- What’s Good: Fantastic handling, aggressive looks, glorious V8 power
- What’s Bad: Enlarged rear wing is functional, but cuts rear visibility, no power increase over 2018
Every time I drive a new Mustang – first it was the 2015 Shelby GT500, then the Boss 302; more recently, it was the ’19 Bullitt – they seem to always have something to show us. Often, the tweaks seem minimal, but are a little more than that; the Bullitt looks the business to be sure, but in Canada, tantalizing bits like standard magnetic dampers and uprated Brembo brakes up the ante. The latest Performance Package 2 for the standard Mustang, meanwhile, adds the extra loud exhaust from the Bullitt – both may seem like light adds to a spec sheet, but add a genuine layer to the experience. Mustang – muscle cars in general – are good at this, adding just enough to make the switch from, I dunno, 2016 to 2017 just that much more high on the je ne sais quoi.
Which brings us to this: the 2019 Shelby GT350. Even as I made my way to the launch event at the M1 Motor Speedway in Pontiac, and even knowing that Mustangs seem to always have the power to surprise (sorry, Kia), I kept my emotions guarded. After all; the grand poobah GT500 is just a few months away and that’s where all the focus must be, right?
Well, actually, yes and no; the Mustang team has been busy working on the next one, but according to Ford Performance Chief Engineer Carl Widmann, some lessons learned during the GT500’s development have made their way to that car’s little(r) sibling.
“What we wanted to do with 350,” he said “is take the learnings off 500 and really go after the key things we wanted fixed and our customers wanted fixed and improved. That revolves around making it faster on-track and more easy to drive, or more intuitive to drive so the person who drives it can drive like a pro.”
That means all 2019 GT350s get the GT350 R front grille which has less front-end lift, an optional ($1,000) rear spoiler from the GT500 and a new tire that’s the same size, but provides better braking and better lateral grip. The Magneride suspension, meanwhile, gets re-tuned front springs that are 10% stiffer at the front and 5% softer at the rear as well as a 10% larger diameter rear sway bar. The ABS has also been tuned for better balance on track, to help better keep the vehicle’s weight going in the direction the driver intends it. Widmann also maintains that while it’s a little easier to feel this on the track, it can also be felt through faster sweepers on your favorite country road.
To test that, we took the GT350 out to the streets of Pontiac before taking to the track.
Unfortunately, this part of Michigan is fairly flat so long sweepers like that are – well, we saw none, actually. What we could feel though, is just that much more grip on acceleration; it’s much tougher to get the rear end unsettled as you pull – perhaps a little too aggressively – away from a stoplight or what have you. The main difference between the cars Ford provided for road use and those for the track, meanwhile, was the existence of standard seats in the road car as opposed to the optional ($850) Recaro race buckets in the track cars. As we’d soon find out on the track, the Recaros are serious business but if comfort is what you’re after, I think I’d go without them. The stock seats are still plenty supportive, but just that much more comfortable as you also lose seat heated if you go with the Recaros. Then again; the Recaros are manual-adjust, and the weight savings that provides is a little more in-tune with what the GT350 is all about.
Looks-wise, meanwhile, that new spoiler is absolutely wild – it looks crazy in profile, it looks crazy when you look more closely at it and notice the inch-and-a-half lip it gets on the leading edge for better aero, and it looks crazy when you spot it through the rear view, where it covers up probably about a third of your rear window. New wheels are the icing on a pretty manic cake.
But enough about that. Road drive and accompanying photo shoot over, it was time to hit the track.
The Champion Motor Speedway at the M1 Concourse is a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) road course with a good mix of long multi-apex sweepers and a couple of beauty second-gear hairpins. It’s not a particularly long track so we were told that we’d never see much more than fourth gear. Thing is, fourth gear in this 529 hp flat-plane crank beauty is still good for about 120 mph, which is…well, it’s an assault on the senses for sure. Especially with the exhaust set to “loud”; even the crash helmet we were wearing – which does have sound deadening built in – couldn’t fully hide it, especially as I wrung it out to its 8,250 (!) redline – easy to do with the six-speed manual, your only choice.
The noise is cool to be sure, but the truly awesome revelation for me was just how absolutely, positively tractable the GT 350 is…or should I say “trackable”? There’s no way a car this big, this loud and this V8-powered should be able to handle itself like this. When I finished my first set of laps, I could hardly wait to get out there again. Then, what does one do when you finish the next set, and there’s a car available? Well, one goes out again, of course! And again, and again, and again until they basically had to haul me kicking and screaming off the tarmac. This is an addictive, rich, rewarding and all-encompassing experience that is just so fantastic to be able to undertake in a modern car.
Just when you feel like things are getting too fast, the brakes haul everything back down into quick order (with no fade, even after continuous lapping all afternoon), while the tires meter out grip just as you’d expect; even trying to get these babies un-stuck was pretty much a Sisyphean task that didn’t happen until I popped the clutch and engaged a lower gear more quickly than I should have. Which, by the way, is not something that happens very often because the transmission ratios themselves are well-spaced, so you’re rarely left wondering when to shift and when not to – such are the joys of a big-hearted, naturally-aspirated V8 powertrain. I am also proud to say that I did all of this without any form of automatic rev-matching not because I’d turned it off, but because it simply isn’t available here as it is in other Mustangs. Also unavailable for the GT350 is the digital gauge cluster seen on other models, which is too bad but not exactly a deal-breaker even if most modern racecars have digital gauge clusters.
Yeah, you’d be pretty silly to skip a GT 350 because of that. If you do, you will be missing out on one of the most sorted, extreme and just plain cool cars available at retail today. Once again, Ford has managed to squeeze just that much more out of the Mustang, just enough to turn it into a different car. I want one. Bad.