Shelby GT350R: Ford’s fastest Mustang shows high-tech can redeem American muscle
With magnetically controlled dampers and carbon-fiber wheels, the GT350R handles in the corners like no other Mustang before. Consider the exotic 526HP engine to be just a bonus.
By Jon Phillips
PCWorldSep 2, 2015 4:15 am PDT
Ever since it released its first all-electric Focus in 2011, Ford has had a vocal technology story to share—but for car enthusiasts that story has been snoozier than a Hallmark Channel marathon. On pain medication. With a box of red wine. But now all that changes with the Shelby GT350, a car I still can’t stopping thinking about, some five days since I’ve given back the keys.
Ford’s latest halo Mustang has all the makings of a track-day superstar, and it gets there not on brute-force horsepower—which it has to the tune of 526 pissed-off ponies—but on a high-tech makeover of every system that makes a car stick to curving geometry.
Dig it: This isn’t the go-fast/turn-maybe Mustang you’ve driven before. The GT350 hunkers down and glues itself to fast corners. It rotates obediently in slow corners. And it may even make you forget that “high-performance” Mustangs still came with solid-rear axles up until model year 2014.
This is a statement car. It says Ford has much more exciting technology tricks than plug-in electric motors, parallel parking assistants, and lane-keeping nannies. And the GT350 also sends a message to Porsche and BMW, whose performance cars dominate the paddocks of U.S. track day events: Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, we’ll run with you in the corners. This is the new Mustang, y’all.
To adequately describe this car’s acceleration and cornering poise would require Al Swearengen-levels of profanity, but I do my best to share the driving experience later in this story. You can also hear my first driving impressions in the video below:
For now let’s explore the engineering showcase, which starts with an engine that manages to be high-tech without bowing to high-tech fashion of the day.
A fresh take on naturally aspirated horsepower
Ford’s 5.2 liter V8 makes 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque—and it reaches these gaudy numbers via natural aspiration. You know, just like an old-timey car from 2001. Ford’s an enthusiastic proponent of turbocharging (see EcoBoost, which permeates its line-up), but in the GT350, the engineers opted for a somewhat exotic engine design that makes silly gobs of power without forced induction.
That’s a bold move considering turbocharging has become de rigueur for so many cars in the GT350’s performance range. But Ford’s engine play isn’t a contrarian gimmick. It’s a calculated decision that achieves a very specific engine character.
The key innovation is a flat-plane crankshaft that positions connecting rods at 180-degree intervals rather than 90-degree intervals, per the typical V8. Ford explains the engine in detail here, and this supernerd chalk-talk dives even deeper. For now, this is all you really need to know about the flat-plane crankshaft layout:
It helps generate a growling exhaust note that will have you downshifting just to hear the blarp-blarp-pop. Ferrari uses a flat-plane crankshaft in its V8, and Ford’s engine sounds just as exotic to the untrained ear.
It helps improve engine breathing thanks to an unconventional firing order that optimizes cylinder exhaust pulse separation. And anytime you can improve the flow of air through an engine, increased power follows.
It delivers an extremely quick-revving and high-revving engine, with a very broad torque curve. In fact, 90 percent of the engine’s peak torque is available between 3450 rpm and 7000 rpm. And the V8 redlines at 8250 rpm. That’s 8250, Timmy. Can you count that high?
I really can’t say enough about this engine. It sounds incredible, and makes the kind of manageable, usable power you need on a road course. And just knowing that a new naturally aspirated V8 is going into production in 2015 says something meaningful about the human condition.
A suspension pregnant with iron particles
For all its engine success, the GT350’s chassis success is even better—if only because Ford had so much farther to go in improving its pony car’s handling. For starters, the GT350 has more track-focused springs and bushings than the Mustang GT (which sits just below the GT350 in the Mustang line-up). But there’s much sexier chassis tech on tap, and it starts with MagneRide dampers, which come with the GT350’s Track Pack option, and are standard equipment on the GT350R.
MagneRide is the trade name for a computer-controlled suspension system that uses an electric charge to dynamically adjust the damping rates of a car’s shock. It keeps the car settled over rough surfaces, and reduces body roll in the corners. Instead of using a traditional hydraulic piston, the dampers are filled with a viscous fluid impregnated with iron particles. By adjusting an electric current that passes through the fluid, the fluid can be made either more viscous (for increased damping) or less viscous (for a softer, more compliant ride).
Yeah, it’s nerdy stuff. Just know that Ford uses wheel sensors and a host of other real-time data sources to dynamically calibrate the dampers in response to changing road conditions and suspension loads. Add in a front splitter, a rear diffuser, and a decklid spoiler—all designed for legitimate downforce and air management—and you have a package that’s intent on keeping the GT350 flat in turns.
Carbon fiber for all
There’s more, though. The GT350 has massive 15.5-inch front rotors paired with custom-designed six-piston Brembo calipers to get the car stopped. And the more track-focused GT350R adds even more technology, starting with a carbon-fiber rear wing that out-squishes the downforce created by the base GT350’s comparatively sober decklid fin. Ford says the GT350R generates even more downforce than Porsche’s GT3, which has a wing so large, you’d think it was designed by 10-year-old boys.
The GT350R is also 130 pounds lighter than the GT350 Track Pack model (that’s what happens when you strip out air conditioning, the stereo, rear seats and other modern pleasantries). But the headline feature of of the GT350R could be its 19-inch carbon-fiber wheels and custom-designed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires.
Only the ridiculously exotic Koenigsegg supercar currently runs carbon-fiber wheels as standard equipment, but now Ford is playing that high-tech game with wheels that weigh only 18 pounds each. Relative to an equivalent aluminum rim, this reduces unsprung weight by a crazy 16 pounds per wheel, delivering a host of dividends, from better stopping performance to sharper turn-in.
Ford completes the package with incredibly sticky Pilot Sport Cup 2s, formulated by Michelin just for the GT350R. It’s an R-compound tire that can only be fully exploited by true driving talents. Paired with the carbon-fiber wheels, you’ll never be able to blame your wheel-and-tire set-up again.
First-drive engine impressions
I’ve driven fast cars at Laguna before, but never such a powerful car. But Ford’s engine, while absolutely exhilarating with forward momentum, never got close to scaring me. For starters, the engine doesn’t outdrive the chassis like so many American muscle cars before it. But we can also thank the V8’s linear torque curve, which doesn’t present any surprises as the engine revs and revs and revs to redline.
Much of my high-performance seat time has transpired in an E46 M3 (8000 rpm redline) and Lotus Elise (8500 redline). So I’m a bit desensitized to the thrill of an ever-winding engine. But those BMW and Lotus engines are peaky, delivering shocking forward thrusts at the mid and upper ranges of their power bands. By comparison, the GT350’s engine is surprisingly even-keeled for all its raw acceleration and bombastic thunder.
If you want to cut down on a few busy downshifts—and you might need to, because I didn’t find a comfortable heel-toe set-up—know that the engine is flexible enough to leave the car in 3rd for a few 2nd-gear corners. It’s easy to pounce on an early throttle during corner exits—especially with so much chassis grip—and once you’re pointed in a straight line, the car can’t be stopped.
The engine’s civility also proved out on the coastline drive around Pebble Beach. The V8 is polite and pliable at low RPMs, and when you’re toodling around town with 2500 on the tach, it really feels no more aggressive than a European family sedan. Leave the engine in its Normal driving mode with the muffler noise button set to quiet, and throttle response and exhaust resonance is sporty, but well-mannered. Clicking the car into Sport mode makes the accelerator a bit more nervous, and turning on muffler sound effects unleashes full aural fury.
Handling: Flat, confident and composed
I drove the GT350 at less than 7/10ths of my own driving prowess—which means I was probably driving at less than 5/10ths of the car’s thresholds. Still, even with a cautious, “I don’t want to ball this thing up” game plan, I learned a lot about the car’s handling.
Yes, it feels heavy. There’s no getting around 3700-pound cars in 2015. But because the GT350 corners so flat, with so little body roll and drama, it’s really not an unwieldy car to drive. Barrelling into Laguna’s Turn 2—a tight double-apex hairpin the follows the track’s longest straight—the car suffered very little dive on heavy braking. That’s confidence-inspiring. That says, yes, go faster next time.
The GT350 also remained remarkably flat and poised in corners that might upset other cars. Berms in the front half of the course have rough rumble strips, but the GT350 just squatted down and stuck to all of them. Was MagneRide doing its job? I have no idea. But the bottom line is that when you’re bearing down on an apex, eyeing a wall lurking beyond your exit cone, you want to know that your car will stay settled.
Turn 6 is a high-speed corner where cars compress down hard through maintenance throttle, then beg for heavy throttle up a steep hill. It’s another turn where the GT350 felt flat and confident, demanding more gas, and nudging you to explore its limits.
And that story pretty much continued throughout all 11 turns. Diving into Laguna’s famous corkscrew can be an unsettling ride in squirrelier cars, but the GT350 squatted down unfazed. Ditto the completely unnerving Turn 9. It’s fast, downhill, and has changing camber somewhere I never remember—always a confusing, white-knuckle ride, but I found it more grokkable in the GT350 than other cars I’ve driven.
I never drove the car hard enough to get into legit understeer, and it rotated without objection in the tighter turns. And the GT350R (which I never got to drive on the street) only makes everything about the GT350’s handling better: Sharper turn in, even less dive under braking, and noticeably more stick for quicker throttle application on corner exits. The upgraded Michelin rubber on the 350R just plain digs in, and I wish I’d had more time to play with faster corner entries.
If only the GT350R came with an air conditioner and audio system, it would be the clear choice, as it costs “only” about $5,600 more than a baseline GT350 optioned with the $6,500 track package (which adds MagneRide dampers, a decklid spoiler, a 5-setting Driver Control System, and other track-focused goodies). I might give up a lot of comfort and amenities for carbon-fiber wheels and a badass wing, but we’re looking at a track-day car, not a race car. One still has to drive to the track, and that’s always better in a pampering, stress-free ride.
But do you want it?
Can the brakes of 3,700-pound, 500-plus horsepower car last all day? Ford says the GT350 can survive a full track day without any fade. We won’t know the full story until owners report back, but I can share that the brakes telegraph just as much confidence as the chassis. The pedal feel is hard but not “abstract.” There’s no slop in the pedal travel, and stopping power is progressive after a nice initial bite.
There’s only one transmission option: a six-speed Tremec manual. It’s solid, taut, snickety, and precise. Like so much else in the GT350, the shifter feels locked in—smooth and low-effort, but also engineered to tight tolerances. Nonetheless, because the pedal set-up isn’t great for heel-toe (at least with my feet), I would be interested in a dual-clutch sequential option. Sorry, traditionalists, but I see too much track time lost to bungled downshifts. Plus, you know. High-tech.
The interior? Perfectly comfy, and I love the cradling Recaros, but I would immediately modify the seats (or rip them out) to install a six-point harness.
Beyond that, I’m really not sure the GT350 needs much improvement. Certainly, most of its future owners will need driving lessons, because this much car is not to be trifled with. But—and I never thought I’d be writing this—the GT350 might actually be a great tool for a driver who’s already graduated to track-day intermediate groups. It’s full of thrills, but light on nasty surprises. I know it could teach me something.
Inevitable dealer markups aside, the GT350R also costs notably less than a BMW M4, and considerably less than a Porsche 911 GT3. This is why it makes me gush. It’s also more than $10,000 less than the new Camaro Z/28, its most obvious cross-shopping rival. So, from a pure price-to-performance perspective, it looks like a killer deal on paper.
Indeed, with this much tech packed inside, the GT350 must surely be a loss leader designed to show all car buyers—even those electric Focus scrubs—that Ford is a modern, innovative, 21st-century company.