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New Ford Shelby is retro ride from an era long gone

The retro attitude extends to the mileage, and the Shelby is one of the thirstiest cars imaginable: almost a liter of fuel per 5km

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Ford Shelby GT500. All grunt.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a rare alignment of the stars -- and the bars -- my test drive of the new Shelby GT500 took place over the Fourth of July. Parading along the streets of Brooklyn, Ford's retro muscle car became part of the celebration.

Children pointed and teenagers urged me to light the fuse of this glaring red rocket. As I obliged, painting the scene with black rubber, it was enough to bring a tear to the eye of a recently laid-off autoworker.

As every Mustang fanatic knows, the Shelby is a 500 horsepower homage to the Shelby GTs of the 1960s, an era when gasoline flowed like nickel drafts and, believe it or not, Japanese cars were clearly inferior to Detroit's -- and a whole lot less cool.

So you can almost forgive Ford -- and General Motors and Chrysler -- for wanting to time-warp back to that era. Which they have, reviving often slavish imitations of their greatest hits. Ford acts at times like an aging high school jock, finding it easier to rehash the glory days than to focus on the future.

Now there's no doubt that the muscle-car revival has put some style and swagger back in the US car, and it has hatched some of the better new models on the market, including the Chrysler 300 and the Mustang GT on which the Shelby coupe and convertible are based.

But even this car's target audience of boomers and blue collars may be disappointed in this unit, which costs roughly US$44,000, or US$51,000 for the convertible. The Shelby goes fast and sounds appropriately menacing, but it doesn't feel as explosive as its lofty horsepower rating suggests.

In contrast to the Mustang GT's 4.6-liter V-8 -- with an aluminum block, three valves per cylinder and 300 horsepower -- the Shelby gets a supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 with an extra valve in each cylinder.

The GT500 will hustle from 0 to 100kph in 4.5 seconds, its V-8 rumble overlaid with the whine of a supercharger. Second gear peaks above 130kph, and third around 177kph, with six speeds managed through a stiff-feeling manual shifter. Huge Brembo brakes with four-piston front calipers help rein in the wide-striped beast.

On smooth highways, the Shelby feels something like a NASCAR stockcar escaped from the track. It rides well enough and goes exactly where you point it. Its sticky 45cm tires deliver gobs of grip. Yet with 57 percent of its weight up front, the car is prone to understeer. Mute steering doesn't communicate the car's intentions, especially at the higher speeds where you'd like some reassurance.

And if the Shelby loves creamy pavement, it has less taste for the chunky kind, on which the stiff suspension and low-profile tires transmit serious harshness into the cabin. On rough city streets, the Shelby is harder on your glutes than a Marine Corps Pilates instructor, and its tires chase after every hump and crack in the road. After a weeklong test, a persistent rattle had settled in near the right front wheel.

In evolutionary terms, the Mustang's solid-axle rear suspension is still dragging its knuckles on the ground. Despite Ford's persistent claims to the contrary, the antique setup cannot match an independent suspension in ride and handling, though it does hold down costs.

The best sports cars dance over bumps; the Shelby hammers them into submission.

Inside, the GT500 makes half-hearted gestures to upgrade the Mustang's nostalgic cabin, including optional -- and tacky-looking -- red seat inserts and a hissing cobra on the steering wheel. Driving position and comfort make a huge leap from the last-generation Mustang, but that car's basic structure dated to the late 1970s. Plastics are poorly matched and fitted, and have a greasy sheen.

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