Worth the Wait, and Then Some
The wait is over and, good golly, Molly, was it worth it. No more teasing or wondering how it sounds. No more guessing if the now-famous flat-plane crank V8 was a gamble Ford should have taken. No more hoping that the performance division didn’t spend too much time on the GT supercar. No, this is the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 we’ve all been waiting for and the more hard-cord GT350R is, perhaps, the best all-around sports coupe there is. No, it really is, and here’s why.
We know, Mustang fans want to know about the engine. Heck, we all want to know about the engine. It’s the first production V8 Ford has ever built with its connecting rods at 180-degree intervals (rather than the customary 90) to allow it to breathe and rev to such a degree. It so happens also to be the highest-output naturally aspirated engine Ford has ever built with 526 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and with 429 lb-ft of twisting force at 4,750 rpm. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard or felt. At full-tilt, when the baffles open wide for that distinctive eight-part staccato chorus, it simply takes your breath away. But that it revs to 8,250 rpm makes the aria go on seemingly without end. On a tall-gear roll-on, power builds steadily until about 3,000 rpm when it really hits its stride and things get interesting. And just think, there are still over 5,000 revs left on the tachometer at this point. Mind. Blown. Consulting our vast cache of vehicle and performance data and applying a test-driver seat-of-the-pants algorithm, we say the 3,750-pound GT350 will run to 60 mph in 4-seconds flat and the GT350R, lighter by about hundred pounds but benefitting from wider/grippier rear tires and less rotational wheel weight, will do the same in about 3.7-3.8 seconds. The quarter-mile passes should come in at around 12 seconds at 120 mph.
There are so many clever engineering solutions to the predicted pitfalls of the powerplant’s large 5.2-liter displacement architecture and Ford’s decision to use a racy flat-plane crank that we could easily devote an entire article just to the engine. Stamped right atop ours, it reads, “Hand-Built With Pride” on the Romeo niche line. Ours was crafted and signed by Gary Marston and Jeff Hamblin. These guys have a following on various forums, so they must be good at what they do. Yet there’s much more to the GT350 that makes it such a uniquely talented car.
Not Just A Track Car
Before we actually drove the two versions, back-to-back, we had little to go on to help us decide if the 4-passenger base GT350 or the R, billed as the “most race-ready road-legal Mustang ever” would be the one to have. Not only is the GT350R road legal, it’s also everyday drive-able and worth the extra $12,000 USD and then some – just so long as you don’t need a back seat, because there isn’t one. And here’s the weird part: all of the things that make the R such a nimble, capable, and precise track car (fancy dampers, carbon-fiber wheels, that 526-hp V8 with its 8,250-rpm redline, the brand-new 6-speed manual transmission, etc.) also make it an uncommonly good road car.
The 46-mile drive in our GT350R from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to the restaurant at Ventana was quite literally a revelation. Over Laureles Grade, through Carmel Valley Road and finally south on Highway 1, all roads we’ve driven in the past, but in a GT350R, we couldn’t stop repeating, “This is a real car, this IS a real car, this is a REAL car.” The clutch is as light and linear as a Honda Civic‘s and the nimble, quick shifter could be right out of a new Mazda MX-5 Miata. That’s a new Tremec TR-3160 for those who know of these things.
Because the R comes standard with MagneRide “gen-3” magneto-rheological or “MR” dampers (optional on the base GT350) that can self-adjust in 10 milliseconds at each corner, an occasional pothole or pavement transition that would ordinarily dislodge dental appliances in a track car were textbook one-and-done events – even in the more aggressive sport setting. No slap, no thump, no bump-steer and no bounding into the other lane. These are behaviors one would expect from a track car, but are essentially absent in the GT350R. And in Corvette Z06/Z07 or Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, also purpose-built track cars? Well, they’re more track-day cars you put up with most of the other times.
The only hint that there’s something a little different going on in the Shelby is where the meaty 305/30ZR19 Michelin Pilot Cup 2 front tires (315/30ZR19 rears) meet the pavement. In the tips of a driver’s fingers, the steering wheel is just a little reluctant or sticky on center. Ford revised the steering from a standard GT’s with an aluminum knuckle that also adds a bit more leverage to the system to help it get over the huge, front tires’ reluctance to turn off-center. Once loaded and turning, however, the feel goes back to a linear, predictable weight and with now-common-for-electric-assisted steering precision. There’s also an occasional tendency for tire nibble or tramming when they follow grooves or ripples running parallel to the road, but it’s hardly the stuff of race cars.
The GT350R’s standard carbon-fiber wheels (11.0 x 19 front; 11.5 x 19 rear), the first on a production car, are not available on the base Shelby, also play a large part in making the car ride remarkably well. Each one removes 16 pounds of unsprung weight from the system (and a 40-percent reduction in rotational intertia) to allow the suspension to work that much better, both on the open road and on the track.
Tracking the Differences
Finally, the lapping portion of our program would allow us to put all the racy parts together for a GT350 versus GT350R showdown. Motor Trend, and its readers, know the track well – having driven somewhere north of 80-plus cars around Mazda Raceway for Motor Trend‘s annual Best Driver’s Car cover story and at various other times throughout the years. It’s a track that demands grip at both ends of the car, rewards horsepower and punishes puny brakes. Guessing what a car can do and what it ends up doing over those eleven turns is why we go.
First up was the base Shelby GT350 with the $6,500 USD Track Pack (MR dampers with firmer front springs, a strut-tower brace, multi-mode driver-control system, oil/transmission/differential coolers, and a small rear spoiler). It, too, has specially designed Michelin tires, but they bear a Pilot Sport stamp and measure 295/35ZR19 front and 305/35ZR19 rear. They’re an aggressive but forgiving OE fitment and their limits were easily found, even in the first “real” corner, number 2, where the off-camber left revealed understeer on entry and a little on-throttle oversteer on exit. But that’s almost exactly the right set up, and with a 54/46 weight distribution, about what one would expect. The rest of the track probed different parts of the car’s limits; gearing for instance. With such a broad power band and enough low-rpm torque from the V8, some drivers left the car in third gear for the entire track. But those comfortable with more speed needed to grab fourth for the long front straight. Second gear for the hairpin at turn 11 wasn’t necessary, but it does let a driver feel how well the standard Torsen limited-slip differential put power to the pavement. The 15.5-inch two-piece (cast-iron rotors with aluminum hats) front brakes with Brembo six-piston calipers (15.0 rears with four-pistons) were strong performers, never harrowing, nor showed any signs of fade over the course of a 4-5 laps. The GT350 felt confident in the corners, but limited by its tires, and while 526 horsepower (and that sound!) does keep a driver’s attention pointed well down the track, it’s not what we’d call OMG-fast.
Oh, So THIS is the Track Version
The GT350R we drove next felt the same for about 100 yards – and then it felt like an entirely different car. Considering how similar they are on paper, it’s really quite remarkable. The GT350R comes standard with all the Track Pack items, plus a functional front splitter, taller rear wing, underbody belly pans with a real diffuser, and side skirts all said to produce twice the downforce of a Porsche 911 GT3. Of course the model-specific carbon-fiber wheels and tires add their benefits to the mix. The corner speeds that felt a little dicey and dancing and on the limit in the base GT350 could be taken 10-15 mph faster (we’re estimating here because we weren’t looking at the speedometer, nor did we have a data logger hooked up). In all, the differences were dramatic. For instance, we also found a need for fourth gear up the hill on the way to the corkscrew that wasn’t quite possible in the base car. That’s due to both the R’s faster approach to the hill from the prior corner as well as the extra snap in acceleration from the lower rotational weight afforded by the wheels. Those lightweight wheels not only made the entire car feel lighter and more responsive everywhere, they clearly allow it to accelerate harder and stop shorter. Invest in carbon-fiber wheel companies. They’re going to be on everything soon.
Were it our money to spend, there’s no question we’d pony up for the more capable GT350R, even if it doesn’t come with a radio, HVAC (those can be added back in for $3,000 USD with a new SYNC powered nav system and a rearview camera). The lack of a backseat might discourage some, but it’ll also get you out of having to valet your Shelby when you go out with those other three friends of yours. “Sorry, I’m late. I just got back from a track day, and we’ll have to take your car for sushi.”
|2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINE||5.2L, 526-hp, 429-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,655 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||189.7 x 75.9 x 53.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.8 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||14/21/16 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||241/160 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.18 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Fall, 2015|
2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang photos by Wes Allison:
Want even more on the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang? Check these 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang photos from Wes Allison:
2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang photos provided by Ford: