Forget Mustang vs. Camaro. Ford’s Shelby GT500 is ready to challenge Chevrolet’s flagship C8
Mustang vs. Corvette? Go ahead, pinch your thumb and index finger to the bridge of your nose, squint your eyes, and blink hard. When you look again, the words on the page won’t have changed.
Rarely has MotorTrend conducted (or concocted) such a bold comparison. But it’s a mad, mad new world we’re in now. Forget the Blue Oval’s sacrosanct rivalry with Camaro, which had always left the Corvette to chase the elusive, pricier Porsche 911.
Oh sure, the base pony car models will still compete, same as always. But the top-end Mustang GT500 is so excellent it deserves higher-octane competition. The final piece of evidence: The Mustang Shelby GT500 costs more than Chevrolet’s new mid-engine Corvette supercar when similarly equipped. Game on.
The C8 Corvette and Shelby GT500 have stirred up more buzz than anything else that’s come from the Motor City in recent memory. After decades of teases and concepts, the ‘Vette finally slides the engine back in the chassis to join the transaxle aft of the driver’s derriere. And after the extremely successful Shelby GT350, which finished a sharply creased second place in our 2019’s Best Driver’s Car, Ford brought in even heavier artillery with a load more horsepower and torque.
These two contenders offer different kinds of appeal, both inspiring great desire in the high-performance enthusiast world. Both offer capabilities that measure well against far pricier foreigners, without the kind of sacrifices that used to come with the label “Made in America.” Gone (mostly) are the long-muttered utterances about cheap features and fixtures, crude handling, and lack of refinement.
Of course, when you look inside these two cars, there’s an immediate difference. The Corvette is an American interpretation of a mid-six-figure European supercar; the Shelby has nearly the same interior as that rental Mustang convertible at the Hertz counter at LAX—albeit with better seats and some minor brightwork tacked on to disguise its cheesy rotary shift knob and plasticky switchgear. Ford’s interior guys still have some work to do before they can declare their Shelby variants to be world-class premium.
But this is not a comparison test for value shoppers who peruse our Buyer’s Guide, niggling over inches of legroom and warranty coverage.
This is a track test—the literal interpretation of where the rubber meets the road.
The C8 Corvette has come of age—finally, I might add—with a style and behavior that bring to mind a word like “sophistication.” The Corvette’s new shape will sit well with the German and Italian exotica in the valet lot at the country club.
The Shelby GT500 comes from another, more purely American place, the pony car. But since the arrival of the S550 chassis in 2015, the muscular Mustang and its more powerful derivatives have risen above the hot rods of yore, to compare well with European icons.
The ‘Vette excels with exotic appearance, precise and agile handling, and balanced power with a nice rush of strong, smooth, jetlike urge. The Muscle-tang crushes like a bodybuilder with brains. Its huge forward forces do not overwhelm its chassis, as in many of the beloved classics we’ve known before.
The C8 Stingray carries a lithe, striking new shape that will grab attention from a block away. Its lines do a terrific job of conveying more of a sense of value and beauty, yet it’s still imbued with a half-century-plus of genetic identifiers. I predict this car will generate more than a few “Oh, wow!” reactions from the public long after it has gone on sale.
The Mustang is a beefed-up beast with bulging biceps, based on our well-known sporty coupe. It will light up the pony car crowd, certainly. But among the elites, the Shelby’s familiar muscle-bound shape may still result in upturned noses, window-rattling V-8 rumble or not. Where the Mustang scores more points in this contest is in its competence in motion.
At speed, the ‘Vette’s strongest dynamic assets are described in a list of two: first, low polar moment, and second, forward traction. Chevy engineers have created a machine that benefits in exactly the ways it should: more centralized mass and the resulting rearward weight bias.
The Corvette has long been the bad boy of the racetrack, the Bart Simpson of supercars: rude, loud, cheap, unpredictable, and hard to handle, but fast and fun in its own brash way. Now, the Corvette has finally grown up. The C8 Corvette is more sophisticated, capable, and mature.
When the majority of the weight in a chassis is nearer the center of gravity, the car will change direction more eagerly. Formerly carried way up front under those arching fenders, the big engine actually resisted the steering tires as they tried to pull that hunk of metal around to face the apex of a turn. The amidships engine makes the steering feel responsive, more direct, and more precise. It’s less work. The new ‘Vette slices its way into a bend in a most delightful way.
Too much, sometimes—and this is the tricky part of the setup. Quick response can overwork the rear tires and create oversteer. In several high-speed tests, and again here at Virginia International Raceway, we have found some of that in the C8’s track personality. It really will point to the apex entering a corner and sometimes overdo it and end up sideways, with the widely adjustable stability control switch fully off (thank you for providing us with that choice, Chevy).
But when you apply your American V-8 torque, then you find the greatest improvement in driving the American Sports Car: It puts ponies to pavement. The C8 hooks up. Chevy has taken advantage of placing the engine over the rear wheels, and that loading successfully creates forward thrust far better than any Corvette before. The new ‘Vette launches hard from a slow corner or a stoplight/dragstrip. Check out that 0-60 time, beating cars with far higher power ratings and even some with all-wheel drive. That, my friends, is traction.
In fact, the ‘Vette transfers weight rearward so well that it sometimes goes into another kind of slide: understeer. The front loses grip a bit prematurely as a result of the light front loads. What to do? Is it bad? No, but this is a brand-new baby, and there’s still something to be learned. We believe we will see the C8 Corvette improve further as the Chevy team learns more about this all-new mid-engine phenomenon.
In street-tuned mode dashing around VIR, the ‘Vette revealed deliciously instant steering response. It was quick and stable as I carved into a corner, and it revealed snappy trailing-throttle oversteer when I released the brake. Both are clearly influences of the mid-engine low polar moment.
As I accelerated off slow corners, like VIR’s Oak Tree, the C8’s ground-gripping traction rockets the car forward, and it remains well balanced even though it feels like it might wheelie. I found a consistent gradual side slip in third and fourth gears exiting faster sweepers. The C8 has more power oversteer at 80 mph than it does at 40, which is unusual.
The new Corvette’s braking was strong and stable with moderate nose dive. There was some isolation, if not the degree of e-pedal numbness I feared, and the brakes were cooled with some really nice Z51 brake ducts. Last, there was no more float, better suspension damping, but not harsh.
Crawling under the hood, we then adjusted the C8’s suspension to its track settings—which simply comes down to much more negative camber, front and rear. When added to the 8 degrees of caster (the same in Street or Track mode), the Corvette creates camber gain when the wheels are turned, which is especially good for tight turns, and a strong self-centering force for stability and good on-center feel.
High caster will also cross-weight a chassis because the outside wheel swings in an arc upward as the inside wheel swings down. These will both typically work to reduce the understeer that we squawked about in earlier tests.
The effect of the added camber was much improved grip everywhere, reducing but not eliminating traits of midcorner understeer and drop-throttle oversteer and raising speeds with better manners. The basic traits of midcorner understeer and trailing-throttle oversteer were still there, just not as much.
In Track setup, the Corvette’s lap times improved by 2 to 3 seconds with less falloff and better grip on a long run. Tying this all together was an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission that worked quite well at full chat, completing the performance of a much improved product. Far more than deserving of the title, this fresh offering is a 21st century new chapter, with more room to improve. One step back with the engine is a giant leap forward for the Stingray.
The GT500, on the other hand, has sprung from the loins of another highly regarded thoroughbred, the GT350. As such it comes from a known source that has been developed for years. It shows on track, especially.
Whereas the C8 is precise, the GT500 hoons. Toss it around. Grab it by the scruff of the neck. This pony encourages aggression. Its version of refinement manifests in confidence for the driver. And the GT500 works in both standard and Carbon Fiber Track Pack form. It is beautifully balanced on track. The steering stays alive all the way through a corner. Quick turn-ins show no evil twitches. Pouring on the ponies rockets it down the straights, and slides come slow and controllably. Within reason.
There’s that word again: reason. Use it when you squeeze down the Shelby’s accelerator. The supercharged cross-plane Coyote-based V-8 clearly makes all of its advertised 760 horsepower. This is another step into the Brave New World of high technology, and overeagerness with that gas pedal will be rewarded with jail and/or hospital time.
Every one of those ponies made themselves known as the Mustang devoured the long back straight at VIR, touching nearly 170 mph, lap after lap. No power fade here, unlike some other American blown V-8s making similar numbers.
The Coyote belts out a stirring bellow or calms to quiet as a mouse with just a switch of the electronic valves in the dual exhaust, allowing you to decide whether to wake the neighbors.
All that thrust goes through a new Tremec dual-clutch seven-speed that exhibited fine behavior on the street and flat out. Manual shifting during a hot lap is just a distraction, and the GT500’s auto mode rivals Porsche’s PDK (yes, really) and does everything I would do, anyway. It even had the savvy to hold a higher gear in places rather than constantly throw out raucous downshifts.
On straights, there’s a rewarding “over-torque” feature that gives a little extra shove on each shift, like a manual power shift. Yet in corners, I felt the Tremec smooth those out. Impressive. The track program is really dialed in. The Ford team should be proud.
This thrust twists a trick carbon-fiber driveshaft into a Torsen gear-type limited-slip differential—a good choice for a front-engine chassis because it doesn’t lock up much off power. This helps get the GT500 pointed into the turn, and it’s also a non-wear item, unlike the clutch-type diffs.
If the driver remains very responsible with the right pedal, the Shelby is responsive and stable. The MagneRide shock system soaked up the curbs and bumps, but it floated a bit under the loads of pro speeds. Happily, though, when the PS4S tires did break loose, it was mostly a gradual, even enjoyable experience. The GT500 has that magic combination of steering response at the limit: the ability to tighten its line while loaded laterally in the middle of a corner, without losing grip at the back.
The Shelby handles this great grunt very well—even with its traction/stability control fully disengaged. (I don’t recommend this unless you’ve completed several professional driving schools, one of which Ford offers with the purchase of a GT500, or have won Daytona at least once.) It’s an incredible thrill, breathtaking, to lay the pedal to the metal. But it requires skill to handle that thrill.
Stopping this rig were perhaps the largest rotors (16.5 inches) and Brembo calipers I’ve yet to experience. Although the big Shelby could dive deep, deep into the tight corners VIR presents at the culmination of its long straights, it was here I could find my only real complaint: a bit of a long brake pedal, which was a little disconcerting at 170 mph. No fade but some squish. They even bled the brakes for me, yet both test Shelbys felt spongy. This was surprising because I recall complaining that the GT350’s brakes were too strong, requiring only a big toe. Perfect would be somewhere in between.