Ford's Shelby GT350R isn't your average Mustang, and it only takes a glance to figure that out. Whether it's the huge splitter up front, the giant scoop of a wing hanging off the rear bumper or the imposing black wheels that do little to hide the massive Brembo brakes beneath, you can immediately tell this is something special.
Fire it up and any lingering doubts about normalcy are immediately shattered. The 5.2-liter V8 here sounds like no Mustang you've heard before. And it truly isn't like those before. In fact, it's more than twice as expensive as a base model. This is the $62,000 Shelby GT350R, current king of the modern pony cars. And, unlike many Shelbys that have come before, this one can dominate the track in every form.
The base Mustang is a very solid car. Redesigned for the 2015 model year to make it lighter, lower, meaner and quicker around the track, today's pony car is a quantum leap forward over the old. For less than $25,000, you can get a 300 horsepower model. $26,000 gets you the the 310-horsepower EcoBoost model and $opens the door to the 5.0-liter GT model, with a 435-horespower V8 and a series of other upgrades that make it an overall more serious contender.
But none of the above really compare to this, the GT350R. Under the hood here is a 5.2-liter V8, barely bigger than the GT yet a much more exotic bird. It's been built with a flat-plane-crank configuration, meaning it not only delivers a whopping 526-horsepower and 429 pound-feet but it revs up to a remarkable 8,250 RPM. This changes up the firing order of the engine, giving it characteristics much more like a proper race motor than anything you'd typically find idling in the next lane over at a stoplight.
And when I say "race" I don't mean dragstrip. This is a motor designed for the track, and it delivers its power appropriately. While most Mustangs are all about the launch, oodles of torque delivered down low to swat you off the line and kick you in the rear with every power-shift, the GT350R wants you to rev it, coming alive toward the termination of its big, analog tachometer and screaming encouragement as you flirt with the redline.
This is the kind of lump that shines on a racetrack, and I'm very glad to report that the rest of the car was designed with a similar goal in mind.
The rest of the package
Mustangs have had plenty of successes on the racetrack in the past, but it's safe to say that wasn't exactly their native environment. The GT350R, however, feels completely at home pushing at (or beyond) the limit through apexes early and late and anywhere in between.
Helping that is a full set of MagneRide adaptive dampers, which adjust and adapt dynamically not just based on where you set the suspension knob in the cockpit, but also based on driving mode and conditions. The delta here between comfort and track isn't as broad as many other modern cars I've been lucky enough to drive, but then this is a rather focused beast.
The brakes are seriously up-rated over the base car's, squeezing massive, floating, cross-drilled rotors. Wrapped around those are 19-inch wheels wearing Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, carbon fiber wheels that weigh a whopping 13 pounds lighter each than those fond on the "base" Shelby 350.
All this, plus over 100 pounds' worth of weight savings compared with the base Mustang, puts the GT350R on another plane of existence when it's time to hit the track. The car will understeer or oversteer appropriately depending on how you get the corner wrong, but is so responsive to corrections that you're never left wallowing for long in either state.
If there's one disappointment on the track, it's the steering. It's quick and light, which I actually like, but there's a distinct lack of feel here, muted feedback that can make it a bit difficult to know what's going on up front. The lack of feel is curious given the 350R's front suspension setup, which relies on ball joints rather than bushings to provide a more direct connection. Sadly, that hasn't resulted in a more direct feel.
On the road
Would that every day were a track day, but sadly we do need to at least drive to the track -- unless you're lucky enough to be able to own a car like this and treat it like a trailer queen. If so, kudos to you, but the rest of us, I'm happy to report that the GT350R is a surprisingly good road car.
OK, it's far short of a great road car. There's a prodigious amount of road noise from those massive tires and the ride quality would never be described as cossetting, but neither is it overly harsh. I spent a good five hours in this car on some of Michigan's most-punishing highways and I got out of the car without hating my life. That's saying something.
A lot of that comes down to the adaptive suspension, which sways from firm-but-livable to punishingly sharp at a few touches of a button. The exhaust, too, can be quieted down for civilized street duty, but let thy right foot extend too far toward the floor and it will again open up and let its voice be heard. Nothing wrong with that.
With the GT350R you miss out on some creature comforts found in the base car, most notably rear seats, deleted to shed about 50 pounds from the package. But, if you're willing to spend another $999 you can have them back -- or just go for the 350, which seats four by default. You can also get a lot of tech niceties bundled up in Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system. But, you'll have to pay for that, too: a whopping $3,000.
Sadly the version here was missing both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but with support coming to the platform, there's always hope for a software upgrade. 2017 and newer models should support both.
But moving beyond media integration, if you pay the $3,000 you'll find some customizations for this car, including a set of so-called Track Apps that let you monitor g-forces and the like in real-time. Launch control is also here, and where would we be without Line Lock? With this you can easily do the smokiest of smoky burnouts for as long as your tire budget allows.
Most active safety features, though, are absent. You'll find no adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring or active braking. There is, at least, a rear-view camera. Very necessary given how little of the world you can see out the back window thanks to that giant wing.
The fiercest competition for this car is Chevrolet's new Corvette Grand Sport. At $66,500 the Vette is a bit more spendy, but add in some of the missing things in the Mustang (like a stereo) and you'll find the two priced within spitting distance. In many ways the Mustang is the more focused car, and it has more horsepower, but the Corvette is lighter and nimbler and, frankly, I'd have a real hard time choosing between the two.
But that's not the only competitor Chevrolet has to offer. At just over $61,000, and with 650 horsepower from the same 6.2-liter V8 found in the Z06, the new Camaro ZL1 could make the GT350R look a bit sheepish from an acceleration department. But, with a curb weight that's substantially more than the Mustang, it likely won't be as focused when it comes to track duty.
Put simply, I was blown away by the Shelby GT350R. Having driven a few flavors of the "normal" Mustang, I was expecting something basically the same -- only, you know, more. This genuinely isn't just more, the 350R feels like an altogether different beast, something vastly more capable and potent, yet honestly never truly scary nor intimidating.
Of course, for more than twice the price of a base Mustang you would of course expect it to be much, much better. It's difficult to say whether the additional cost is worth it, because if you threw $30,000 at a base GT you could probably get even more outright speed than the GT350R offers. But I guarantee it wouldn't feel anywhere nearly this well-sorted and engaging to drive, and frankly there's no putting a price on that.