First laps: 2015 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang [Review]

First laps: 2015 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang [Review]

When rumors first started to circulate that the top-of-the-line variant of Ford’s all-new, “S550” Mustang would not feature a supercharged V8, it left quite a few performance enthusiasts scratching their heads. A track-focused car? OK, fine. But a less powerful engine? Was it a sign that the prophecies of doom for the horsepower junky were indeed coming to pass?

Let’s face it: The 2013-2014 Mustang GT500 is an imposing act to follow. 662 horsepower, 631 lb-ft of torque and a 200-mile-per-hour top speed to boot? Mercy.

The GT500 wasn’t known for being the quickest of its kind around a track, but Ford left a lot of capability on the table. It was held back by (relatively, mind you) narrow tires and the tall gearing necessary to hit the two-century mark on the speedometer. Adventurous owners could overcome these shortcomings with relatively minimal effort, and Ford made track-focused cooling options and snug Recaro seats available to those who wanted to test the limits, but the GT500 was first and foremost a numbers car–a tribute to the man who was largely responsible for the success of Ford’s performance efforts over the past five decades.

Heritage, not hype

To celebrate 50 years of the Mustang is to celebrate 50 years of making Mustangs go quicker, and the GT350 moniker embodies that effort in a way no other can. The nameplate dates back to 1965, just a half a model year after Mustang fever swept across America. The moderately breathed-on 289 V8 made just over 300 horsepower thanks to a custom intake manifold and headers. The “R” variant of this GT350 dominated SCCA B Production for several years.

Over the next few years, the GT350 would be endowed with a larger V8 (the 302) and suspension upgrades, but was overshadowed by the seven-liter GT500. The nameplate all but disappeared for decades, with hotted-up factory Mustangs simply going by variants of “Cobra” until less than a decade ago, when Ford and Shelby decided to revive the GTXXX model to capitalize on Boomer nostalgia.

Wild horses

While the outgoing GT500 had its share of faults, those limitations made it accessible. In many ways, the safest outcome of somebody trying to demonstrate the awesomeness of a supercharged, 662-horsepower V8 is a huge cloud of tire smoke. Grip makes you go; spinning is for show.

The trick is making sure you have the wheel pointed in the right direction when show transitions to go. Look no further than the endless YouTube supercuts of V8 owners plowing into oncoming traffic for proof that it’s all fun and games until your tires hook up.

Many viewed Ford’s previous aversion to wide tires and advanced, track-oriented suspensions as a tacit admission that the Mustang platform was simply not capable of underpinning a world-class performance car. Those who attended club racing events knew better, whether they wanted to admit it or not, but when it comes to selling cars off the showroom floor, perception can matter a great deal more than reality.

Derby contender

The GT350 is a serious performance car made by serious performance engineers for serious performance enthusiasts. Our tester was an R model, which is the heart attack to the base model’s hypertension. Like Chevy’s outgoing Camaro Z/28, the GT350R eschews comfort for the sake of performance. You get two seats, and, uh, gauges. If you want any more than that, you’ll need to add in the Electronics Package.

You shouldn’t, though. The GT350R is the lightest V8-powered Mustang money can buy. At 3,655lbs, it’s nearly 100lbs lighter than the plain-Jane GT thanks to a rather intense diet made even more impressive by the fact that many of the GT350R’s suspension and driveline components are significantly beefier than the GT’s.

The R has no air conditioning, no entertainment system, no rear seat, no trunk finishing and no exhaust resonators. What it does have is a 5.2-liter, 526-horsepower, high-revving, flat-plane V8 mated exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission. Power goes to the ground via the rear wheels (through a Torsen differential). Braking comes from massive six-piston fixed-caliper Brembos in the front and four-piston grabbers in the rear.

The suspension and chassis have been revised here and there as well. The most noteworthy addition here is the availability of Ford’s new MagneRide. It’s an option on the GT350 and standard on the R, and like the responsive magnetic suspensions available on other performance-oriented vehicles, it dynamically adjusts to suit road conditions and driving styles, allowing the R to thrive both on- and off-track. Also standard on the R are gloss black carbon fiber wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s–a significant contributor to weight reduction.

Out of the gate

Leftlane‘s time with the GT350R was brief, but enlightening. Ford invited journalists to join other interested parties at various stops along the GT350’s introductory track tour. We chose Lime Rock Park in northwest Connecticut due to its close proximity to our operations, and we arrived to find it arranged in its most complex, slowest configuration–ideal for both demonstrating the GT350’s technical prowess and protecting it against the ambitions of inexperienced attendees.

After a quick orientation and safety briefing, we were put behind the wheel for a quick succession of laps. Unfortunately, the session was not long enough to test out Ford’s claims regarding the GT350’s resistance to brake fade, but a couple of fast laps in the R demonstrated just how far Ford went to ensure the GT350R lives up to its namesake.

At the conclusion of the orientation lap, we were waved around the car in front of us and the leash came off. For the first fast lap, we carefully observed the suggested braking zones, getting a feel for the car’s transitional tendencies and carefully feeling for any signs that the chassis was upset with our inputs. We needn’t have worried.

In fact, what became most apparent was just how conservatively Ford had placed the brake markers at each of the major corners. Once we realized how much further we could go into each corner before calling on the stoppers, we got a lot more adventurous in the more technical sections, pushing the R until it finally pushed in return. Ford no longer has to make any apologies when it comes to shortchanging its cars in the grip department. Those days are gone.

Then there’s that engine. It doesn’t zip to redline like an old S2000 or rotary-powered Mazda. Not at all. It may be revvy, but it’s still a V8, and no notch on the tach is left out of the event. The deep, angry howl builds to an amazing cacophony that must be heard to be understood. It’s not Ferrari-high and it’s not small-block-Chevy low. It’s the sound of American performance distilled to its essence, and it’s intoxicating.

With only a few laps in the GT350R, it’s hard to pin down its objective performance. That will have to wait until we have the opportunity to do some open lapping with timing equipment. We also don’t have anything to say about how easy the R is to live with on real roads, since we never left the track property. That will also have to wait.

We can say this: The GT350 is the perfect blend of the Boss 302 and Shelby GT500 formulas. It delivers all the pomp and circumstance we’ve come to expect from a Cobra, with all the precision potential that was offered by the outgoing Boss. The engine is a flagship masterpiece, playing the numbers game as well as any fast Ford in recent memory. The chassis is wonderfully responsive and confidence-inspiring, rewarding the driver for extracting its potential rather than simply demanding it be done.

Leftlane’s bottom line

We’ll reserve final judgment until we have more time with the GT350, but our initial impressions are very good. Ford must be commended for thinking outside the box and delivering a final product that rewards enthusiasts without punishing their wallets.

Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang base price: $47,870; Destination: $825; Gas Guzzler Tax: $1,300

GT350R package: $13,500; Electronics package, $3,000

As-tested total price: $66,495

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