Bury the throttle, stay committed deep into 4th gear and the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 will show you 130 mph over the blind crest that is Turn 1 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It's fast, certainly, but there's so much more.
You see, when flat out, this most special Mustang produces an unholy, pants-ripping yowl that pummels its way down your ear canal, past your eardrums and straight into your soul. The flat-plane crank in the new 5.2-liter V8 makes it both velvety-smooth and wicked efficient. It snorts up cannonballs on overrun and barks like a pissed Doberman between shifts. And even at 7,500 rpm there's a pile of meaningful revs left to unload.
It's not exactly a Ferrari-like wail, though there's certainly some of that in there. And it's not all pushrod bellow like a Corvette or Camaro. This is something decidedly different. Something all-new, and something very, very good.
How Is the GT350 Different From a Standard Mustang?
First, there's the engine. Both the GT350 and GT350R get an all-new 5.2-liter V8 that cranks out 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque on 93-octane fuel. It makes less on 91 octane, which is the best fuel available in large portions of its market (like California). How much less isn't entirely clear. Adam Christian, Ford Performance's internal combustion technical expert, is non-committal in providing an exact number but hints that 15-20 hp is likely.
The Tremec six-speed manual transmission is 10 pounds lighter than the Getrag box in the base Mustang and is the only transmission offered. It's coupled to the engine via a dual-disc clutch that actually feels a little light for our tastes. An external air-to-oil heat exchanger housed in the front fascia is responsible for cooling the gearbox on GT350s with the optional Track package. It's standard on the GT350R. A Torsen limited-slip differential distributes torque to the ground through a 3.73-to-1 ring and pinion.
The chassis is also thoroughly revamped. Optional magnetorheological dampers utilize fluid filled with ferrous material that changes viscosity as an electric current is passed through it. It's a proven technology and probably the best solution for damping a car in need of a wide range of adjustability. Five drive modes (Normal, Sport, Weather, Track and Drag) tweak damping, throttle and steering maps.
Unsurprisingly, spring and stabilizer bar rates are increased over the standard Mustang. They're increased further on the more aggressively tuned GT350R. So thorough is the under-car renewal that there are new alloy uprights at each corner, the front track width is wider and the steering geometry is revised. In other words, most mechanical similarities to the 2015 Mustang are gone.
How Do They Drive?
Certainly the driving experience is dominated by the stunningly effective engine, but it's such a thoroughly complete machine that praising the engine alone does a disservice to the utter competence of the whole package.
The engine is a wildly flexible thing, capable of producing meaningful yank at 4,000 rpm and continuing the party well past 8,000 rpm. The result is a desire to shift only to hear the engine wail at a different speed.
And here's the thing about the GT350 — particularly the GT350R — on a racetrack: It doesn't feel, sound or even deteriorate like a street car. No, blindfolded, this could be a dedicated racecar. Steering inputs are met with alarming response. You turn, it turns. There's no secondary motion. The MR dampers are fully utilized to control roll, pitch and dive, creating an all-new experience unlike any other contemporary competitor.
Braking, thanks to 15.5-inch front rotors and six-piston Brembo calipers, is hugely confident. Always.
This is a driver's car that begs for the deliberate moves made by those who drive for a living, but it's forgiving enough for the rest of us. Its indifference for racetrack duty is stunning. Five hours of tire-frying, brake-torturing laps were dismissed with simple refueling.
Can It Be Driven Daily?
Unlike its most obvious competitor, the Chevy Camaro Z28, there's legitimate daily-use ability built into this Shelby. Select Normal drive mode and you'll be met with ride quality that, though still stiff, is livable for those who understand its performance intentions. Exhaust noise, too, is greatly diminished in this mode, though we don't know why you'd ever want to miss the fantastically American orchestra of internal combustion.
What's the Difference Between the GT350 and GT350R?
In a sentence, the R version gets you stickier tires, less weight and a meaningful reduction in aerodynamic lift thanks to revised aero pieces. Both cars are fitted with proprietary Michelin rubber — Pilot Super Sport (295/35ZR19 front, 305/35ZR19 rear) for the base car and Pilot Sport Cup 2 (305/30ZR19 front, 315/30ZR19 rear) for the R model.
The weight reduction is thanks in large part to the R's 19-inch carbon-fiber wheels, which shave between 50 and 60 pounds — enough to merit a full recalibration of the antilock brake and stability control systems, according to Adam Wirth, chassis supervisor for Ford Performance.
"Simply bolting the carbon wheels and tires to the base car produced uncontrolled movement of the wheel ends (the unsprung suspension pieces, including the wheels and tires) during braking and cornering," said Wirth.
In its quest for performance, the GT350R forgoes exhaust resonators, air-conditioning, an audio system, rear seats and other civilizing amenities. Ford, in its quest for profit, will let you option most of them back via the $3,000 Electronics package, a move it stole directly from the Porsche profit playbook.
Weight ranges between 3,655 pounds for the stripped GT350R to 3,791 pounds for the GT350 with the Track package, according to Ford.
A more aggressive front splitter, hood vent and large carbon-fiber rear wing are the obvious aero additions to the GT350R's appearance. Underneath, however, there are vented wheelwells, front and rear belly pans and a rear diffuser. Though it won't reveal an exact number, Ford claims a net lift reduction double that of the already rear-weight-biased Porsche GT3.
How Much Does It Cost?
When it arrives in dealer showrooms in the next month or so, the GT350 will be among the best values in performance cars sold today. The base car starts at $49,995. Ford asks $63,495 for the GT350R. Carbon wheels, it turns out, are costly. There's no word yet on what replacements will cost.
Two option packages are available on the GT350, both of which include the MagneRide dampers. The $6,500 Track package also adds the Integrated Driver Control System (the multimode controller mentioned earlier), a raised spoiler, aluminum strut-tower brace, transmission oil cooler and stiffer front springs. The $7,500 Technology Pack adds the IDC system, springs and Ford's Sync infotainment system with an 8-inch screen.
The aforementioned Electronics package is the only option on the GT350R.
What Are Its Primary Competitors?
When it comes to outright driving reward, the GT350 punches well above its weight class. Indulging this car on a track or smooth back road is every bit as rewarding as the far costlier Porsche 911 Carrera S. It's probably as quick or quicker, too. Though the GT3 comparison is likely reaching, it's less of a stretch than we were expecting.
There's no denying the similarities to Chevy's uncompromised Camaro Z28, which ended production for the 2015 model year. Truth is, the characteristics that make the Camaro so deadly effective on a track preclude it from being much of a street car.
Chevy's Corvette Stingray is particularly compelling, however. A 2016 Stingray Coupe with the Z51 package and MR dampers is within several hundred dollars of the GT350R's price. Both have rich merits on and off the track, and the choice will be a very personal one.
Does It Live up to the Hype?
The idea that the GT350 is the spiritual successor to anything Ford made 50 years ago is to give far more credit to that thing than it deserves. Old cars, when pressed, universally result in soul-crushing disappointment relative to this thoroughly modern Mustang. Mercifully, this GT350 shares nothing more than a name and some stripes with the original.
Truth is, for us, this is the first Mustang good enough to utterly override the stigma that comes with the name. Yes, there have been good Mustangs before this one. Plenty of them in recent years, in fact. That this is easily the best says something about the effort Ford spent.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.