By Rick Newman
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Friday afternoon. Sun. Three-day weekend. Early cutout. Mellencamp. Loud. And a 500-horsepower, lipstick-red Ford Mustang convertible. Are you with me here?

I wondered if other drivers would be. I merged onto one highway, where a bunch of meandering drivers didn't seem to have the same sense of purpose I was feeling. I downshifted from fourth to third, sending a nuclear-powered roar out the exhaust, and assertively darted in front of a BMW 7 series sedan. Then I punched it hard and watched the 7 fade in the mirror. Yessssss.

As I eased out around the speed limit, however, Bimmer Man started to catch up. I pulled to the right, yielding the fast lane to him-and wondering what kind of gesture he might offer as he glided by. He sidled up, raised his arm-and up came a highly approving thumb, matched by wide grin. Right on, Bimmer Man. You get it.

Funny thing is, the GT500 is the alter ego of refined rides like those from BMW, Audi, or Lexus. It's as gaudy as a full-body tattoo, with bold colors, fat racing stripes, a cheesy Cobra emblem on the grille, air scoops, a volcanic rumble, and all kinds of other features that shout, 'notice me!' But its performance cred earns respect. In addition to the rollicking engine, the GT500 has a race-tuned suspension that helps keep the power in check on curves, along with powerful Brembo brakes, a must-have (often overlooked) for cars this muscular. The only transmission is a stiff and precise manual six-speed. Sorry, automotive poseurs. All told, the GT500's specs match up quite well with those of the Chevrolet Corvette Z06-which costs about $20,000 more.

In all other facets, the GT500 is solid. All too often, performance cars are all flash and dash, with little else going for them. Not the GT500. It benefits from the same cool retro design as the conventional Mustang, with the three-spoke steering wheel and the sloping back that evokes the classic fastback look from the late '60s. Plus there are some nice modern touches: The roof on the convertible retracts automatically with the touch of a single button, for instance, and the cabin is sporty and comfortable. And you can actually fit two kids in the back seat. As fun as this car is on a long summer weekend, it's not bad in everyday driving either.

Snapshot

 

Nits: Requires expensive premium fuel.

G-forces: The GT500 reportedly races from zero to 60 in less than five seconds, and as for its top speed, ... I'm told that at 120 miles per hour (in fourth gear), the car still has plenty to give. Just as important: Big 18-inch tires and a rigid performance suspension let you take curves with the confidence to know all that power isn't going to fling you into the guardrail. And the brakes are muscular too.

Gizmology: Dashboard controls aren't fancy, but they're not cheap either. Everything feels comfortable. Car buffs will appreciate the alignment of gauges; the speedometer and tachometer have been flipped from the way they're arrayed in the conventional Mustang, so that the tach-important to watch if you care about shift points-is on the right, more in line with the driver's view of the road.

Kidmarks: Be thankful you can fit two kids in back, and thereby convince your spouse this is a family car. Otherwise, it's a tight fit getting kids in and out, and there are few conveniences back there for them.

Hot or not: Hot. Flashy, if overdressed.

Pain at the pump: Severe. Mileage ranges from 15 mpg/city to 21 mpg/highway-not bad for a huge V-8, but not good by any standard either. Details: www.fueleconomy.gov.

Crash course: The base Mustang, structurally similar to the GT500, earns 10 stars out of 10 on the government's frontal crash test, and 4 out of 5 on the side-impact test. Rollover resistance rating is 5 stars out of 5. More info:http://safercar.gov/NCAP/Cars/3895.html

Standard safety gear: Advanced frontal air bags, side-impact air bags, antilock brakes.

Price points: Base prices are $42,975 for the coupe, and $47,500 for the convertible. Price as tested: Approximately $50,000

More info:http://www.fordvehicles.com/cars/mustang/