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2016 Ford Shelby GT350 & GT350R Mustang: First Drive Review

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author photo by Jason Fogelson September 2015

Shelby Mustangs start with the same bones as a stock pony car and then upgrade components to go faster, stop better, corner sharper and look cooler inside and out. Think of a 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang as the ultimate Mustang and the GT350R as a true, track-oriented sports car.

The name Shelby carries a lot of weight in the automotive world. The man behind the name, Carroll Shelby, was a legendary racer, car builder and entrepreneur. Shelby and Ford have been intertwined since the 1950s, when Shelby convinced U.K. maker AC Cars to shoehorn a Ford V8 engine into a racing chassis. The result was the Ford/Shelby Cobra, one of the greatest cars of all time. Ford must have been impressed, because they roped Shelby into converting the Mustang into the first Shelby Mustang GT350 in 1965. A racing version, the Shelby GT350R, soon followed, and a new Shelby Mustang came out every year until 1970. After a 36-year gap, Shelby and Ford reunited in 2006, leaving us with a new generation of Shelby Mustangs to enjoy.

Mustang, Only More So

Throughout its history, the Shelby Mustang has only been as good as its underlying stock version permitted. The good news for the 2016 Shelby is that the 2016 Mustang (all-new in 2015) is the best Mustang yet. The big innovation, which makes an enormous difference in handling, is independent rear suspension. For the most part, Mustang had featured a solid rear axle throughout its history, except for a few Cobra models. When executed properly, independent rear suspension can deliver superior handling and a better ride than a solid rear axle, and the new Mustang did it properly. As good as the stock Mustang can be, the engineers at Ford didn't leave much untouched in upgrading it to a Shelby.

Engine Like an Exotic

Let's start under the hood: a 5.2-liter naturally aspirated (nonturbo, not supercharged) V8 with a flat-plane crankshaft. If that sounds exotic and esoteric to you, don't worry -- it should. Many engine makers are devoted to turbocharging and/or supercharging as a way to get more power out of their engines without increasing the size of the cylinders. Ford wanted the tunability, smoothness and predictability of a naturally aspirated engine, so they concentrated on getting the most out of that configuration. The flat-plane crank (as opposed to the more common crossplane crank) was part of the total solution.

The engineering details could (and probably will) fill a book. The flat-plane crank gives a V8 the unique sound a trained ear will recognize as sharing notes with Ferrari and Lotus engines that use the same technology. Ford is rightfully proud of the engine sound and carefully routes it all the way to the exhaust without resonators. The exhaust pipes on the Mustang sing out with glorious engine sounds, loud enough to be heard in the cabin but still within the legal limits. If you're looking for a car to serve as a mobile office, the Shelby is not for you.

Go Fast, Then Slow Down

If you want to go fast, though, the Shelby welcomes the challenge. The street-oriented GT350 and track monster GT350R each produce 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque using premium fuel. Ford's not releasing acceleration numbers, but that kind of power in a vehicle weighing 3,760 pounds (GT350)/3,655 pounds (GT350R) should lead to 5-second dashes to 60 miles per hour -- at least. The power comes on in a smooth rush, progressing linearly as the engine roars through its broad torque curve. A new TREMEC 6-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, with a pleasantly light clutch and precise shifting performance.

When it comes time to stop, the Shelby uses big Brembo brake calipers with six pistons in the front and four in the rear, with big vented rotors on both ends. In hard driving on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I didn't notice any brake fade or unpredictability. These things just work, slowing the Shelby in a hurry before entering the next corner. The upgraded suspension, with stabilizer bars front and rear, keeps the Shelby flat in the curves while eating up bumpy pavement without drama.

Track-Day Performer

The difference between the GT350 (starting at $47,795) and the GT350R (starting at $61,295) is the difference between a daily driver and a dedicated track vehicle. The GT350R loses such amenities as a second-row seat (tiny and tight in the GT350), some weighty sound insulation and luxury amenities, including power seats and a stereo system. It gets special carbon-fiber 19-inch wheels and comes standard with a optional track package on the GT350. Functionally, the GT350R is much sportier, more track-worthy and downright nastier than the GT350.

Muscle-Car Wars

Comparisons are inevitable. The Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 is an obvious target, as is the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. Both Shelby variants get hit with a $1,300 Gas Guzzler tax, turning in fuel economy estimates of 14 miles per gallon in the city, 21 mpg on the highway and 16 mpg combined at best.

We may be seeing the last gasps of the new American muscle-car wars, and it's a heated battle. The old days of Ford/Chevy/Dodge loyalists debating the merits of their respective favorites are back again. The 2016 Ford Shelby GT350/GT350R Mustang gives Ford guys something to brag about.

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2016 Ford Shelby GT350 & GT350R Mustang: First Drive Review - Autotrader