June 18, 2012 at 7:46 AM ET
Two hundred miles per hour. That is the realm of Indy cars. A handful of ultra-exotic sports cars have also achieved the benchmark, but their price tags make most of them as unattainable as an Indy car.
So when Ford’s hot-rod tuners in the company’s Special Vehicles Team told the late Carroll Shelby that the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 would achieve 200 mph, he could scarcely believe it. Shelby, who won the 24-hour sports car race at Le Mans as a driver, team owner and car builder, knew that doubling speed from 100 mph to 200 mph takes four times the power.
In fact, after an initially giddy reaction to the news, Shelby — whose health was then precarious — began to suspect the guys might be trying to send him off with a smile on his face. After considering the difficulty of actually achieving 200 mph in a production Mustang with a list price starting at $54,000, Shelby called chief engineer Jamal Hameedi with a question. “You weren’t bull@!$%#ting me about the 200 mph, were you?” Shelby growled, recalled Hameedi.
He wasn’t. At the Nardo test track in Italy, Ford’s test driver recorded an official top speed of 202 mph. In a factory-built Mustang.
Car and Driver magazine technical editor Don Schroeder died in 2000 attempting 200 mph in a modified Mercedes-Benz on a similar test track in Texas. Above 150 mph, cars cease to be pure land vehicles and move into the realm of low-flying aircraft.
At the media introduction of the GT500 at the Road Atlanta racetrack in Georgia, Ford was clearly concerned about the car’s stupendous speed potential. The test cars were equipped with roll bars and five-point racing seat belts. Additionally, speed was restricted by a wall of cones on the back straight that forced a stop from about 155 mph. And we were prevented from driving at all on the front straight.
Still, it was enough to experience the car’s astonishing power. And its even more astonishing ability to meter that power out and put it onto the ground manageably. Certainly, until Ford introduced the Boss 302 last year, there was nothing to suggest that the company could corral the incredible 662 horses in the GT500’s supercharged stable.
But the car is docile on the street, with only a slightly stiffer clutch pedal to betray the extra power under the hood. This absolutely is a car that anyone who can drive a manual transmission could use for commuting to work without feeling beaten up by a stiff suspension.
You can thank tricks like a dual-disc clutch pack for keeping clutch pedal effort reasonable, electronically switchable shock absorbers that change to suit driving conditions and a three-level adjustable power steering arrangement that lets you decide how hard it is to turn the wheel.
That clutch pack can withstand the engine’s withering power output during repeated drag strip launches, an activity abetted by an electronic launch control system that lets the driver set the engine rpm to a pre-programmed level — I had good luck with 3,700 rpm — when the clutch is released to launch the car.
An experienced drag racer passed the quarter-mile in 11.7 seconds, while my best time for the day was 12.4 seconds at 120 mph. The Shelby uses a lovely new six-speed manual shifter that somehow marries the short throws and low effort of a Mazda Miata’s shifter with the hefty transmission parts needed to survive the GT500’s prodigious power.
The short throws make it possible to change gears so quickly on the drag strip that it is hard to work the clutch pedal fast enough to keep up on the one-two upshift. Many journalists crunched that gear change, only because they still hadn’t fully depressed the clutch pedal when they jammed the shifter into second gear. OK, I was one of the culprits, but only once.
On the curvy road race circuit, the GT500 proved its ability to make snap changes in direction and to accelerate from corners faster than a political candidate fleeing a voting record. Some of the credit goes to the Goodyear Supercar G2 tires, which were specifically developed to handle this car’s 200 mph terminal velocity.
Despite its enormous Brembo brakes, the Mustang’s mass becomes evident when it is time to slow the car. Hammering into some of Road Atlanta’s slow corners, even after the abbreviated straights, late braking induced brake fade as the pedal dove for the floor, and I used downshifts to slow the car. The car probably just needed its brake fluid bled, which is standard race track service between sessions.
But there are few places where the ability to stop from 200 mph will matter, because there are few places big enough for the GT500 to reach that speed. You might plan a summer vacation to coincide with Speed Weeks at the Bonneville Salt Flats to give it a go, and out there you won’t need to slow down.
Although I haven’t been able to personally verify that the GT500 will go 200 mph, I’ve now driven it enough to confirm that I’d like to give it a try. Until then, we’ll have to trust Ford’s claim that the car will do it. And I don’t think they’re bull@!$%#ting us.
More from msnbc.com business: