War of the Titans: The Old God and the Usurper Throw Down
If you’re a performance fan, it’s a great time to drive American. Cadillac builds some of the best sport sedans on the planet. Ford has brought us the Focus RS, a reborn GT, and the Raptor. The Viper ACR is among the most track-capable production cars we’ve seen. The Corvette Z06 tangles with cars multiple times its price. The Hellcats exist.
The two best ponycars ever built meet once again.
They’re both great cars, both charismatic and engaging in completely different ways.
Then there are these two. Two of America’s greatest nameplates, greatest rivals, and two of the greatest road-legal track cars. From Chevrolet, the Camaro Z/28, a car that chief engineer Al Oppenheiser designed to “beat the shit out of anything Ford can put on the road.” From Ford, the Shelby GT350R, an icon reborn and the answer to Chevrolet’s nasty challenge. They’ve fought on America’s streets, strips, and tracks for nearly 50 years in a titanic war that may well last until the end of the automobile. Today, the two greatest of the breed—indeed, the two best ponycars ever built—meet on the battlefield once again, as the GT350R attempts to slay the former Best Driver’s Car king and take his crown and kingdom.
If your interest lies in objective numbers, you’ll find them here. They’re worth perusing now. These cars are far closer on paper and in the controlled environment of a test facility than you might expect. The GT350R holds a slight advantage in every category, but do results in ideal conditions translate to unpredictable real-world roads and tracks?
No matter how worthy these cars are of the track, they are still street cars and will spend most of their lives on public roads, so we cannot ignore their real-world performance. In the canyons of Southern California, the cars made their differences clear. How differently can two rear-drive American ponycars with big V-8s and stick shifts drive?
The Z/28 is like the Hulk. It’s angry and brutal, and the harder you hit it, the harder it’ll hit you back. It’s one-dimensional, sacrificing most creature comforts for performance. It’s as old-school as it gets. Stripped down and fitted with stiff fixed-rate dampers, big brakes, and a big engine, it uses brute force to get the job done. The ride is punishing, as if the car is punishing the bad road for punishing you. At first, the car can feel unsettled, as if it never has all four tires on the ground. It doesn’t matter. Once you climb the steep learning curve, you realize this car always has grip somewhere. Even if it’s airborne, it’s going to grip when it hits the ground. You can bang it off ramped curbs, through dips, and over bumps, and it’ll barely flinch. You can’t drive it hard enough to upset it. It’s sort of insensitive. Every poke provokes a haymaker in response. If you want to tangle with it, be sure you’re ready to go the full 12 rounds.
The GT350R is a more modern sports car. Yes, you give up the rear seats, but otherwise you keep your modern conveniences (and it’s still faster than the Z/28). The MR shocks are brilliant, giving a typical muscle car ride in Comfort and firming up nicely in Sport, but it’s never punishing like the Z/28. Clearly, these shocks were designed to be used places besides a racetrack. Bumps that get the Z/28’s tires bouncing are quickly and smoothly dispatched by the GT350R. It dances over the little ones and absorbs the big ones without getting rattled. The lightness and nimbleness compare favorably to supercars; the Camaro, however, always feels big and heavy and brutish, which is endearing in its own way.
The GT350R is imbued with an unexpected European supercar flavor. That flat-plane V-8, the dexterity and delicacy, the responsiveness—it honestly made me think of the last McLaren I drove, not the Z/28. It feels high-tech and exotic compared to the Z/28’s all-American attitude. Sure, the GT350R still rumbles rather like an American V-8 at idle, but then it blends that with a flat-plane howl. It’s like Artie Shaw’s trombones (ask your grandparents, or Kim Reynolds) played through Metallica’s amplifiers. It revs out forever, and it’s happy to live above 6,000 rpm. The Z/28 will over-rev to 7,200 rpm just fine, but it really feels like you ought to shift, and the glorious sound is pure all-American V-8. It’s a funny dichotomy. The GT350R can safely spin 1,200 rpm faster, and it makes a huge difference. At 4,000 rpm in the Z/28, you’re more than halfway up the range and really in the heart of the power and coming on redline quickly. At 4,000 rpm in the GT350R, you’re not even halfway there, and you’ve got miles of linear power to go. Plus, it’s got a handy upshift light that flashes on the windshield. The Z/28 gives you that classic shove in the back at any rpm (though with a lot of drivetrain lash), but the GT350R is always smooth and deviously quick.
In this way, the GT350R is more like Superman. It doesn’t need to get angry. It’s confident and supremely capable, and it knows it. There’s nothing to prove, no primal rage feeding it. It gets a reaction, but it doesn’t make a scene. It’ll play rough when it needs to, but it prefers grace and balance to brute force. It shrugs off the little jabs and taunts, saving its big moves for when it counts.
Both cars exhibited mild understeer in the very slow hairpins, though the Z/28 seemed to get a bit more. Both would power oversteer at a sharp corner exit, as well, and again the Z/28 was more likely to do so. The important differentiator is how. Like the base car and the last-gen car, the GT350R is snappy at the limit. It drifts a bit, but if you ask for more, it might try to swap ends on you. As such, I was always slightly nervous exiting a corner hard, worried the rear might come around and I might not be quick enough to catch it. The Z/28, however, oversteers smoothly and progressively and can be driven with the tail slightly out all day long—when these two do break traction, the Camaro is easier to control.
Managing such behavior are two excellent electronic aids. Chevrolet’s Performance Traction Management is among the best on the market, slightly better than Ford’s latest AdvanceTrac system. The difference is in how they engage. Chevy‘s system controls wheelspin and oversteer by restricting power rather than cutting it off, which is much smoother and less frustrating. Ford’s system allows as much tomfoolery as Chevy’s, but when it steps in, it cuts power briefly but sharply, creating a frustrating, herky-jerky feel.
We’ve praised the Z/28 for its steering feel, but the GT350R’s is considerably better. It trams less but still gives a little manual steering-style kickback, and it keeps you apprised of the grip situation. What’s more, the various modes just change the weight and don’t mess up the feel. The lightness of the nose, the responsiveness to your inputs, and the quickness with which it tucks into an apex are all worthy of a mid-engine supercar, not a ponycar with an engine on the front axle.
The Z/28’s brakes are indefatigable. The pedal travel before engagement is longer than the GT350R’s, but once engaged, they’re easier to modulate. The GT350R’s brake pedal grabs at the top of its travel and tends to get firm under hard braking, which makes modulation more difficult to sort out.
The shifters are similar in action, though the GT350R’s is better. The gates are a little more precise and the action slightly smoother than in the Z/28, which feels somewhat overbuilt by comparison.
Then there are the splitters. Each has a big, plastic snowplow hanging off its chin, and each gets a workout. I thought the Z/28’s front splitter scraped a lot. I was wrong. The GT350R’s splitter scrapes on everything. Every dip in the road gets a rub. I didn’t hear the Z/28’s splitter drag once while driving hard, but I must’ve heard the GT350R’s at least a half-dozen times. Thankfully, the GT350R’s is unpainted plastic and clearly a wear item. The Z/28’s is painted, much stiffer, and much more likely to take and show damage.
Driving to and from the canyon, there’s no question the GT350R is the more comfortable car. You can drive the Z/28 every day, but you’ll be happier with the GT350R in traffic, on rough roads, and almost everywhere else. On a good road, though, the Z/28 closes the gap significantly, showing indisputably what it was made to do and just how good it is at it. Still, as much as I enjoyed flogging the Z/28 for all it’s worth, in just four corners the GT350R had me uttering out load, “Damn, this car is good.” — Scott Evans
At the Chuckwalla circuit, an hour into the oddly named Colorado Desert east of Palm Springs, California, the Pony Express has arrived. Both factory track specials, both with 500-plus-horse V-8s, but in very different configurations. The big block versus the revver. Both are on independent suspensions now that the new Mustang chassis has caught up, and both have carbon in the wheelwells: brakes on the Chevy, wheels on the Ford (learn more about the carbon fiber wheels HERE).
We saddle up the familiar Camaro first, expectations high from previous tests. The big 7.0-liter LS7 delivers massive torque down low to a silky clutch as we leave pit lane, and it still pulls hard all the way to 7,000 with a glorious red, white, and blue V-8 bellow. It has a very fat and flexible power curve, not picky about the gear choice. I never miss a shift with the six-speed and grab ’em instantly and aggressively, the feel not that of metallic clicking but more slick and with surprisingly light effort. They must be big gears to handle 481 lb-ft o’ twist, but they cloak their size well.
The Z/28 rolls on 305-fat Pirelli Trofeos all around, and those monsters make the chassis work. This pony, 213 pounds (97 kg) lighter than the muscle car ZL1 supercharged version, is still hauling 227 pounds (103 kg) more mail than the Shelby R. The steering is quick and sure, and Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) shocks hold body motions tightly in check. Stiff on the road, they come into their own on track. The Camaro feels brawny, strong, and capable, more linebacker than running back. Combined with a helical limited-slip diff, the balance is good throughout the turn. The diff is torque-sensing, freed up turning in toward the apex then driving the loaded outside rear more on exit. The Z/28 is quite stable on the way in and needs only a little care rolling into the power to stay hooked up.
Where it really shines is in braking. The carbon-ceramic Brembos are world-class. The braking power is so impressive and consistent with intelligent ABS—no hard-pedal-no-brake syndrome, a real confidence builder.
Next, I swing a boot over the brand-new Mustang Shelby GT350R. This is the hottest one, with coolers for the whole drivetrain, like the Z/28. Hardcore track prep. The R has been massaged from end to end for track work. Further, that new integral link rear suspension is a quantum leap ahead in sophistication for all Mustangs, greatly reducing unsprung mass with twice the anti-squat and nearly 10 times the amount of anti-lift for better pitch control during hard acceleration and braking.
Joining the track, I shift early by mistake, not yet conditioned for the way the engine just keeps climbing, up and up to an 8,250-rpm peak. From four to eight, this engine pours on the torque, but it’s rather lazy below that, in stark contrast to the LS7. But on this track, I’m never down there, so who cares? It’s satisfying to tach out a gear and feel the power continue to surge. The exhaust note doesn’t rumble like the Chevy and doesn’t wail like a flat-plane Ferrari V-8. It’s a meaty mix of both, a stirring new hit in the top 10 countdown. It’s not the smoothest engine ever, with a mild buzz that accompanies those revs.
Chuckwalla features many long sweepers of changing radii, and the Shelby settles in so beautifully that I don’t ever want to stop. When I do, the brake response is instant and high friction with effort so low I must be careful not to overdo it, using only my big toe. The Ford ABS has been to college because it’s way better educated than in past Mustangs, which could get scary when it intervened. With no evident fade, the GT350R stops well, but the Z/28 is still better in this department.
The GT350R sticks so securely in the corner entry phase that less braking is even necessary. It fills the friction circle so well. This chassis accepts midcorner adjustments with a lovely, stable balance—a sensory driving pleasure. Note: If a quick correction is needed (more likely in the non-R GT350), the electric-assist steering cannot keep up in Sport, so I put it in Comfort: speed over feel. But when I go to the throttle and drive off the corner the real R magic is revealed. This Mustang hooks up! It grabs the ground more with claws than horseshoes. The tires and geometry reward acceleration, not smoky sideways wheelspin. Nicely tuned, Shelby team. This chassis blends lateral g’s and acceleration very well.
On the slippery, old asphalt of the Chuckwalla airstrip, drag races support the GT350R’s traction. The Camaro spins far more while the R drives away, highlighting the one trait where this Mustang is clearly superior: putting power to the ground.
The results should be no surprise. In the quarter mile, the lighter GT350R clips the Z/28 with a 12.1-second pass at 119.6 mph (192 km/h) to the Camaro’s 12.3 seconds at 116.1 (187 km/h).
At Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, the Z/28 laid down a fast lap of 1:59.03. The GT350R: 1:57.87. — Randy Pobst
As with any comparison, it’s the new car’s fight to lose. The GT350R faced a stout competitor in the Z/28 and a healthy skepticism from the judges. They’re both great cars, both charismatic and engaging in completely different ways. Owners will love them and defend them to the ends of the earth, and they won’t be wrong. But the GT350R does everything at least a little better than the Z/28, if not significantly better. It’s a matter of degrees, but other than personal preference, there’s no disputing the GT350R’s win. It’s more technical decision than outright knockout, but it’s an unqualified win for the GT350R nonetheless.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Second Place: 2015 Chevy Camaro Z/28
Still one of the best-handling cars we’ve driven, the Z/28 put up a hell of a fight. We can’t wait for the next Z/28 so we can do this again.
First Place: 2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang
Float like a Lotus, sting like a Ferrari. The GT350R outperforms the Z/28 by at least a few degrees in every measure, objective and subjective, and does it loaded with creature comforts and a better ride. Meet the new king of the road.
|2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28||2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||90-deg V-8, aluminum block/heads||90-deg V-8, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||427.9 cu in/7,011 cc||315.1 cu in/5,163 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||505 hp @ 6,100 rpm*||526 hp @ 7,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||481 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm*||429 lb-ft @ 4,750 rpm|
|REDLINE||7,000 rpm||8,250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||7.7 lb/hp||6.9 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||15.5-in vented, drilled, carbon ceramic disc; 15.3-in vented, drilled, carbon ceramic disc, ABS||15.5-in vented, drilled disc; 12.6-in vented, drilled disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||11.0 x 19-in; 11.5 x 19-in, forged aluminum||11.0 x 19-in; 11.5 x 19-in, carbon-fiber|
|TIRES||305/30R19 102Y Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R||305/30ZR19 98Y; 315/30ZR19 100Y Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2|
|WHEELBASE||112.3 in||107.1 in|
|TRACK, F/R||66.1/64.7 in||63.3/63.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||192.3 x 76.9 x 52.4 in||189.7 x 75.9 x 53.6 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.7 ft||40.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,882 lb||3,650 lb (mfr)|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||53/47 %||54/46 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.4/35.3 in||37.6/ – in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.4/29.9 in||44.5/ – in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.9/42.5 in||56.3/ – in|
|CARGO VOLUME||11.3 cu ft||13.5 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.6 sec||1.6 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1.8||1.7|
|QUARTER MILE||12.3 sec @ 116.1 mph||12.1 sec @ 119.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||100 ft||96 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||1.08 g (avg)||1.09 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||23.6 sec @ 0.89 g (avg)||23.3 sec @ 0.87 g (avg)|
|2.7-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||119.03 sec||117.87 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,950 rpm||1,800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$76,150||$66,970|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r rear curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/100,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.0 gal||16.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||13/19/15 mpg||14/21/16 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||259/177 kW-hrs/100 miles||241/160 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||1.28 lb/mile||1.18 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|