First Drive: Shelby GT350 & GT350R

0 Shelby GT350 & GT350R First Drive

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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.

They say you will never forget your first, and our first experience behind the wheel of the GT350R was on the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. As impressive as this car is on the track, the fact that it is just as driveable on the street came as a pleasant surprise.
They say you will never forget your first, and our first experience behind the wheel of the GT350R was on the legendary Pacific Coast Highway. As impressive as this car is on the track, the fact that it is just as driveable on the street came as a pleasant surprise.

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.

Moving into the GT350 with the Track Pack option, the cars felt quite similar on the street, as there isn’t as much latitude to push the cars to their limit. If you don’t plan on carving up the road course, the GT350 is plenty of performance car to keep you entertained.
Moving into the GT350 with the Track Pack option, the cars felt quite similar on the street, as there isn’t as much latitude to push the cars to their limit. If you don’t plan on carving up the road course, the GT350 is plenty of performance car to keep you entertained.

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.

Pinch yourself Ford performance fans. The fact that cars like the Shelby GT350 and GT350R exist and are available in so many configurations is something worth celebrating. The fact that a major automaker is willing to build niche performance vehicles of this caliber is not to be taken for granted.
Pinch yourself Ford performance fans. The fact that cars like the Shelby GT350 and GT350R exist and are available in so many configurations is something worth celebrating. The fact that a major automaker is willing to build niche performance vehicles of this caliber is not to be taken for granted.

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.

Returning to Laguna Seca for the first time since the Boss 302 media launch, we had our first on-track experience in a Track Pack-equipped GT350. With all that power, braking bite, and a precise Magneride suspension, the GT350 is a pleasure to drive on the road course.
Returning to Laguna Seca for the first time since the Boss 302 media launch, we had our first on-track experience in a Track Pack-equipped GT350. With all that power, braking bite, and a precise Magneride suspension, the GT350 is a pleasure to drive on the road course.

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.

Moving into the GT350R is quite an experience. We couldn’t believe there was such a big change between the two cars, as the major differences, besides the 100-pound diet, are in the carbon fiber wheels, stickier tires, and calibration changes to maximize those parts. In total, these changes take the car to a whole new level. The car inspires confidence in average drivers and impressive performances from pro drivers. It is said to turn 1.30 second laps a Laguna, which puts it right alongside the Porsche GT3 lap times at this track.
Moving into the GT350R is quite an experience. We couldn’t believe there was such a big change between the two cars, as the major differences, besides the 100-pound diet, are in the carbon fiber wheels, stickier tires, and calibration changes to maximize those parts. In total, these changes take the car to a whole new level. The car inspires confidence in average drivers and impressive performances from pro drivers. It is said to turn lap times in the 1.30-second range Laguna, which puts it in good company with the Porsche GT3 lap times at this track.

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.

Avalanche Gray can really take on a different visage depending on the light and the color of the stripe package you chose. No matter what the color, the GT350 is more than just a pretty face. We are told that this program had the best integration of engineering and design yet, resulting in handsome looks that deliver cooling air and downforce. In fact, the R-model is said to produce more than twice the downforce of the Porsche GT3.
Avalanche Gray can really take on a different visage depending on the light and the color of the stripe package you chose. No matter what the color, the GT350 is more than just a pretty face. We are told that this program had the best integration of engineering and design yet, resulting in handsome looks that deliver cooling air and downforce. In fact, the R-model is said to produce more than twice the downforce of the Porsche GT3.

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 GT350 not only features a rear seat and all the sound deadeners, but its exhaust pipes feature integral resonators after the catalytic converters. Those are said to be worth 5 decibels in sound reduction. We prefer the more raucous R-model exhaust without the resonators.
The GT350 not only features a rear seat and all the sound deadeners, but its exhaust pipes feature integral resonators after the catalytic converters. Those are said to be worth 5 decibels in sound reduction. We prefer the more raucous R-model exhaust without the resonators. For those wondering how a base car will do at an open track, we are told it will go flat out for about 15 minutes on a small track like Grattan before needing a cool-down. The trans and rearend have sensors that will trigger a warning light if you get her too hot.

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.

Ford Performance engineers may have actually used Voodoo to create a 5.2-liter, Flat-Plane-Crank V-8 that revs to 8,250, purrs like a kitten on the street, and has such a fat, flexible powerband that shifting seems optional. However, it’s that surge of power from 3,500 to redline that you just can’t get enough of. Interestingly, one of the components that help this engine behave so well at idle and low rpm is the progressive bore of its 87mm throttle body. The area around the throttle blade is actually scalloped in a spherical shape, which does restrict flow a bit—it flows more like a straight 84mm unit, but its driveability is far superior to a straight through throttle body design at this diameter.
It’s hard to believe this engine is 8 pounds lighter than a Coyote. Ford Performance engineers may have actually used Voodoo to create a 5.2-liter, Flat-Plane-Crank V-8 that revs to 8,250, purrs like a kitten on the street, and has such a fat, flexible powerband that shifting seems optional. However, it’s that surge of power from 3,500 to redline that you just can’t get enough of. Interestingly, one of the components that help this engine behave so well at idle and low rpm is the progressive bore of its 87mm throttle body. The area around the throttle blade is actually scalloped in a spherical shape, which does restrict flow a bit—it flows more like a straight 84mm unit, but its driveability is far superior to a straight through throttle body design at this diameter. Oh, and if you want to add headers to your 5.2, we’ll give you a hint. Go with a Tri-Y design to maximize performance and make the car sound like it is revving even higher into the stratosphere.

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.

So much is made of the R-model and the Track Pack with the supportive Recaro seats, you don’t often see the Technology Pack interior. It features more plush seats and all the toys, including Sync 3, air conditioned seats, and navigation.
So much is made of the R-model and the Track Pack with the supportive Recaro seats, you don’t often see the Technology Pack interior. It features more plush seats and all the toys, including Sync 3, air-conditioned seats, and navigation.

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…

With a lighter mechanism and a more streamline linkage than the MT-82 shifter in the Mustang GT, the shifter atop the Tremec 3160 is a definite improvement. Its low-effort shifting is paired with positive feedbacks from the shift-rail detents, so you know it’s in gear. Some might call it notchy, but we say it’s not vague. We also learned that the brisk-shifting 3160 weighs 11 pounds less than the MT82 six-speed in the Mustang GT (118 versus 129 pounds, wet).
With a lighter mechanism and a more streamlined linkage than the MT-82 shifter in the Mustang GT, the shifter atop the Tremec 3160 is a definite improvement. Its low-effort shifting is paired with positive feedback from the shift-rail detents, so you know it’s in gear. Some might call it notchy, but we say it’s not vague. We also learned that the brisk-shifting 3160 weighs 11 pounds less than the MT82 six-speed in the Mustang GT (118 versus 129 pounds, wet). Oh, and those two extra gauges in the dash, they are present in all GT350s, except the base R-model, which sheds all the toys to drop weight.
Even the owner’s manual is special. If you pop open the secret compartment in the glovebox, you’ll see its case is emblazoned with the Ford Performance logo.
Even the owner’s manual is special. If you pop open the secret compartment in the glovebox, you’ll see its case is emblazoned with the Ford Performance logo.
Our time in the GT350 and GT350R was brief but educational. We learned these cars live up to the hype, and we can’t wait to spend more time in one. For those about to take delivery of one, we salute you.
Our time in the GT350 and GT350R was brief but educational. We learned these cars live up to the hype, and we can’t wait to spend more time in one. For those about to take delivery of one, we salute you.

Shelby GT350 & GT350R Gallery

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