2017 FORD GT FIRST DRIVE: THE RIGHT STUFF! Ford builds a racecar for the road
Lights flicker across the top of the steering wheel as the exhaust note builds to a full-throated bellow. Green, red, blue … shift now! Fingertips snick the right-hand paddle, a delicate, precise motion that barely interrupts the surge of acceleration. Corner! Left foot hard on the brakes, the carbon-ceramic rotors instantly turning forward motion into heat energy. Snick, snick on the left-hand paddle, a corresponding braap-braap from the engine as the dual-clutch transmission smoothly drops two gears. Now the magic happens.
The front tires respond the split-second the steering wheel is moved off-center. Left, right, left … The low-slung, futuristic coupe dances through the S-bend with impossible speed. It’s light on its feet yet preternaturally calm, a prima ballerina in carbon fiber and aluminum. Squeeze on the gas, feel the precise moment the rear tires reach the limit of adhesion, and slow-hand opposite lock to maintain a gentle drift on the exit of the last left-hander. The agility! The precision! The calm, concise, constant dialogue with the chassis through your fingers and toes and the seat of your pants: This is a supercar like no other. This is a Ford like no other.
That’s right. A Ford. The 2017 Ford GT is a remarkable car, not just for what it does but also for what it is.
Ford calls the GT “a race car for the road,” and for once that’s not marketing hype. The GT was born from a fierce desire among a small cadre of enthusiasts in Dearborn to race a car at Le Mans in 2016, and—hopefully—celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford’s epic 1-2-3 finish in the legendry 24 Hour race with another victory over Ferrari, although this time in the GTE class for production cars. The original plan, codenamed Project Silver, was to race a Mustang. But when the team, headed by Ford product development chief Raj Nair, figured out how extensively it would need to be modified to make it competitive with the Ferrari 488, the idea was dropped.
But beating Ferrari once more at Le Mans was an itch Nair and his team, which included the newly minted head of Ford Performance, former Mustang chief engineer Dave Pericak, and Ford Americas design director Chris Svensson, just had to scratch.
The GT was born out of a skunkworks program authorized by Nair, but it was kept off the radar and out of sight to all but a mere handful of staffers in design and engineering. Working out of a padlocked basement in Ford’s Product Development Center, with meetings held after hours and on weekends, the team focused on creating an all-new sports car that could win at Le Mans. Crucially, though, it also had to be able to be built and sold as a road car to qualify for the GTE class. Everyone understood they were talking about building an all-new Ford GT.
The decision to build the new GT around Ford’s 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 was made early, and not just because using an engine that promoted the company’s EcoBoost branding would make selling the idea easier to Bill Ford, Alan Mulally, and Mark Fields but also because the engine’s compact dimensions could make the car smaller, lighter, and more aerodynamic. The team developed the GT engine in plain sight, fitting it to the Riley-Ford Daytona prototype raced by Chip Ganassi’s team in the United SportsCar Championship. “At the time Mr. Ganassi didn’t actually know what we were asking him to do other than race the engine in the prototype series,” Pericak says. “What we were doing was proving out our technology.”
Meanwhile, Svensson and a small team of 12 designers and modelers were shaping a radical take on the mid-engine supercar. The team had decided on three possible themes: one that reworked cues from the iconic GT40, one that optimized performance efficiency, and one that focused on sheer beauty. What you see in the new Ford GT is all of the above. “When we had the first review with Raj,” Svensson says, “he said ‘you’re going to take all three and wrap them up in a single entity.’ ”
Once the clay models were done, Nair had what Pericak describes as a slightly uncomfortable conversation with Ford, Mulally, and Fields—”you’re not supposed to be using company resources for something that’s not approved”—and brought them down to the locked basement room to see what his team had been doing in their spare time. “They saw one of the most beautiful cars they’d ever seen,” Pericak grins. “The sell after that wasn’t too hard.”
With Ford’s top brass on board, the new Ford GT, now codenamed Project Phoenix, was a go, though the car’s existence remained a tightly guarded secret. And with the 2016 Le Mans race less than two years away, the pressure on the development team was intense. “We simultaneously designed the road car and the race car, and we engineered both at the same time,” Svensson says. “There was a constant back and forth between engineering and design, which was unlike anything I’ve ever done on any car program.”
Key goals for the Project Phoenix team were low weight, high aerodynamic efficiency, and big horsepower. So the GT is almost entirely made from carbon fiber and aluminum. The carbon tub narrows dramatically toward the rear, and the driver and passenger sit shoulder to shoulder. To save space, the seats are fixed—the cushions are right on the floor—and the steering wheel and pedals move instead. The dash, with airways for the HVAC molded in, is an integral part of the tub structure. There’s a small nav screen and HVAC controls at the center of the dash, a start button, a rotary gear selector and some minor switches on a wafer-thin center console, and a digital instrument panel, which we’ll see a version of in the 2018 Mustang. All other controls are on the race car–style steering wheel.
The GT rides on suspension similar to that of an F1 car, featuring pushrods that actuate remotely mounted springs connected to trick Multimatic DSSV spool-valve shocks via short torsion bars. Underneath is a race car–style aerodynamic floor, and at the rear a wing that not only deploys to increase downforce but also changes its shape.
But here’s what you all want to know: Can you really have a supercar with a six-cylinder engine?
One exhilarating thrash along a winding road, one hot lap of any race track, one searing full-throttle charge to V-max, emphatically answers that question: Oh yes, you can. With 647 hp at 6,250 rpm and 550 lb-ft of torque at 5,900 rpm, the Ford GT has more power than a Ferrari 488 and more torque than a McLaren 675LT—and they are both powered by V-8s.
In Normal mode, the EcoBoost V-6 is as docile and tractable around town as it is in an F-150. The seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch transmission smoothly shuffles between ratios. Switch to Sport or Track modes, however, activating the anti-lag system that reduces time-to-torque at 3,000 rpm from 1.2 seconds to 0.7 second, and the beast within awakes. Nail the gas, and the engine’s dreary part-throttle drone explodes into a gut-wrenching wall of sound as you’re shoved back into the seat by a violent surge of acceleration.
The Ford guys won’t give away too much about the anti-lag system, but all you need to know is it works. Throttle response is instant, urgent, and incandescent, feeding surgically precise measures of torque to the rear tires. In V-max mode, where the active aerodynamics are configured to deliver minimal drag—and the stability control is set as tight as possible because there’s not a lot of downforce as a result—Ford says the GT will hit 216 mph. So forget the cylinder count and rejoice in the fact that not only does the GT have the most powerful EcoBoost engine built, but it also has one of the the most powerful engines Ford has ever put into a street-legal car. Period.
Apart from the droning exhaust note at cruising speeds—by far the engine’s worst characteristic and something Ford engineers are still working to fix—the GT’s powertrain is mighty impressive. But its chassis is better. Because it’s so low and so light—claimed dry weight is just over 3,050 pounds—the GT is stupendously good on the change of direction, arguably better than pretty much any other supercar in the business. It’s so agile, so instantaneously responsive to steering inputs, yet it remains beautifully balanced and composed on the follow through. You know exactly what the front and rear tires are doing at any time, and you can adjust the car’s attitude through corners at will with the throttle. The GT might be a 647-hp, 216-mph mid-engine supercar, but it feels as playful and trustworthy as a Miata.
All this chassis magic is accomplished with surprisingly little electronic trickery by 21st century supercar standards. There are three drive main modes: Normal, Sport, and Track. In Normal mode the ride height is set at 4.7 inches, the rear wing deploys at 90 mph, and an additional Comfort setting is available to further calm the ride on rough roads. Selecting Sport mode activates the anti-lag system, reduces the traction control system’s level of intervention, and allows the rear wing to deploy at 70 mph. Although body motions are tautly controlled, the GT rides remarkably well for a light car on low-profile tires, with much less noise and impact harshness than a Porsche 911 GT3.
Track mode, which can only be selected while the car is stationary, is the GT’s party trick. The rear wing shoots up, and the car instantly drops 2 inches, like a race car dropping off the jacks in pit lane, as the coil springs are compressed by a high-pressure hydraulic system that also controls the steering, transmission, and rear wing. The spring rate is now stiffer all round, courtesy of the short torsion bars between the compressed coils and the shocks. Even so, the GT remains unfazed by mid-corner lumps and bumps, and it happily rides the curbing through corners. The active aerodynamics deliver superb high-speed stability, especially through fast corners and under heavy braking.
The drop-dead gorgeous 2005–2006 Ford GT was a loving homage to the GT40, with swinging ’60s styling digitally remastered for the 21st century and a thundering V-8 delivering the requisite soundtrack. The 2017 Ford GT is the real deal: Just like the original GT40, it was actually designed to win at Le Mans. And that means accepting some compromises. The V-6 engine drones horribly at cruising speeds. Generously proportioned owners will find the cabin an uncomfortably tight fit. The execution of the carbon-fiber panels and parts is workmanlike rather than dazzlingly perfect as in a Bugatti or a Pagani. Although it has sat nav, even cruise control, and a remarkably compliant ride on the road, this is not a car for cruising the interstates from sea to shining sea.
And in truth none of that matters because the Ford GT delivers a spectacularly unique driving experience. It’s loud and unfiltered, agile and precise, fast in a straight line and quicksilver through the corners. It is not, like track-rat versions of Porsches and Ferraris and Vipers, a road car with racing hardware bolted on. It is a racing car you can drive on the road.
|2017 Ford GT
||Mid-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe
||3.5L/647-hp/550-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
||7-speed twin-clutch auto
||3,050 lb (mfr)
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT
||187.5 x 78.9 x 43.7 in
||2.8 sec (MT est)
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY
||306/187 kW-hrs/100 miles
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB
|ON SALE IN U.S.