LAGUNA SECA, CA – OMG this thing is fast! That thought flashed through my mind the first time I buried the throttle of the 2016 Shelby GT350R Mustang in second gear.
It was embedded permanently as I shifted from third to fourth at the engine's 8,250 rpm redline, then almost immediately nailed the brakes to slow for a corner that was approaching way too quickly.
To my great relief, the brakes were as effective at erasing speed as the 526-horsepower V-8 was in creating it.
That first and several subsequent laps at the famous Laguna Seca race track, famous for its plunging corkscrew turns, left me in awe of the engineering and effort that went into creating this very special car.
The 2016 Shelby GT 350 and its track-ready sibling the GT350R are engineering masterpieces. Not to disparage the Shelby Mustangs that have come before, but this one was developed from scratch, in-house, by Ford’s Performance division in Dearborn, not fettled from a standard Mustang by the folks at Shelby.
This car was developed from the ground up by a dedicated group of young engineers to handle like no Mustang, or any Ford for that matter, to date. It goes, stops and turns with an unusual alacrity for a 3,800-lb vehicle, remaining level and balanced on the track with very little steering input required.
“Everything is bespoke,” explained chief engineer Jamal Hamerdi. “We have toiled, put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this – time we will never get back,” he said. “We had good brakes available – but came up with better ones; we had nice Recaro seats available, but insisted on better ones.”
Hamerdi and his team members gave examples of the depth they went to ensure the GT350 was the most balanced and nimble Mustang ever built.
Every single suspension component has been tweaked or swapped out for a more purposeful one. And the form has been subtly shaped by hundreds of hours in the wind tunnel.
Not only does air flow more efficiently around and under the car, it feeds a number of coolers and radiators designed to keep the working parts from overheating.
But never mind the explanations. Lap after lap on the track in both the GT350 and the GT350R proved his point.
This extremely fast car refused to understeer in the slow corners or get tail happy in the fast ones. Sure you can get the tail out – there is more than enough power to do that on a whim. But you have to do so almost deliberately as the balance is near perfect.
It's a little bit LOUD!
There are way too many tricks and treats to get into much detail here, but the big ones are the engine and the brakes. They're the ones that stick in my mind.
First the engine: it's a 5.2-litre flat-crank V-8 that belts out a prodigious 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of brute torque. And it is the highest revving and most powerful normally aspirated engine ever put in a production Ford.
There is an almost 3,000 rpm span between the horsepower and torque curve peaks so there is never a moment when you don’t have gobs of grunt. Fully 94% of all that torque is available from 3,400 rpm and as it falls off, the deep breathing engine gets into its horsepower happy place.
With no blower or turbo to spool up response is instantaneous and linear.
Closely associated with this shining example of American muscle, is an exhaust note that will bring tears to an enthusiast’s eyes. Unique to the flat plane V-8 it is a mellifluous bellow that becomes more menacing as the engine winds past 7500 rpm.
The standard exhaust setup is loud but there are baffles that can be bypassed with a switch on the console making it louder still.
Then there is the GT350R, with no resonators in the exhaust stream at all. This one brings new meaning to loud – even before you flip the switch and deactivate the baffles! Your neighbours are not going to like this car.
Brakes and tires to match
The brakes are simply massive – 394-mm two-piece drilled rotors up front clamped by six-piston Brembo calipers, 380-mm at the rear with four-piston calipers. Not only do they erase speed effortlessly, they never give up. Lap after lap, all day long with no sign of weakness.
Making the brakes' job even tougher is the amazing grip provided by the rubber wrapped around massive 19-inch wheels – Michelin Pilots with a unique tread and compound developed exclusively for this car. They're Super Sports on the GT350: 295/35 on the front and 305/35 on the rear. The track-focused GT 350R gets uber-sticky Sport Cup 2 rubber, basically street-legal race tires: 305/30 and 315/30. Tests have shown these tires have more grip than many slick pure race tires.
The wheels on the R are an industry first – they're made of carbon fibre. As a result, they're an amazing six kilos lighter than the aluminum alloys on the GT350 – that's six kilos each!
Dial a mode
The springs, dampers, bushings and bars were all totally recalibrated for both GT350 versions. The R and specific versions of the GT350 with the “track package" get MagneRide suspension, which uses magnetorheological technology (bits of metal suspended in the fluid subjected to magnetic forces to adjust the viscosity) to update the damping forces every 7 milliseconds.
This system setting varies in accordance with the driver's choice of five driving modes, which also adjust throttle response, traction- and stability-control systems, steering effort, the magnetorheological dampers, the exhaust system, and a launch-control program.
The mode settings are:
- Normal – the default setting, intended for regular driving.
- Sport - for “spirited on-road driving”: throttle response is sharper, the dampers are in their middle setting, the steering is firmer and those exhaust baffles are by-passed.
- Weather – softer throttle response, no launch control and more stability control
- Track – higher thresholds for the traction and stability controls, open exhaust and the firmest steering and damper settings.
- Drag – activates launch control, sharpens throttle response, opens the exhaust and puts the shocks into a launch-optimized setting.
On the road
The development team tested the Shelby GT350 at 15 different race tracks around the world, including the Nürburgring. I tested it at one, but that was enough to convince me this is the best Mustang in 50 years.
As I took off my helmet and Hans device I told one of the development team the car did everything I wanted it to and nothing I did not.
Then I went for a two-hour drive on the Pacific Coast Highway in both versions and became even more impressed. It makes for a pretty decent, albeit loud, road car.
Granted, it will never be compared to a Lincoln when it comes to ride quality, but on these smooth California roads it was not unreasonably rough. It might be a different story on frost-heave damaged Canadian pavement, however.
The 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang has a base MSRP of $62,599. It's also vailable with either Track OR Technology packages – not both. The $8,100 track package includes the MagneRide shocks, HD springs, oil, transmission and diff coolers, selectable drive modes and a shock-tower brace.
The $9,400 technology package adds the trick shocks and HD springs but the rest is puffery including voice-activation navigation, climate-controlled power leather seats with suede inserts, upgraded audio system, SYNC with numerous features, automatic climate control and the selectable drive modes.
The 2016 Shelby GT350R Mustang lists at $79,499 and it comes pretty well loaded with the carbon fibre wheels wrapped in the Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires, the above-mentioned track package, unique chassis tuning, a large front splitter and an aluminum rear bumper beam.
The rear seat, air conditioning, floor mats and audio system have been deleted, but a $3800 electronics package adds back the a/c, plus voice-activated navigation, SYNC and an upgraded audio system.
In whatever guise, it's a lot of performance bang for the buck.