While the French do a healthy business in shrugs and even, when equipped, mustache twirls, they are for the most part an undemonstrative people. Yet the Ford GT’s abrupt transition to its Track mode—the car dropping two inches as hydraulic actuators compress its supplemental coil springs, the rear wing rising with an equal suddenness—is impressive enough to coax a collective sigh of appreciation from the group of Le Mans corner workers and other informed spectators watching as the car readies itself to head onto the famous circuit.
The bigger question, and the one we haven’t been able to answer so far, is how the GT deals with the real world or, at least, the approximation of that given to us by France. For that, we’d need to take the car on public roads, and it just so happens that some of the ones we choose are actually part of the classic enduro’s circuit.
The yellow car you see here lives in Europe but boasts full U.S. spec, complete with red rear turn signals and a navigation system that refuses to acknowledge the existence of anything east of Maine. Up close, the GT also reveals the patina of a life lived hard, with swirling galaxies of stone chips on those parts of the lower bodywork not protected by helicopter tape. The odometer admits to just 6500 miles, but the technicians who delivered the car to France and who are present to keep it in tune say the vast majority of those were accumulated on racetracks. (For reference, the No. 68 car that took class honors at Le Mans in 2016 covered 2880 miles in 24 hours.)
Beyond France, we also extracted a full set of performance numbers from another GT in Michigan and later took that car to Virginia International Raceway to see how its lap time compared with some of the harder chargers. With production limited to just 250 units a year, that means a respectable percentage of the existing fleet has been employed to bring you this story.
Let’s start with the sticky subject of the numbers. Because while the GT is hugely fast, its raw figures are not as inspirational as they should be considering the price premium the car carries over blue-chip rivals. We know it is churlish to criticize any car capable of breaking 60 mph from a standstill in three seconds flat and turning in a sub-11-second quarter; yet the brutal truth is that those times are only sufficient to put the GT below the median of its insanely rapid segment. Both the Lamborghini Huracán Performante and the McLaren 720S are significantly quicker, and each is more than $150,000 cheaper.
But then, those cars are practically mass produced when compared with the GT, which will leave Multimatic’s assembly plant in Markham, Ontario, at the rate of no more than one a day. The Ford’s twin-turbo V-6 was also chosen for reasons beyond mere horsepower, with GTE Pro regulations using a Byzantine balance of performance calculation to wind back challengers with too much firepower. The heavily reworked 3.5-liter EcoBoost gives the GT a tangential link to the lower reaches of the Ford range and is also compact enough to fit within the GT’s dramatically tapered bodywork—a design dictated by the racing variant’s aerodynamic requirements.
The GT is certainly not lacking for theater. Our base in the Pays de la Loire is the appropriately named Hôtel de France in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, around 30 miles from the circuit and previously the encampment of the original Ford GT40 works effort in the ’60s. Since then, it has become a magnet for race fans. Its rooms are named after famous drivers, making it possible to have an excellent three-course dinner with wine and then charge it to Derek Bell. Yet while the local population has grown used to seeing all manner of exotica parked in the square outside, the GT is still special enough to draw spectators as it is unloaded from the transporter and warms up just after dawn.
The mighty 647-hp V-6 is the GT’s defining feature. It is its heart, its soul, and its tinnitus-inducing entertainment system—the feeble efforts of the four-speaker factory audio are drowned out as soon as the car starts to move. It’s a constant reminder of the GT’s racing pedigree, idling with a brooding tone and, although tractable under gentle use, occasionally stuttering and snuffling as it tries to clear its throat. There’s plenty of turbo lag, replaced in short order by the rapidly swelling sensation of arriving boost. Keep accelerating, and the noises passing through the rear bulkhead get angrier and darker. Dulcet, melodious, and tuneful are just three of the adjectives that will never be applied to the GT’s soundtrack. Taster’s notes included chain saws, Africanized bees, and hints of hurricane, with noise trapped and reverberating in the tight-fitting carbon-fiber box that is the cabin.
Yet the GT’s sensory overload makes it thrilling in a way that most modern-breed house-trained supercars rarely are, and it more than offsets any on-paper performance deficit. We had rain for much of our time in France, which put the track-biased Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires in an appropriately Gallic state of existential angst. Any car that tries to spin its rear wheels at 4000 rpm in third gear on half throttle is not short on thrills. But the GT didn’t feel scary even in proximity to its weather-reduced limits; it is one of those cars that pretty much always shouts encouragement at the driver to try harder. On drier roads, the LED upshift lights integrated into the top of the steering wheel goad one on, and getting even the first green one to flare feels like an accomplishment. The blue lights at the far end of the LED window might warn of the modest 7000-rpm redline, but getting them illuminated feels positively daring.
Although our time on the closed parts of the circuit is constrained, we have free rein of the sizable section of the 24-hour course that consists of public roads, most famous of which is the 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne straight, part of Route Départementale D338. The straight is now curtailed by two chicanes during the race but, in the event’s heyday, was once the scene of some of the highest speeds ever witnessed in racing; in 1988, a Group C Peugeot prototype set a Le Mans speed-trap record of 252 mph.
There is no chance of a record today, or indeed of breaking the normal 90-km/h speed limit by any significant degree, thanks to traffic, much of which is oncoming. Yes, the GT can be driven at an everyday pace without drama, but it does not like to do so. Every part of the car has been designed for higher speeds and higher loadings. The carbon-ceramic brakes grouch out their protest when cold, and the pedal is light and hard to modulate under gentle pressure, the brakes needing heat to work properly. The dual-clutch automatic doesn’t change ratios with the snap and precision of, say, Porsche’s PDK, and manual mode is selected by a fiddly button at the center of the rotary transmission controller.
Yet while the GT’s powertrain feels no less aggressive on the road than it does on track, the chassis has a gentler side, a sense of lightness and delicacy in contrast to the brutality of the power delivery. Ride is firm in any of the drive modes, but both Normal and the slightly stiffer Sport give damping compliance to cope with surfaces that look as if they could shake the car to pieces. Credit goes largely to Multimatic’s spool-valve dampers, fitted here with an electronically adjustable element. Ford’s use of both a traditional coil and a torsion-bar spring at each corner allows the GT to assume a stiffer spring rate when it crouches down two inches into its lowered ride height. The same hydraulic actuators that compress and lock out the coil springs in Track—a mode we are expressly forbidden to select on-road—operate a nose-lifting system that deploys in approximately one second, faster than pretty much any other. It pops the front of the car up, rather than drawing out the ballet. It’s effective, too: During two days and nearly 300 miles, we don’t grind the nose on any of the many speed bumps we encounter. And it would be impossible to grow bored with the steering, gregarious and alive with unfiltered feedback rather than merely chatty. The fat-rimmed wheel relays bumps and camber changes and even slight alterations in surface texture. The GT feels like it can be placed with an accuracy of well under an inch. With a fixed-ratio steering rack and an electrohydraulic pump providing the power assist, responses are fast but not darty, and it’s easy to keep the front end under control as the rear considers slipping.
For those without much supercar experience, the GT is a hell of a place to start in this segment. And if you’re expecting a vehicle capable of doing normal carlike things, then you are sure to be disappointed. The GT makes a McLaren 675LT and a Ferrari 458 Speciale feel plush and a bit tame; to own the Ford without plans for regular track work would be like owning a Gibson Les Paul Custom and leaving it hung on the wall.