This time is different. In the past, Shelby Mustangs have always been quick in a straight line, but their handling has been – to be polite – somewhat hit-or-miss. With the latest Shelby GT350, however, the Ford Performance engineers have succeeded in producing a top-shelf sports car that goes around corners much better than its predecessors did.
For our first drive in the Shelby GT350, Ford invited us to one of my favourite tracks: the fabulous Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, on California’s Monterey Peninsula. With its high-speed corners, elevation changes and the celebrated Corkscrew, a high-speed left-right sequence just before the equivalent of a seven-story drop, Laguna Seca is no place for a car with uncertain handling.
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Three quick laps, and that’s it
The track test does not take long: three laps at the wheel of the Shelby GT350, and three with the even hairier Shelby GT350R. Fortunately, I am more than familiar with the track: my first laps here were in 1981, before the changes in configuration, and most important, I was the first one away in both cases, with a clear, empty track in front of me. The naturally aspirated 5.2-litre V8, which sports a flat-plane crankshaft, comes to life with a very special sound: a cross between what you'd expect of a big V8 with no turbocharger, and the music of a technically very advanced engine. You may recall the other car builder known for using a flat-plane crank: a low-volume Italian brand that wears a prancing horse as its symbol. With 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque, this V8 can claim 102 horsepower per litre, and its 8,250-rpm redline is the highest in Ford history. One other interesting feature: the exhaust system has no resonators (for weight savings), just catalysts and mufflers that produce a more authentic rumble.
On the track with the GT350
On the track, the GT350 is very stable, with all movements tightly controlled. Weight transfer on braking is minimal, even when the huge one-piece Brembo calipers are applying maximum pressure to the likewise huge discs developed specifically for this car by the German specialty firm of SHW. Suspension movement is checked by magnetorheological shocks (optional on the GT350, standard on the GT350R) that react in 7 milliseconds to adjust the damping, and the GT350 barely flinches if you run over the low-profile blue and white rumble strips (designed to accommodate the racing motorcycles that make frequent use of Laguna Seca) that mark the corner apexes and exits. The Tremec 3160 six-speed manual transmission allows lightning-fast shifts, and the clutch is both light and progressive. The GT350 is undeniably the best Mustang to date in the way it holds the road, and it fills the driver with confidence. That said, it cannot overcome the basic laws of physics. It’s lighter than a Mustang GT, but it still weighs 3,791 pounds when fitted with the Track Pack; in other words it’s no featherweight, and however accurate the handling, all that weight is bound to make itself felt. Another factor is that the huge V8 rests near the front axle centreline, and since any change of direction means that its mass has to shift sideways in corner transitions, the car's behaviour is less incisive on turn-in than that of a mid-engine sports car with its more balanced mass distribution. The steering is fairly light and somewhat lacking in feedback, which is a pity, given the car’s performance potential in terms of lateral acceleration. So it may be the best Mustang to date, but it’s still a Mustang.
On the track with the GT350R
Like the GT350, but better. Weight is reduced to 3,655 pounds, and the car sits lower on its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires mounted on carbon-fibre wheels, which perform very well on the track with a 60-pound reduction in unsprung weight as compared with the GT350. A lot of attention has been paid to aerodynamics, and the GT350R produces twice as much downforce as a Porsche 911 GT3, with its huge carbon-fibre rear wing and a more aggressive front splitter. The weight reduction, combined with stickier tires and the downforce generated in high-speed corners, amounts to a game-changer. The GT350R allows later braking and higher corner entry speed, with a resultant higher exit speed. In short, it’s like the GT350, but definitely a significant step better.
On the highway
After our track test, we set out to assess performance on ordinary California highways which, as you can imagine, are in much better shape than ours. From this point of view, neither the GT350 nor the GT350R gave us much to complain about. First, we should say that both cars have a slight tendency to wander because of their very wide tires and steering that lacks precision on centre. At 100 kph in sixth gear, the engine is purring along at 1,000 rpm, and a sharp stab at the accelerator produces little reaction. Since maximum torque is available only above 4,750 rpm, it’s better to keep the engine spinning above 3,500 rpm in order to exploit the full potential of the 5.2-litre V8. Both cars are equipped with an instrument panel that looks very much like the one in an ordinary Mustang, and while the GT350 does have a rear seat for passengers, the GT350R has no such foolishness, limiting the driver to a single travelling companion.
When, and how much?
The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 and GT350R will be available in the fall of 2015 as 2016 models. Only 700 will be allocated to Canadian Ford dealers, and the likelihood is that only 70 of those will be GT350Rs. The base price for the GT350 is $62,599, and the GT350R starts at $79,499. Real Mustang fans will already have their orders in.