The Ford Mustang GT350R Is As Special As Modern Ponies Get

Mixing an exotic flat-plane soundtrack with muscle car grunt shouldn't work as well as it does.

2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R On Cars And Bids 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R On Cars And Bids

I’ve never fallen in love and harmony with a car this quickly. The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R is a well-documented darling to anyone who has driven one – I was aware of its gleaming reputation before going to review an example for Cars & Bids. However, I had never driven one, and unlike when the car was new, I went into this drive with a more definitive context.

We are, historically speaking, at the end of the road for cars like this as ever-smaller turbocharged engines and electric motors continue to take over the market. I returned from my drive, instantly reflecting on one thing – the GT350R is deservedly special. Without question, at the heart of what makes this car unique is its naturally aspirated Voodoo flat-plane-crank V8. Flat-plane engines are expensive to develop, and they’re usually reserved for small displacement, high-output applications, which is why Ferrari commonly uses them.

The significant benefit of a flat-plane design is that, due to the firing order alternating from bank to bank, the exhaust flow is optimized, maximizing the fluid dynamics of the engine and aiding in its ability to rev quickly. The drawback is that these engines are more challenging to balance than their cross-plane relatives, resulting in more counterweights to offset the vibrations. Applying this design with a large displacement engine is an expensive engineering challenge, but Ford made it happen for this car.

It’s essential to understand all of this because to see this level of engineering and R&D put into a Mustang underscores how serious Ford was about building something historically significant. This car celebrates the naturally aspirated engine, and honestly, it’s hard to believe that they were willing to put resources behind an engine that would only be used in two cars: the standard GT350 and the GT350R. But the notable additions for the GT350R don’t end there.

Ford used the Tremec TR-3160 6-speed manual as the sole available transmission for this car, and that’s a vital distinction. The standard Mustang GT was also available with a manual, but it had a Getrag 6-speed, and it’s nowhere near as sweet as the Tremec. The shifts are hefty but crisp and perfectly match this car's personality. I felt right at home, and shifting gears was so profoundly satisfying. The ratios are well judged, too, both for big speed and for fun around town.

Ford’s MagneRide system is also terrific. Yes, the car is stiff; it is a sports car. Even so, the magnetorheological dampers give the suspension tremendous compliance. Generally, I prefer to keep cars with adjustable suspension in their “Normal” setting, but even so, it gave me great confidence in the car overall. Similarly, the chassis dynamics are truly sublime. I didn’t get to really push this car in corners (as it’s not mine), but you can tell the performance envelope is impressively high, certainly on the level with a 991 GT3.

Ford also emphasized weight reduction, removing the rear seats, adding carbon fiber to the core support, and offering this car with carbon fiber wheels – a first in a mass-produced car. Optioned at its lightest (notably without air conditioning), Ford claimed that the R weighed 130 pounds less than the standard GT350. This one wasn’t spec’d this way, and I suspect few ever were, but even so, any piece of weight savings was important as the standard GT350 wasn’t the lightest starting platform.

Of course, this car isn’t perfect. It’s built, well, like a Mustang. The plastics aren’t that nice, and some examples have exhibited engine problems. However, I didn’t let any of this take away from the experience of driving the car. It’s right up there with the very best driver’s cars I’ve ever experienced, and even though some of these engines had issues, this V8 goes down as one of the best of all time.

We should all feel lucky to live through this period of history with the automobile. Yes, for car enthusiasts – like us – we will lose the gasoline-powered engines that we love in favor of electric motors. Still, manufacturers are selecting exciting ways to celebrate and send off the gasoline engine, and this era will be viewed as noteworthy. We should enjoy it while it lasts, and that’s what this car is all about. It’s a love letter to the naturally aspirated V8 and the thrill of driving, which is why the GT350R is so great, pure, and, yes, deservedly special.

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