Refined GT offers 'docile' 205-m.p.h. ride ROMEO, Mich. -- First time we drove the track at a media day at Indy, the starter's warning was short and to the point: "Keep the wheels side down." Before slipping behind the wheel of the exotic 2005 Ford GT at the automaker's test track here, the starter's warning also was to the point, but a little more specific: "You have to get it up to and keep it at 100 m.p.h. on the banks to keep it from sliding down the track." Must follow orders. Several months ago Ford held a GT drive day for the media at the GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Mich. The GT, that day, was a pre-production model in need of a few tweaks and refinements. It took far too much effort to move the balky gearshift lever and even when moved, there didn't seem to be any logical pattern. The lever seemed to have a mind of its own as to which gear it would chose--and when. And, the front roof pillars were so wide, you could barely see the bends and twists in the road course. Blind spot referred to anything along the side of the track. Months later in production form, the two-seat GT had been fine-tuned. The 6-speed manual required very little effort to slip from gear to gear with pinpoint accuracy. And the roof pillars had been slimmed so you could see where you were going whenever the track twisted left or right or went uphill or downhill. The ability to see is rather important in a machine powered by a 5.4-liter, 32-valve, supercharged V-8 engine with push-button start that develops 550 horsepower and produces 500 foot-pounds of torque. The GT is smooth, solid, tight--and quick. "The GT that we raced in the '60s wasn't very stable. Our objective with the new GT was a race car that acts like a road car and is easy to drive. Anyone can take it up to 200 m.p.h. without needing a lot of guts. You could say it's docile," said John Coletti, director of Ford's Special Vehicle Team programs and one of the men to helped create the modern GT. Unlike most exotics, which subscribe to the no-pain, no-gain theory, the GT delivers pure pleasure: high speed yet optimum control, quick steering response, pinpoint cornering and sure-footed braking. But docile? Top speed has been certified at 205 m.p.h. Let's just say it's civilized. Maybe anyone can take it up to 200 m.p.h., but on track day here, each member of the media had an engineer riding shotgun with one eye focused on the speedometer. The GT not only held tight along the steep banks, but also in the sharp corners as well as on the straightaway. A fun car--for the select few. But this two-seater isn't the easiest vehicle to slip into or out of, and only 4,500 will get one before it disappears. Coletti said a total of 4,500 GTs will be built for the '05 and '06 model years and then it will be gone, no '07 model. The GT starts at $139,995 and offers only four options: a McIntosh stereo at $4,000, lightweight wheels at $3,500, body paint stripes at $5,000 and a choice of red or gray painted brake calipers at $750. Add $2,600 for a federal gas-guzzler tax because the 550-h.p. V-8 delivers only 13 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway and that's shy of the 22 m.p.g. required in combined city/highway driving. Add another $1,250 for freight. So make it a $157,095 package, though heaven knows what amount over and above that dealers will add. Chrysler concepts Had a chance to spend some time with a trio of Chrysler concepts at the automaker's Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan--the Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sling Shot and Jeep Rescue. Avenger: The four-door Avenger borrows some of the wagon/sport-utility vehicle styling influence from the Dodge Magnum sport wagon. There had been speculation Dodge would borrow some of the Avenger tyling for the '06 Dodge Neon replacement. Insiders now say it's more likely Avenger styling will show up in the '06 replacement for the Dodge Stratus. The Neon replacement will reflect more of the Chrysler Pacifica look. Avenger is a very roomy hatchback with front- and rear-seat center consoles that can be used as stowage compartments or to house entertainment system hardware. Avenger comes with push-button shifting and rests on 20-inch radial tires, though don't expect either on a production model. It is possible the rear cargo compartment on a production model could house a bike rack holder like Avenger, however. Word is Avenger, and therefore Stratus, could offer a choice of front- or all-wheel-drive. Sling Shot: Remember the Dodge Copperhead concept coupe from the 1997 auto-show circuit? Terrific looking, but never made it into production. Sling Shot has a better chance because it rests on the same platform as the Smart sold in Germany. Smart is a member of the DaimlerChrysler car group that will have its first offering in the U.S. in '06. Very stylish. Very sporty. Sling Shot is a possible low-cost, $20,000 entry that looks like a $50,000 machine designed to attract new faces into Dodge showrooms. It would be aimed at youth on a budget--the same folks expected to check out the Pontiac Solstice roadster that comes out for '06 as an "under $20,000" entry. The two-seat Sling Shot comes with a power convertible top, though for the top to work, you have to insert guide rails front to back. It also comes with a 3-cylinder aimed at optimum fuel economy teamed with a clutchless manual with tap shift to move through the gears. Most concepts look far better than they behave because they generally are styling and not engineering exercises. Suspensions usually are hard as marble with no give. Engines stammer and stumble. Steering is stiff and the only power assist is whatever muscle you put into it. Sling Shot is an exception. Engine, suspension and steering were as road ready as any vehicle resting on a showroom floor. If produced, it could ride on the 18-inch radials featured on the concept. And it could be produced if Chrysler takes advantage of platform sharing with Smart to bring out a niche vehicle. Stay tuned. Rescue: The Jeep Rescue looks very much like a Hummer. It's massive and built off the same platform as the Dodge Ram pickup. Insiders refer to it as a Jeep on Viagra. The concept Rescue is not to be confused with the production Jeep Commander that will come out in a year, a stretch of the Jeep Grand Cherokee with three rows of seating. Insiders say consumer feedback on Rescue from the auto-show circuit was even more positive than expected so don't rule out a very limited-edition derivative in the Jeep lineup. It could be produced economically through platform sharing with the Ram pickup. Rescue is powered by a 5.9-liter 6-cylinder Cummins diesel teamed with 6-speed manual. Since it's a concept, there was no need to pack it with a lot of sound-deadening insulation. Rescue was designed as a search-and-rescue type vehicle with a camera mounted upfront to help the driver maneuver through extremely tough terrain to reach a victim. Like the Wrangler, the doors are removable and the windshield folds down. Like the Hummer, you need a step ladder to get into the cabin. It comes with three rows of seats. The rear window slips into the tailgate, which folds down pickup truck style for loading/unloading. TEST DRIVE 2005 Ford GT Wheelbase: 106.7 inches Length: 182.8 inches Engine: 5.4-liter, 550-h.p., 32-valve, supercharged V-8 Transmission: 6-speed manual Fuel economy: 13 m.p.g. city/ 21 m.p.g. highway Base price: $139,995 Price as tested: $155,095. Inclu es $2,600 for gas-guzzler tax; $4,000 for McIntosh stereo; $3,500 for lightweight wheels; and $5,000 for body paint stripes. Add $1,250 for freight. Pluses: Limited-edition exotic sports car that pays homage to the '60s, when Ford developed its own car to race Ferrari. Really quick, but really civil without beating you up for the pleasure of going really fast. Minuses: Try getting one for $139,995. Try getting one. Only 4,500 to be built in '05-'06 combined and then it disappears.
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