The Ford Mustang was the original pony car back when it debuted in 1964. Designed to carry four passengers in a sporty, comfortable car that was just as stylish as it was fast. Amazingly, it’s survived the test of time, remaining one of the longest continuously produced models of any automaker in the world.
While sales have always been strong in the US, Ford made the decision to make the Mustang a global vehicle, requiring them to step up their game significantly with the 6th generation model in order to take on the best sport coupes from Europe and Japan.
In order to shine on the world stage, Ford took a clean sheet design approach to the 2015 Mustang and fitted things like independent rear suspension, a dramatically improved interior, and new engine options – including an optional turbocharged 4-cylinder for the first time since 1986 – to make this the best Mustang yet.
Of course, why stop there? As soon as the new Mustang debuted, spy photographers started seeing a more aggressive, camouflage-clad Mustang ripping around race tracks such as the Nurburgring with some of Ford’s test engineers behind the wheel. It wasn’t long before Ford surprised everyone with the debut of the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, two of the most hardcore Mustangs ever. With an all-new 5.2-liter “Voodoo” V8 that featured flat-plane crank to give it a distinct sound and high-revving power band.
Putting this engine into the Mustang has the same effect as giving crack cocaine to a bobcat. It completely transforms the Mustang from something that is already powerful – but generally pretty docile – into a machine that will scare and excite you, and might try to tear your face off if you look at it the wrong way.
It elevates the Mustang’s performance in a huge way by adding an additional 91 horsepower to an already potent engine while making you work a little harder to access the power band by placing peak power well past where the regularly Mustang’s “Coyote” V8 would normally run out of steam.
Behind the wheel, the new Shelby GT350 feels surprisingly different from a regular Mustang. Not only does the new engine completely transform the character of the car but Ford has taken strides to differentiate the interior as well.
A thick, alcantara-lined steering wheel with a sinister-looking Shelby snake badge in the center replaces the leather-rimmed wheel of the standard Mustang. Form-fitting Recaro buckets are now standard, holding you tightly in their loving, suede-trimmed embrace. A slicker-shifting Tremec gearbox replaces the standard unit while maintaining 6 speeds, but the Shelby gets revised gear ratios to optimize acceleration on the racetrack. It’s worth noting that initially the shift pattern feels overly tight and notchy, but after the driveline has had time to get up to temperature, everything gets a little smoother and man begins to meld with machine.
In general, the interior is somewhat spartan, especially without the available 8-inch SYNC 3 touchscreen system. Gone are the machine-turned aluminum accents in the regular Mustang that give it a funky throwback look. Perhaps overstating the no-nonsense message the GT350 conveys, the beautiful brightwork from the base car has been replaced with hard, black plastic.
Meanwhile, the jet fighter-inspired toggle switched found in the standard Mustang have similarly been replaced with boring black plastic buttons. It could be argued that the extra suede on the seats and steering wheel are special enough to carry the rest of the interior but we did wonder why the cool metallic trim needed to be left out in this case.
Interior trim gripes aside, all is forgotten when you depress the bright red “Start” button just ahead of the shifter. The engine barks to life and quickly settles into a menacing idle.
Toggling through the GT350’s Track Apps menus in the instrument cluster, it’s worth activating the sport exhaust which has an immediate effect of lowering the pitch of the exhaust a few octaves and making the hair on your neck stand up just a little straighter.
While you’re fiddling with the wheel, you might as well put the steering and suspension into their “Sport” modes, and set the stability control to “Track” to allow the brilliant chassis tuning to speak for itself.
For those who want to be hooligans, there are also buttons for a line lock, which will automatically hold the front wheels in place while you plant the throttle and vaporize your rear tires. Ford has also wisely integrated a launch control button into the dash, although we didn’t get a chance to try it before we hit the track.
Road America, one of the midwest’s most notable and historic race tracks, played home to our race car driver dreams in the Shelby GT350 for a beautiful morning this past May. From Turn 1 of the 4-mile circuit, it became very clear just how special this car is.
The steering wheel may as well be a scalpel given the sharpness with which the GT350 turns in. It took a few turns to calibrate our driving to just how insanely sharp the steering is and while we wouldn’t mind just a bit more road feel transmitted through our mitts, the way with which the Mustang grips the pavement is awe-inspiring.
Coming out of Turn 3, the car rockets away from the apex, staying perfectly composed with just a slight wiggle from the rear end as the outside wheels nudge the rumble strips at corner exit.
Flying into Turn 5 at well into the triple digits creates the perfect opportunity to punish the massive 6-piston Brembo front brakes and their 15.5″ rotors. To save unsprung mass, Ford engineers wisely specced the GT350 with massive iron rotors that use aluminum hats where the rotors bolt to the hub, which after a few hard laps on the track make an eerie pinging sound as the two metals cool at different rates.
Coming up to Turn 6, the GT350 stays planted around the tricky off-camber corner, maintaining a level of composure we weren’t expecting, the aggressive front and rear splitters and rear lip spoiler providing just enough downforce to keep us out of trouble.
Barreling down into Turn 7, the Shelby maintains its speed with just a brief lift off the throttle to settle the front end as it glides through the corner with ease. Turn 8 tests the brakes again but allows you to get on the power early before ducking under the Johnsonville Bridge and entering the high-speed Carousel.
The tight steering rack made picking, and keeping, a line through the Carousel a little trickier than expected but the car hunkers down nicely and allows you to carry an eye-watering amount of speed.
Blasting down the back straight into Turn 12 – better known as Canada Corner – the GT350’s raucous exhaust echoes off the concrete barriers and surrounding hills lining this narrow portion of the track. Just a few more corners lay ahead to test the new ‘Stang’s chops before we pull into the pits to cool down.
Stepping out of the car, it’s hard not to look back and stare. The shape is menacing with a long, low hood, and angry headlights that will scare animals and young children alike. The deep front splitter is suspended mere inches above the blacktop, ready to direct massive quantities of air into the radiator and various other coolers for the oil, transmission, and differential.
There’s a large gash in hood as well to extract hot air out of the engine bay and over the roof of the car. Similarly, the slashes just behind the front wheels vent high-pressure air from the wheel wells down the flanks of the GT350. A small lip spoiler – dwarfed by the much larger wing found on the GT350R – provides a bit of contrast and likely negates some high-speed lift.
The blacked out panel between the tail lights helps set the GT350 apart from lesser pony cars while the ferocious quad exhaust will make you weep with joy while your ears bleed.
All told, Ford’s new Shelby GT350 is a comprehensive package combining brute force with a surprising amount of finesse. It’ll handily wipe the floors with just about anything in its segment, even those costing far more money. Simply told, this isn’t just the best Mustang all time, it’s one of the best cars Ford has ever built.