its comfort zone, cruising at 120-130mph on a quiet Autobahn, straight and true. It’s very quiet, actually. The quietest it’s been all evening. Dean gives me the nod and I drop down to fourth. It’s a bit damp but one more run won’t do any harm…

The gradient is with us this time and the Shelby smashes past 160 and 170mph, and this time the numbers keep on coming. We’re past 180mph in no time and 185mph a few seconds later. There’s a lorry not too far ahead and a long string of cars that aren’t quite nose-to-tail but seem close enough to present a risk of meandering into the outside lane, so these are the last moments we’ll get. The VBOX clicks the numbers by and then pauses at 188mph. There’s a tiny bit more to come but that traffic is too dense and too close, so I brake hard and settle back down to an easy 120mph.

Wow, a true 188mph in a car with a bonnet shaped like a metal parachute seems bloody impressive to me. I reckon 190mph was there for the taking. The GT500 can return to Cologne with pride intact. Over 489 miles today it has averaged 13.4mpg, felt helplessly out of its depth in about 2mm of water but, crucially, it’s also got pretty damn close to 200mph on the public road. 

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Given a long enough straight, would the Shelby have hit the magic double-ton? I doubt it. The US magazines seem to bear this out – all have tried and failed to reach 200mph on various airfields and high-speed bowls. It seems about 190mph on the flat is as good as it gets, which makes me feel rather better.

Does it matter? Probably not. For less money than an M3 the GT500 does offer a huge amount of performance and a huge hunk of character. However, be under no illusion that the GT500 is a multi-faceted drivers’ car. It isn’t. It does one thing well and that one thing is only really viable on a closed airfield, a sticky drag strip or, sometimes, on a derestricted Autobahn. The rest of the time it’s vague and unsatisfying or just plain unruly. I wouldn’t want anyone I care about to drive this car in the wet and I wouldn’t really want you to spend around £60,000 on one, either – which is what you’ll need to get one imported and registered in the UK.

Buy an M3, a C63, a GT86, a Clio Cup, a used GT-R, a 911… anything else will do. Unless you have a collection of a dozen cars and just want one slice of pure Americana, the GT500 will frustrate much more than it rewards. Trying to do 200mph in November in a GT500 wasn’t a very good idea. And nor was a 662bhp Mustang.

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