The Shelby GT350 is a road-course hero with a street-car secret identity
By Steve Turner
Photos by Steve Turner and courtesy of Ford Motor Company
From the moment we learned there would be a new Shelby GT350 from Ford Performance, we knew we were in for something special. Since that time we have obsessively learned every bit of minutia about the car that we could. The tantalizing build-up to the car hitting the streets has finally reached a fever pitch. A few weeks ago we rode shotgun in the GT350R and walked away amazed. All that was left was to get behind the wheel and experience the car for ourselves.
That day came on August 26 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, California. Yes, that Laguna Seca. The same location where we once drove the vaunted Boss 302—a car that now seems as archaic as a cassette deck—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We arrived on scene at Laguna to a massive display of Shelby GT350 hardware and signage. Right after the media launch, this facility would be the site of the first of four Track Tour events for dealers and potential customers, so the smell of the spirit of the GT350 permeated the air.
In the center of the display a Shelby GT350R stood on its side. Ford Performance engineers stood in front of the car and gave us a brief overview of the car’s significant components. You can watch that presentation here…
Despite being immersed in the nuances of this car, we picked up a few new tidbits from the talk, but we couldn’t help our impatience. There were two rows of Shelby GT350s and GT350Rs just waiting for someone to drive them. We drew the street-drive straw first and made a beeline for the end of the row to pair up with Patrick Carone from Scout.com in a Magnetic GT350R. We needed to find out what this race version was like on the street.
Sliding into the Recaro seat was like slipping on a cozy glove. Grippy but comfy, the seat is ready for a road course or a road trip. Also a pleasant surprise was the steering wheel. Covered primarily in Alcantara, the wheel is soft to the touch and just pleasant to grip. Push the start button and the car rumbles to life. Throttling up and releasing the clutch, the pedal effort is amazingly light and the shifting of the Tremec 3160 is definitely more precise and positive than the MT-82 in the Mustang GT. This performance car doesn’t seem to have those traditional downsides associated with vehicle tuned for to the edge.
Hitting the streets, we knife through the California hills and along the historic Pacific Coast Highway. The car gobbles up turns and in the rare instances when you have room to accelerate, the power hints at its capabilities. With the windows up and the car in Normal mode, the R is a true stealth fighter, and with the exhaust opened in Sport or Track mode, it rumbles, burbles, and snarls like no stock Mustang we’ve ever heard. With just a flick of a switch it goes from Hyde to Jekyll. If you were worried that the R isn’t streetable, forget it.
Here’s a little footage, including a run-through of the exhaust sound in each drive mode in both the GT350 and GT350R on the street…
If this car is too loud, you should probably check your Shelby card at the door. It is a fantastic street car, but we did have a couple of minor nits to pick. Courtesy of its wider tires, the GT350 does experience what the engineers describe as “rut wander” on rougher surfaces. Basically the rough surfaces will steer the car a little, and you have to be a bit more vigilant with the steering wheel. If it weren’t for the improved knuckle geometry, we are told this condition would be far worse.
Likewise, the elevation of the Golden State terrain confirmed what we suspected. The 5.2-liter engine is a bit soft down low. It’s really not apparent on flat surfaces, but as you climb, you don’t want to bog this engine. Keeping it above 3,000 rpm is the move, and that can make for some extra shifting, but this is a minor trade-off that we will gladly accept in exchange for that fat midrange and glistening top-end pull.
At the half-way point we switch over to the GT350 with the Track Pack option. For those that want the quietest GT350, the non-R is your move. To our ears, it’s too quiet. Even in Track mode, the cabin is still peaceful. The exhaust is more prominent, but it doesn’t deliver that horsepower symphony that the R-model does. We are told that the main reason it is quieter are the resonators in the exhaust. They drop the tone by 5 decibels.
In most other ways, the cars feel pretty similar on the street. Both handle well, both are fast, and when they are in the same driving modes, they both ride alike. We had assumed that carbon wheels might ride even better, but apparently the Magneride is so good, it works to soak up the energy with either wheel package. So, yes, Track mode will communicate a bit more road frequency into the car, but toning that down is as easy changing a setting.
Driving the GT350s on the street was a pleasant surprise. We were taken aback at just how docile these cars were. In fact, when they are in Normal mode, the ride quality is just a bit better than a Mustang GT with the Performance Pack (Thanks Magneride!). You can drive them slow and easy, and never know just how fast they really are, but that capability is always there. However, driving them in traffic left you feeling like the car was on a leash. It was just a tease. They really want to break that leash and run loose on the road course.
We hadn’t been to Laguna Seca since driving the Boss 302, so we had to learn the path all over again. After a lead and follow lap with Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Gene Martindale showing us the line, we disembarked the Track Packs and suited up with helmets and HANS devices. Then it was time for solo laps in the GT350. Even easing into the laps, the Track Pack cars proved capable handlers. The power and braking are ample, and the handling is sharp.
The Track Pack GT350 definitely outperforms the Performance Pack Mustang GT, and as we know, that car left the Boss 302 in its dust. However, stepping out of the GT350 into the GT350R is a revelation. From our ride we knew the car was good, but feeling it from the driver seat is a whole new experience. This car does what you want it to do, when you want to do it. The grip from the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires is immense, and the balanced package works to inspire even average drivers—like your scribe—with an elevated level of confidence. That confidence encourages you to push harder and drive faster, and at every turn the R is there for you.
It is in this arena the power of the Voodoo 5.2 shines. It offers 5,000 rpm of working capital, where it just pulls and pulls until the HUD shift light tells you it is time to pull the gear lever. You really have to convince yourself it’s OK to keep revving as the FPC engine flies past traditional mile markers like 6,250 and 7,000 rpm. However, because the torque is so fat in the middle of that powerband, you don’t have to shift that often. Though it might be faster to shift at some points on the track, you could run the majority of Laguna in third gear, which also lets you concentrate on the line.
Of course, as you roll on that power, the grip and brakes are always there when you need them. It would definitely be compelling to see how the GT350 performed with the same Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, as there really isn’t that much of a wear penalty. On the street—not driving hard on the track like we did—the R’s tires are projected to last 15,000 miles, will the Pilot Super Sports on the GT350 will hang in there for 25,000 miles.
When you are on the track, you could care less about tire wear though. It’s all about that grip and the way the car’s suspension makes the most of it. With each lap you push a bit harder, and suddenly our brief flirtation with the best Mustang we’ve ever driven on a road course had come to an end. Yes the GT350 is a great car, but the GT350R is a game changer. We’re told you can’t replicate the car for the price, and the fact that it doesn’t give up anything on the street makes it all the more tempting. It is so choice. If you have the means, we highly recommend picking one up…
Shelby GT350 & GT350R Gallery