Ford Shelby GT350 exhibits sports car handling and plenty of muscle on the track

Squeezed by a Recaro seat in a 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang, the track official at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway waves me forward from the pit lane. There's 526 horsepower sitting under the hood and I've got a six-speed manual, so I'm expecting a massive lurch when I let out the clutch, and maybe even an embarrassing stall.

But no, despite the brutish appearance of this beast, the power comes on gentle, letting me obey the 10 mph speed limit in pit lane and ease it out. It's not until I've got the tachometer needle threatening the 8,250rpm redline on the track's straights that I get a torque lurch from a gear change.

2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang

Heading up the main straight at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway, the Shelby GT350 let its 526 horses stampede.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Ford is celebrating 50 years of the Shelby GT350 with this latest model, following on last year's 50th anniversary of the Mustang. As with the original Shelby, the 2016 model is a performance upgrade of the Mustang model. The Ford Performance group, a division within Ford, built a new engine, redesigned the suspension, and tweaked performance for the current generation Mustang to come up with the new Shelby GT350.

During this press event, sponsored by Ford, the Ford Performance engineers spoke proudly of the new car and their individual roles in making it the best Shelby GT350 yet. This elite team within Ford works closely together, so that the drivetrain engineers can talk to the suspension engineers sitting at the next desks over.

Ford had the Shelby GT350's flat plane crankshaft and a piston from its 5.2-liter V-8 on display.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The new Shelby GT350 gets a 5.2-liter V-8 aluminum block engine, and Ford touts its first use of a flat-plane crankshaft. One of the engineers explained how it works in some depth, but all I came away with was that it makes for better exhaust flow, so more power, with a side benefit of a particularly distinct exhaust note. Without the benefit of forced induction, this engine produces 526 horsepower at 7,500rpm and 429 pound-feet of torque at 4,750rpm.

Flooring it up the straights, I could hold third gear and let the tach run up close to redline, the exhaust note roaring sonorous applause, hitting 100 mph with ease before an upcoming turn would make me consider the brakes. The power band from this engine is so broad that I had room to try different shifting strategies during my laps, for example taking the Corkscrew in second or third.

Ford even came up with an innovative shift light, projected on the windshield, showing when you're getting close to redline.

The Shelby GT350 handled the turns better than I could have imagined. Fitted with the optional Track package, the car I was driving had an adaptive, magnetic ride suspension along with five drive modes for the traction and stability control. Set to Track, this system complemented the electric power steering system's precise response, letting me dive into each corner and power out at the apex.

I have good experience at Laguna Seca so I know how to handle the Corkscrew, but the double-apex turn 2 hairpin always throws me. I took it gentle for a couple of laps, but the Shelby GT350 quickly built up my confidence. On my third lap I made the first apex but hit the second a little hot. On the turn exit the car's rear wheels slipped past the point of grip but instead of getting all out of shape, a little steering correction and throttle brought it back in line. This is not a car that punishes you for making a mistake.

2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang

Ford put an original Shelby GT350 on display for the benefit and admiration of journalists.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

After laps in the Shelby GT350, Ford put me behind the wheel of the GT350R variant. This one gets the same engine and six-speed manual as the GT350, comes standard with the Track package equipment, and gains carbon fiber wheels, which weigh about half that of the 19-inch aluminum wheels they replace.

There was a palpable difference in handling with the GT350R. It felt lighter in the turns and exhibited even easier turn-in. Acceleration up the straights felt the same, but it was almost certainly faster because of the reduced weight.

For another driving exercise, I took the Shelby GT350 with the Track package out for a drive on public roads, and considering its performance on the track, I wasn't surprised to find it perfectly manageable, despite the combination of massive power and six-speed manual.

The drive modes afforded Normal, Sport, Weather, and Drag, but I only used the former two on the public roads. The ride quality was a little harder than firm, but I found it more comfortable than the previous-generation Shelby. The responsive steering and short-throw manual shifter made for added engagement when cruising suburban streets and the easily modulated throttle kept me from crawling up the back of slower traffic.

2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang

The Shelby GT350 was perfectly manageable and reasonably comfortable on public roads with traffic.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Of course, I couldn't help but make aggressive starts from every traffic stop, rowing through the gears to let the quad exhausts sound off with the Shelby song.

At $48,695 delivered, the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang is an excellent value for the amount of power you get, and the car's overall finesse. Ford has not said whether it will offer the Shelby in International markets.

You will almost certainly want to get the Track package, which adds the excellent magnetic adaptive suspension. And Ford will be offering its Sync 3 infotainment system, a huge advance over its previous system, giving the Shelby GT350 everyday practicality and convenience that neatly complements its onroad driving behavior.

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