The track at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, is a challenging and tight road course. OK, shoehorning in a miniature Laguna Seca within the city limits of the Detroit suburb is an unrealistic expectation. But the M1's narrow width, sharp turns, ridiculously tight hairpin, and short, 1.5-mile layout seems ideally suited for something small and lightweight, like a Mazda MX-5 Miata or hot hatchback.
Yet the M1 Concourse is where I'm getting my first stint behind the wheel of the 526-horsepower 2019 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350. It's the most track-focused 'Stang you can buy today. But is it too much to handle on a tight track like this?
One of the GT350's key upgrades for 2019 is a new set of tires: Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubbers replace the old Pilot Super Sports. In addition to the extra grip afforded by these stickier shoes, side-to-side weight transfer and overall stability is improved thanks to recalibrated adaptive damper tuning, as well as stiffer front and rear springs, and a thicker rear antiroll bar.
Hitting your desired turn-in, apex, and track-out points is easy thanks to the GT350's responsive and communicative steering, not to mention its remarkable chassis reflexes. Through M1's tight hairpin turn, a touch of understeer shows up, but it's easily corrected by dialing in more throttle to get the rear end to rotate.
Down the half-mile straightaway, the GT350's 5.2-liter, naturally aspirated, flat-plane-crank V8 really gets to work, with 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque on tap. This is the same engine as last year's GT350, and it's absolutely brilliant, with strong, linear power delivery all the way up to the 8,250-rpm redline -- and a glorious accompanying soundtrack, to boot. The Tremec six-speed manual transmission offers precise action, combined with a nicely weighted, easy-to-work clutch pedal.
Ford says the coupe's restyled front fascia and new rear spoiler offer big aerodynamic improvements, but I can't go fast enough on the M1 to really say I notice them. Closer to the Shelby's 180-mph top speed, however, I'm sure these tweaks are helpful.
The sweeping-right Turn 6 requires a firm foot on the brake pedal, asking the six-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo calipers to slow matters, which they do quickly and steadily. Well-spaced pedals allow for heel-and-toe shifting, and combined with instant throttle response, downshifting before each turn is an absolute cinch.
What impresses me most about the GT350 is how forgiving it is right up to the limit. This is an incredibly approachable car, yet still sufficiently raw and oh-so fun. Whether you only have moderate track experience or you're a full-fledged track rat, you'll be able to drive the GT350 hard and have a blast while doing so.
Of course, I wonder how the GT350 will hold up after longer track sessions. Will the nearly 3,800-pound curb weight wreak havoc on the brakes? How will those new tires hold up? M1 Concourse is a great place to experience the new Shelby briefly, but for a car designed for track use, I'll be interested to see how it handles a full day of fun.
The GT350 isn't the proverbial one-trick pony. The Shelby is just fine for daily-driving duties, its Normal drive mode offering reasonable give from the adaptive dampers, lighter steering and less ferocity from the active exhaust. Yes, you can feel impacts from big bumps, but driving the Mustang GT350 around metro Detroit is far from jarring. A small issue is that the big, aggressive 295/35R19 front and 305/35R19 rear Michelin tires are prone to tramlining on rutted Michigan roads.
The biggest deterrent to driving one of these every day is fuel economy; the EPA estimates the 2019 Shelby GT350 will return 14 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg highway. Those numbers are low enough to warrant a $1,300 gas guzzler tax, too.
Inside, the 2019 GT350 is pretty much the same as its predecessor. Outside of new aluminum dash trim and suede door panel inserts, you'll find familiar Mustang surroundings. Standard Recaro front race seats are comfy and hold passengers snuggly in place, and the tight backseat is best used for only small children. Build quality is on par with the Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Challengers of the world -- in other words, good but not great -- and the trunk offers respectable cargo-carrying ability, with 13.5 cubic feet of space on offer.
On the tech front, the GT350 uses Ford's tried-and-true Sync 3 interface, housed on an 8-inch touchscreen. A nine-speaker audio system, satellite radio, Wi-Fi hotspot, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard. Navigation with real-time traffic and a new 12-speaker B&O sound setup are optional. For safety, a rearview camera is standard, while available features are limited to blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The 2019 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 is on sale now with a base price of $59,140, not including $1,095 for destination or the $1,300 gas guzzler tax. That puts it in an interesting spot. It's slightly more affordable than the 650-horsepower Chevy Camaro ZL1, which starts at $62,000. But tack on the optional, $7,500 1LE Track Performance Package and the Camaro gets much more expensive. You get a lot more power, but you pay to get the Camaro's sharper reflexes.
On the other hand, next to a $69,150 BMW M4, the Shelby looks like a really good value -- especially for a coupe that feels so special driven hard on a track. If it's the best-handling Mustang you're after, the 2019 Shelby GT350 is definitely the one to get.
Originally published May 14.