What the GT350 should have been from the start.
When the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 debuted in 2016, it felt like Ford could have done more. Good as the GT350 was, there was the sense Ford purposely held back the car's performance in order to ensure the hard-core GT350R held its place at the top of the totem pole.
Even though Ford bragged that both models were ready for road course duty right out of the box, the GT350’s comparatively conservative suspension tuning, tire choice, and aero package put a sizable gap between it and the R in terms of outright capability. In fact, the base Shelby’s initial lack of standard oil, transmission, and differential coolers actually resulted in litigation by Shelby owners frustrated with GT350s that couldn’t make it through a 30-minute track session without overheating.
To its credit, Ford quickly remedied that particular issue by making the Track package, which includes the aforementioned coolers, standard on all Shelby GT350s the following model year.
But there was still a nagging sense Ford purposely held the standard Shelby back from its true potential. And with the arrival of Performance Pack 2 for the standard Mustang GT last year, which featured a more aggressive tire and suspension setup than the standard GT350, it became clear that the Shelby was overdue for some attention.
It finally comes in the form of this update for 2019. While the updated GT350 is not a dramatic rethink of the overall concept, the updates address what’s been lacking since its introduction, resulting in a proper Shelby that requires no apology for its lack of an R badge.
As any seasoned racer will attest, the foundation of a good track setup starts where the rubber meets the road. While the previous Shelby GT350’s Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires are excellent, the summer street rubber is a noticeable step behind the GT350R’s Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires when it comes to outright dry grip. For 2019, the GT350 gets its very own set of Ford Performance-spec Cup 2 tires. The new tread pattern and compound are specific to the retuned Shelby and help make the track-focused rubber a little more manageable in wet conditions while retaining a stranglehold on dry pavement.
For 2019, the GT350 gets its very own set of Ford Performance-spec Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires.
But Ford didn’t stop there. Engineers recalibrated the Shelby’s adjustable MagneRide dampers, and then paired them with stiffer front springs and a bigger rear sway bar for a sharper handling response from the chassis. New hardware also typically necessitates new software, and to that end, Ford tweaked the three-mode stability control, as well as the electric power-assisted steering to take full advantage of the Shelby’s new level of sure-footedness. High-speed stability is also a legitimate concern at track pace, so aerodynamicists optimized the front grille to reduce front-end lift, while a new rear spoiler and an optional Gurney flap are said to bring significantly more rear downforce to the table.
After settling in behind the wheel and hitting the start button, one is immediately reminded of what made the Shelby special in the first place. With 526 horsepower and a screaming redline of 8250 rpm, Ford wisely left the GT350's naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V8 and six-speed manual transmission alone. The latter is a vast improvement over the Getrag six-speed in the Mustang GT in terms of gear ratios, durability, and overall feel. Plus, the clutch it’s paired up with is no heavier than the GT’s while proving far easier to modulate.
Ford brought us to M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan to put the new Shelby through its paces at speed. The 10-turn, 1.5-mile road course is a bit tight for a high-horsepower car like the GT350, and the back straight is the only section where the new aero has a chance to do anything particularly meaningful. But this technical track offers plenty of opportunities to test the limits of handling and braking.
With a thunderstorm bearing down on us and threatening to make the GT350 even more of a handful, we wasted no time hitting the track to put the Shelby through its paces. Right away, we noted that while the GT models get a rev-matching feature for 2019, the Shelby GT350 does not. Would-be Shelby owners would be wise to keep their heel-toe technique sharply honed if track time is in their future.
After spending a few laps getting acclimated to the track we let out the lead, and it didn’t take long for the benefits of Ford’s various tweaks to become evident. The Cup 2 rubber is the immediately obvious improvement, and the grippier tires enhance acceleration, braking, and steering response to a tangible degree. But unlike some track-focused tires, the new Michelin is also surprisingly forgiving in terms of its communication and recovery at the limit. It also takes a lot of ham-fisted inputs to really get them to overheat.
Set to Track mode, the Shelby’s revised suspension gives the car a much more planted feel than it had in the past.
Set to Track mode, the Shelby’s revised suspension gives the car a much more planted feel than it had in the past, providing just enough body motion to give an idea of where the weight is during high-speed maneuvers. Paired up with the already-killer six-piston Brembo brake package outfitted to the Shelby (as well as the model’s recalibrated antilock brake tuning), the GT350 finally feels in its element when driven on a road course. As the pace picks up the car only gets better – that wasn’t necessarily the case in previous years.
The good news isn’t limited to the road course, though. Track performance is often at odds with drivability out on the street, but the GT350 manages to strike a balance that makes the car surprisingly manageable on the wet, pockmarked asphalt of a post-winter Michigan. When set to Comfort mode, the Shelby offers enough suspension compliance, and while some hints of tramlining are evident, it is largely kept to a minimum.
Some drivers may find the lack of adjustability and lumbar support of the Recaro seats taxing during longer stints behind the wheel, but the benefits of these aggressively bolstered buckets are undeniable both on the track and during a spirited drive on a good stretch of road. They are well worth the compromise, but new power-adjustable seats are also available for those who prefer something a bit tamer.
Whether it’s on the street or at ten-tenths on the road course, the updated GT350 feels like it’s finally come into its own. This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Mustang, and if Ford keeps making them like this, we wouldn’t be surprised to see another 55.