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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ford Shelby GT350 Proves Engineering Isn’t Everything: First Drive



The most capable, track-oriented, Ford Performance product ever. Ever That includes the previous Ford GT, the Cobra and everything else that the company has ever built. It’s definitely a tall order to fill, but that’s what Ford has been saying since the debut of the new Mustang Shelby GT350. Using a specially designed flat-plane crank V8 engine, carbon wheels, and a suspension system that rivals most Ferraris, Ford is using this car to call out the rest of the world’s performance cars.
For months, the company teased enthusiasts and journalists in every conceivable way. We saw snippets of the exhaust, clips of the car flogging a track, and reaction videos from the streets of London. It was one of the most well thought-out ad campaigns in recent history. But after months of waiting and pestering Ford to give us a go, we got the invitation. And it just so happened to be at one of the finest tracks in the country, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.


Rev Up My Heart
The first thing we need to talk about is this engine. It isn’t the sort of engine you expect to see in something that wears the Blue Oval. It’s still a throaty V8, of course, but it’s a much more refined noise that emanates from the multi-stage exhaust. It’s much more on par with a European V8 than the muscle cars we’ve come to know and love. It feels drastically different as well.

You’re sitting there, on the front straight at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, piloting what appears to be just a Ford Mustang. The interior of the car says Ford Mustang. The look of the car says Ford Mustang. But plant your foot firmly into the gas pedal and you realize this isn’t just another Mustang. Instead of shifting at somewhere near 5,500 rpm, the tachometer keeps climbing.

 Further and further it goes as you feel like you are going to blow it out the hood. But it keeps taking it. That’s the moment you realize this is no ordinary Mustang.


The power of the flat-plane crank V8 comes on smooth and strong. Whereas the normal Coyote can be a bit snappy if you prod the accelerator, the GT350’s power is just a tidal wave of consistency. And that’s exactly what Ford was aiming for. The company didn’t want the car to dance around like a lunatic baboon, but rather, like a ballet dancer performing Swan Lake.

What helped this surgeon’s scalpel of a car additionally execute this level of precision, is its new suspension geometry.


I’m A Leaf on the Wind

When you get a “normal” car out on a track, a few things become immediately apparent. One: most cars are definitely not built for track use. They don’t have enough power, or brakes to cope with the rigors of on-track performance. And two: they have the tendency to squat, roll, and dive whenever you’re on the gas, or going through a turn. Obviously, this slows the car down, which is not what you want.

The GT350 has none of this. As I crested over the front straight going into turn one, I was hitting triple-digit speeds. It’s a sharp left double apex—you have to really get on the brakes if you want to make it around and not end up in the sand trap. I took a deep bite with the brakes, and the car didn’t move an inch. Nothing, nada, zilch. There wasn’t even a hint of dive in the nose of the car. The GT350 just stayed flat, something a normal Mustang would never do.


Heading into a corner was the same thing. You expect healthy heapings of body roll from any Mustang, but it’s just not there. No matter how hard you push, the car stays completely flat and rigid. But even then, it isn’t as darty as you’d expect on a car that stays this flat.

The fabulous MagneRide suspension Ford fit the GT350 with sort of prevents that. The system constantly takes measurements and streams data into the cars ECU, which then tells the suspension how to behave. Frankly, it’s astounding that this is a Mustang. But all this doesn’t exactly add up to the perfect vehicle.


All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

Truly, this is one of the best performance products Ford has ever come up with. But in my honest opinion, it doesn’t offer the same experience as what Ford used to benchmark it, the Camaro Z/28. Both have very similar designs, and very similar programs.

Both started out as big, V8 muscle cars, and finished as more-refined track monsters. All things considered, those similarities should add up to parallel driving experiences. Problem is, they don’t.

The Camaro Z/28 was one of the most impressive cars I drove all last year, surpassing the Ferrari 458. It’s so analog and so direct, it really makes you feel special. It’s like Chevy went and built a racecar, leaving only the badge and body to remind you that it’s actually a Camaro. Whereas the Shelby GT350, on the other hand, still feels a lot like a normal Mustang—including the numbing electrically-assisted steering rack.

The GT350 is fast as all hell, it corners at breakneck speed, and stops on a dime. It’s impressive, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t provide as special a feel as the Z/28. Something is still missing from the amazing cocktail that is the GT350.


The Verdict

Ford should be proud of this car. The GT350 is astoundingly fast and looks brilliant. Up close and personal, it exudes a sinister character that perfectly fits the sum total of the GT350’s parts. But the “X” factor that I look for in these types of cars, something I like to call the “giggle factor,” just wasn’t there.

Throughout my brief run with the car, I felt I could push it hard and I wouldn’t end up in a tree or the catch fences around the track. However, through it all, I never really grinned menacingly like I did when I drove the Z/28. The GT350 is a phenomenal car, but it’s just not the muscle car track toy I’d buy.


Engine: 5.2L flat-plane crank V8
Horsepower: 526
0-60: 4.2 seconds
Price: $49,995-$65,620


Stays absolutely flat in corners
V8 revs all the way up to 8,000 rpm
Price point undercuts everything at this level of performance


Steering is numb
Feels like a modified Mustang
Ford might be trying too hard

Photo Credit: Jonathon Klein for BoldRide