From the moment in 1964 when the cover came off the Mustang, Ford has always wanted this car to become more like America’s sports car, less like America’s ride to the golf course. Yet decades of good intentions always have yielded to the understandable obligation to make a profit, and so the Mustang has always been undone by the limited performance that could be delivered at an affordable price. But now the 2016 Shelby GT350 finally delivers, no excuses. It’s a sports car, not a sports coupe. And even better, it’s affordable, too.
Enzo, there is troubling news from Detroit
In 1965 Ford commissioned Carroll Shelby to create the GT350 for road racing competition, and this car still has such a hold on the imagination 50 years later that there were no fewer than 40 examples speeding up the straightaway here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca just two weeks ago during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, most of them twisting their decidedly non-stock 4.7-liter V-8s to a frightening 7,000 rpm.
Maintaining an even strain on California Highway 1
Of course, we weren’t conscious of any potential threat to propriety when we first saw the 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang waiting for us in the paddock at Mazda Raceway. Once you get past the way the different colors in the GT350 palette shout at you, you appreciate the way the car itself appears to be re-sculpted, even though the shape remains familiarly Mustang. Every little bit of the bodywork seems to have a job to do, notably so on the track-ready Shelby GT350R with its front aero splitter, prominent rear wing, and a clever rear aero diffuser that accommodates a special venturi to improve the efficiency of the special cooler for the limited-slip differential.
Even without direct-injection, the Voodoo V-8 with its tall 12.0:1 compression ratio V-8 fires up quickly and idles happily, apparently because the massive throttle body is carefully tapered to flow smoothly even at low rpm. Choosing a gear and setting off holds no terror because this six-speed Tremec manual transmission has a smoother, light-effort shift action than before, while the clutch requires so little effort that the pedal practically falls to the floor of its own accord. (At the same time, the engagement point is no longer detectable, and we’re not sure this is a good thing.) As we drove over Laureles Grade and into the wild outside the racetrack, we selected Sport among the five choices in calibration for the MagneRide dampers. The car rides well despite its low-profile tires, and once we switched to Normal for the drive down Carmel Valley Road, the chassis grew calmer (less fore-and-aft pitch) even as it remained alert and eager.
The Shelby GT350 is a pretty nice ride for sightseeing purposes, as we discovered on California Highway 1. The Mustang itself already has a taller greenhouse and a wider field of view that such cars as the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger (much less the Ferrari California T and Jaguar F-Type). Meanwhile, the GT350’s specially configured Recaro seats comfortably hold your midsection rather than annoyingly confine your shoulders. We were in a totally relaxed frame of mind all the way to Big Sur, except for a few moments when our driving companion demonstrated that the GT350 does indeed have the dragstrip credentials that its line-lock electronics promise, when he put down about 100 feet of rubber with an old-fashioned dragstrip getaway.
Indeed, our drive along the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean might have been done in a conventional Mustang. We didn’t note any unpleasant vibration from the V-8, something that such flat-crank engines are noted for. Still, it was clear that the GT350’s gearing is a little shorter than a conventional Mustang, partly due to the final-drive ratio of 3.73:1 and partly due to the six-speed transmission itself, which is like a close-ratio five-speed (fifth gear is 1.00:1) with an overdrive sixth. Also the GT350’s wide front tires nibble a bit at pavement imperfections parallel to your direction of travel, while the steering feel is a little heavy immediately off-center.
At the end of the day, everyone wants a track car
It’s hard to say what it is about a track car that engages the interest of everyone you meet. Of course not everyone drives such cars on the track, and yet the idea of a car dedicated to speed never fails to be intriguing. Because the $47,795 Shelby GT350 is notably more affordable than the $61,295 Shelby GT350R, some might think that it’s not really track-ready, and really is better suited to the kind of thrills you get from the $7,500 option package with its premium audio system and assorted electronic stuff plus racey hardware rather than the optional $6,500 Track Package that does without the electronics.
But we weren’t noticing any compromises in the GT350’s setup as we blistered up the straightway and under the pedestrian bridge at Laguna Seca. The Voodoo V-8 gives you its all, and the Tremec six-speed still has that reassuring bolt-action feel to its shift linkage, only now the shifts come quicker thanks to lighter effort. And when the car dove downhill into the Turn 2 hairpin, we stepped deep into the brake pedal and the racing-style, two-piece iron rotors did their stuff, thanks to six-piston Brembo calipers on 15.5-inch rotors in front and four-piston fixed calipers on 12.6-inch rotors in the rear. The 295/35ZR-19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport front tires always stayed under the car in the corners, and there was no trace of the slither and wobble that you might otherwise expect from a car that weighs 3,760 pounds.
When you step up the Shelby GT350R, you’ll find that the dynamics are the same, only the package has been toughened up enough so the driver will run out of breath long before the car will. The lighter, 3,655-pound GT350R still faithfully follows its front tires in Laguna’s long-duration corners just like the GT350, only the wider and grippier 305/35ZR-19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup front tires hang on even longer. The GT350’s new, cast-aluminum front steering knuckles deliver a different offset to give you more control of so much contact patch (a little more steering castor comes as part of the geometry as well), yet you can steer with your fingertips instead of your biceps.
What really makes the difference in the GT350R is its suspension setup, which like everything else about this car has been created as a system, not just a collection of pieces. The R-type’s lightweight carbon-fiber wheels represent half the unsprung weight of the GT350’s conventional cast-aluminum wheels, which helps the R-type’s standard MagneRide dampers react even quicker to ride inputs. Meanwhile, heavy-duty front springs provide a little more support when you hit the brakes hard, keeping the car from standing on its nose just as you want to steer into a corner. The overall effect isn’t so much supple as it is steady, almost as if you were riding on an active suspension instead of conventional springs and dampers. The Shelby GT350R just flat gets after it on a track, and our spies tell us that it cuts quicker lap times at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca than a Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.
The Mustang reinvented
The 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang is still a Mustang, and we shouldn’t make light of it. Even as a two-passenger fastback coupe with big tires, you can still drive it to the store and expect 14/21 mpg EPA city/highway. Mustang guys created this car, as we were reminded when two engineers mentioned that they had only recently quite driving their 1980s Fox-body Mustang 5.0s, each with nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer.
And yet the GT350 and the GT350R really are different cars. They have been created by a newly institutionalized Ford Performance Group, and no car at Ford has ever had so many engineers devoted to its creation, all calculating away in their cubicles with a wild look in the eyes. And when you drive these cars, you can feel in them the sophistication of thoughtfully engineered machines, as they drive the same at low speed as they do at high speed, which is the kind of thing that helps anyone become a better driver.
The most important part of the whole process might have been the creation of the one-page memo that proposed this new car in the first place. The Ford Motor Company of 10 years ago couldn’t have undertaken such a project even if it wanted to (and it wouldn’t have wanted to). That the 2016 Shelby GT350 exists at all is a kind of miracle.
2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang Specifications
|Price:||$48,690/$56,190 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||5.2L DOHC 32-valve V-8/526 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 429 lb-ft @ 4,750 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||14/21 mpg (city/highway)|
|Suspension F/R:||Strut-type, coil springs/control arms, coil springs|
|Brakes F/R:||Vented discs|
|Tires F/R:||295/35R-19/305/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport|
|L x W x H:||188.9 x 75.9 x 54.2 in|
|Weight Dist. F/R:||56/44%|