If you’re a motorhead, do yourself a favour and read this 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R Review. Yep, it’s still magical
PONTIAC, Michigan—Rain is threatening to douse the M1 Concours as we prepare to put down hot laps in the updated 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R, its 527-horse, 5.2-litre V-8 wailing and 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s squealing around the 10-turn, 1.5-mile (2.4 km) circuit as we do. We’re not expecting to be able to really wring out Ford’s high-strung Mustang on a track where the longest straight is a scant 2,000 feet (600 Meter), doubly so if things start to get wet. I’ve driven here just enough to know I’d rather be hustling, say, the new Toyota Supra around the tight, technical M1 than a 3,700-pound (1678 kg) pony car with a long hood.
But Ford officials on hand insist the Shelby GT350R is well-suited for M1. I’ll concede that modern Mustangs are no longer the straight-line speed specialists of my youth, although the GT350R’s driver-adjusted dynamic control includes a drag-strip setting in addition to its Normal, Comfort, Sport, and Track modes. Its modern MagneRide magnetorheological-damper setup, Brembo brakes that could cleanly stop a freight train, and a relatively svelte curb weight raise hopes this car actually will be fun, not hard work, around this country-club track.
Oh, and we can’t forget about the GT350R’s exquisite Tremec six-speed manual, an absolute delight with its light, progressive clutch take-up; smooth, positive shift feel; and short throws. Any better and it would be in a Mazda MX-5 Miata or Honda Civic Type R.
Before the track goes hot, we’re offered a chance to take one of the Shelby GT350Rs out on some local roads. A few miles away, the neighbourhoods get tony and the roads start to get as interesting as anything in Metro Detroit, which means, not very. But we run into some decent turns and sweepers, and also some traffic—this being the morning rush hour. The car proves docile and comfortable on the mostly smooth roads, and there’s even some suspension compliance (thanks, MagneRide) over the crustier surfaces. The lack of bolster adjustment for the tight Recaro front seats is unfortunate, and the backside-end of the lower cushion is too angled, making you feel a bit knees up and sunk in the seat for road work.
Back at the track, we get the download on the updated GT350R from Ford’s marketing team—its tweaks come a model year after Ford Performance updated its GT350 sibling—and hear a version of a sports-car shibboleth I swear I’ve heard from every other automaker that believes it has built a car that’s as good at the track as it is on the road: The Shelby GT350R flatters a novice and delights an expert. We’ll see, though for now, the best comparison I can conjure for the GT350R is that it feels a bit like the original Acura NSX, a car as easy to drive as a base Civic, but one that will reward you mightily when you want to really get after it.
Interestingly, the 2020 Shelby GT350R stickers for $535 more than the upcoming 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, thanks in large part to the R’s standard 19-inch carbon-fibre wheels, which reduce unsprung weight. The wheels alone shave off 65 pounds (30 Kgs), and the rear-seat delete helps lighten the GT350R’s curb weight by a total of about 100 pounds (45 Kg) over the non-R GT350, Ford says. No rear seat means the engineers can tune the car’s suspension without having to account for the gross vehicle weight standards for four passengers. In addition, its smaller outer-diameter tires make the car feel as though it’s accelerating quicker out of the hole according to Ford Performance, for example, from the second-gear turn that leads into that 2,000-foot (600 Meter) back straight at M1.
The GT350R also has a new front suspension knuckle for better on-center feel (there’s a bit of natural tramlining on public streets, courtesy of the Cup 2 gumballs), its steering gear has been retuned, the solid-rotor brakes are designed for better pad and rotor life, and the anti-lock brake control has been revised to kick in a bit later and aid rotation.
Its telltale exhaust note is brappier, especially when laying into the throttle in the middle of the rev range. During the road drive, this came off as more sound than fury. On the track—such as when the car comes out of that second-gear carousel onto the straight—there’s none of the kick-you-in-the-pants acceleration you might expect from its 527 hp V-8 and resulting flat-plane whine. The good news is that the 2020 Shelby GT350R doesn’t feel like a car that’s too big and powerful for the M1 track.
In Sport mode, the GT350R feels pretty neutral, with a tad bit of compliance as the car dices through M1’s tight second-gear esses. Switch to Track and the stability-control symbol lights up on the dash, though the nannies never really leave the room. Back to that second-gear carousel. Since it leads onto the back straight, punching the throttle pedal to the floor is prudent, though not entirely satisfying. The tail slides out to the left at the end of the right-hander, and then the nannies quickly catch it. Slip it around some of the other tight corners and it seems obvious the car—left to its own uncontrolled devices—would quickly snap into oversteer rather than do so gradually and predictably like a Miata or Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ.
The other big difference is that on that same section the Miata or BRZ would accelerate just quickly enough to run up to the redline in third gear before setting up for the right-hand sweeper. The Shelby GT350R, by contrast, powers up through second, third, and into fourth, its Formula 1 car-like head-up rev-counter display racing up fairly close to the 8,250-rpm redline in fourth just as the car gets into the braking zone. With more laps or a more experienced driver, the massive rotors and Brembo binders would allow for a good deal of late-braking into that next turn.
The GT350R also has a steering wheel-mounted control that allows for three levels of steering weight, though I didn’t get a chance to toggle through them to any degree. Suffice it to say though the steering still feels very nicely tuned, minimizing the amount of sawing I had to do with the wheel and generally adding to my confidence
The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R still isn’t the first car I’d choose to lap the M1 Concours or even the second, but I’d jump at the chance to do it again. Ford Performance says the much-awaited GT500 is designed to be more of a supercar, with its 760 horsepower and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and so it almost certainly isn’t for this track, or for drivers like me. I’m even too much of a purist to truly call the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R a sports car, though I’m confident that it’s the best-balanced Mustang on the road today. Considering that it doesn’t have a rear seat, perhaps I’ll have to think about expanding my definition.
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