What is it?
The new, 526bhp Shelby GT350R Mustang - and Ford isn't shy about what it has been benchmarked against during development. The Porsche 911 GT3 may undercut the big American coupé by a substantial 251kg, but the company with the blue oval badge claims the GT350R is faster than the rear-engined German around a circuit.
Clearly Ford isn’t messing around with its track-focused Mustang. And with the iconic American coupé finally on offer in the UK with right-hand drive, us Brits should be paying closer attention to its efforts than normal.
Part of the GT350R’s impressive pace is no doubt down to lightweight carbonfibre wheels and steamroller-wide Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. The 394mm Brembo brakes and magnetorheological adaptive dampers surely help, too.
But the real story here is the engine. Germany may be the focus for lap times but the influence under the bonnet is Italian. The new 5.2-litre V8 carries a sky-high 8250rpm redline courtesy of Ferrari’s favourite trick: a flat-plane crankshaft. In addition to changing the aural characteristics, a power bump comes along due to superior breathing.
Ford fiddled with the typical flat-plane crankpin set-up and fitted unequal-length 4-3-1 exhaust manifolds versus the usual equal-length 4-1 configuration. These changes help the Shelby sound more like a Ford V8 after too many shots of espresso, instead of a high-pitched southern European.
What's it like?
Thumb the bright-red starter button and the GT350R awakens into a flurry of noise and vibration loud enough to make the Jaguar F-Type R sound restrained. Did you really expect the typical American Mustang buyer to give up the full testosterone-enhancing baritone song?
It’s the quivers from that flat-plane crank, combined with the Honda VTEC-like redline, that are new to the Yankee playbook. Ignore the tachometer and you’re likely to shift the six-speed manual gearbox by 6000rpm, still thinking the Shelby was quite impressive.
But it’s that last quarter of the rev range where the magic really happens. The big naturally aspirated V8 comes alive, developing massive power and sending almost disturbing pulsations through the steering wheel and shifter. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Shelby may have the pace of a 911 GT3 on track but the driving experience is the polar opposite. The Porsche rewards its driver with its buttery tactile feedback and perfect chassis composure, where the Shelby begs for abuse and aggressive inputs.
Think of the GT350R as a well-honed sledgehammer. The electric power steering isn’t overly communicative but it’s accurate and gets the job done. Pedal placement also isn’t fabulous, making heel-and-toe downshifts tricky, you feel that quarter-tonne kerb weight penalty versus the 911 GT3 and you’re always aware of the sizeable exterior dimensions.
But drive through those issues and the Shelby comes alive. It’s an absolute animal to drive quickly but it’s not remotely intimidating. Select Track mode on the 20-button-busy steering wheel and the helm weights up, the throttle becomes more alert and the exhaust opens up even further. Fully disable the stability control system and the rewards - or mistakes - are yours to savour. You can lean extremely hard on the GT350R and it never complains.
Many so-called performance cars fall flat on their face when properly pushed on a circuit. Not so with the Shelby. You feel like a bit of a hack behind the wheel, knowing you should be smoother but also fully aware that the Shelby loves the mistreatment as it lays down serious track pace.
The Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential helps traction and is wonderfully consistent. When the track-focused Michelins eventually do get a bit hot during an extended run, dialing back your pace for a lap or so allows the rubber to come back into its own. Impressive.
But the Shelby isn’t better than the Porsche around the track; it’s just different. And that’s where we get into the negatives. Certain sacrifices must be made given that the Shelby GT350R undercuts the 911 GT3 on price by some 50% in the US. Fit and finish both inside and out aren't exactly impressive on the Ford, and the plastics are nowhere near Porsche's standards.
There is also the breadth of capability of the Porsche to remember. Purists may complain about the standard PDK dual-clutch automatic gearbox fitted to the latest GT3 but they can’t argue that the Porsche is nearly as capable on the road as it is on the track. Again, it’s an opposite experience with the GT350R.
The ultra-wide tyres hunt and grab for each and every road imperfection, and while the ride wasn’t too bad on smooth Nevada roads in the damper’s softest setting, the extensive exhaust and road noise will always be part of the experience whether you like it or not.
Should I buy one?
The Shelby GT350R isn’t officially coming to the UK - at least, not yet. Early Mustang sales on our side of the pond are impressive and Ford says it may eventually offer the limited-production Shelby in Europe, but the cost of building right-hand-drive versions wouldn’t be cheap.
The Shelby GT350R also won’t win any awards with the Green Party; its fuel consumption is worse than a Lamborghini Huracán's. And to be honest, the track-focused GT350R simply isn’t a good fit for UK roads.
But that’s not the end of the Shelby story. There is another version to think about, and 'Stang devotees should start writing letters about it to Ford UK now. For roughly 20% less money than the GT350R, Ford offers Americans the standard GT350.
The carbonfibre wheels are replaced by conventional alloys and narrower, more road-friendly rubber, the rear seats return, the aero package is less aggressive and the suspension is tweaked for the street.
A brief drive revealed the 40kg-heavier GT350 is still wonderful around a circuit while being far more usable and comfortable in everyday driving. And the GT350 still has that same glorious flat-plane crank V8 putting up two fingers to the growing popularity of rather boring turbocharged engines. God bless America.
Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang
Location USA; On sale na; Price £58,000 (est); Engine V8, 5163cc, petrol; Power 526bhp at 7500rpm; Torque 429lb ft at 4750rpm; O-62mph 4.0sec (est); Top Speed 175mph (est); Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb Weight 1680kg; Economy 22.0mpg (combined, est); CO2 and tax band 300g/km, 37% (est)