Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, the box office has become dominated by movies featuring superheroes. Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and the like have used various superpowers to make tons of cash for stale popcorn purveyors worldwide. Avengers: Endgame is raking it in as I type.
I won’t pretend to drop any movie references here – I’ve never really been into the genre. Nothing against the various costumed fantasy characters and those who love them, but my heroes typically wear Nomex. Jerry Titus, Dan Gurney, Ronnie Bucknum, and Parnelli Jones are some of the legendary drivers who drove heroic machines to glory.
The machine is important in this movie, too. Loud, brash, and most importantly fast, a noble steed for motorsports triumph is critical. Ford has drawn upon an incredible back catalog to refine the Mustang into this, the spectacular 2019 Shelby GT350. Built for track duties, but with enough refinement to make it livable on the street, the GT350 is the All-American Superhero. Captain Blue Oval, perhaps.
And the only spoiler alert I need here comes with a Gurney flap.
Disclosure: Ford invited journalists to Detroit to drive the GT350 at a racetrack. Ford provided a night in a hotel, food, and a Shelby-logo pullover shirt.
Subtle improvements over both the GT350 introduced in 2015 and the standard Mustang GT distinguish this new Shelby GT350. While the impressive 5.2-liter twin-cam V8 and six-speed Tremec manual transmission remain basically untouched, Ford focused on incremental handling improvements via suspension, tire, and aerodynamic tweaks.
The most noticeable change is the redesigned rear spoiler. Actually, Ford reps cheekily referred to the new decklid spoiler/wing hybrid as a “swing.” Fitted here with an optional Gurney flap adding a touch of extra downforce, the spoiler balances with tweaks to the grille opening to add downforce at track speeds.
That downforce is nothing without tires, of course, as the big cylinders of magic black goo are the only physical connection to tarmac firma, unless something has gone seriously wrong. Here, Ford Performance worked with technical partner Michelin to develop a Shelby GT350-specific version of the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tire. The tread pattern and rubber compounds have been optimized for the performance window of this ultimate track Mustang, with more stiffness from the sidewalls as well.
Note the “FP” stamp on the sidewall. This notes that this specific tire is meant for Ford Performance vehicles such as the Shelby GT350, rather than the standard Pilot Sport Cup 2 tire or other PSC2 models meant for OEMs like Porsche.
These tires aren’t cheap. See below screenshot from Tire Rack. A Michelin rep told me that these 180 treadwear, track-ready tires would likely last between 12,000 and 15,000 miles of street use. Wear would naturally accelerate with track use.
These rubber and aero changes require complementary changes to the suspension. Both the springs and the damping from the standard MagneRide shocks/struts have been recalibrated for the higher performance available.
If you, like myself, have a number higher than forty stamped on the tag of your Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans, you might be best served by selecting the optional power sport seats, rather than the near race-grade Recaro manual adjustable chairs on the standard GT350. I can’t say that I was uncomfortable in the Recaros while on track – and I certainly welcomed the additional support when hustling around the corners – but the tall, narrow bolsters on the race seats pinch my meaty thighs a bit too much for long-term road comfort. The black Shelby I drove down Woodward Avenue for off-track photos was fitted with the power seats, and they were a relief.
Driving the Shelby GT350 briefly on the street revealed a couple of things. The car is as easy to drive as a standard Mustang in most respects, with excellent visibility in all directions. It’s livable in day-to-day use, with no compromises to trunk space or rear seat accessibility. Clutch takeup and shift action is perfect – just heavy enough to remind you that plenty of power is beneath your left foot and right hand. The stiff suspension and track-focused tires, however, do reveal their true nature when encountering less-than-ideal pavement.
The tires track along with every groove in the road, pulling the suede-lined steering wheel left and right while trying to maintain a steady cruise. As Detroit had seen light rain all day, the pavement was slick, and I encountered a bit of wheelspin before stability and traction controls took over, shutting down power briefly. The ever-present potholes led to further unpleasant noises as the stiff sidewalls struggled to cope with sharp pavement creases.
The engine. Oh, my that engine. Unless you’ve been living under the weight of your complete collection of Car Craft magazines for the last half decade, you’ve certainly heard about the “magical” flat-plane crankshaft and the other unique features of the Shelby GT350’s Voodoo engine. That lighter-weight flat-plane crank allows this 315 cubic inch V8 to rev higher, with an unusual exhaust note compared to the somewhat unbalanced burble of the traditional Ford V8.
The flat-plane crank does inherently generate a bit of extra vibration for the engine assembly, which manifests itself as a mild quiver felt through the cabin at idle. The Shelby GT350 gently shivers like a wild animal preparing to pounce. Strangely, the vibration isn’t really noticeable through the shift lever.
The sound is glorious, especially when wound out at speeds well beyond what seems reasonable. I kept looking for the shift lights on the head-up display, expecting them well before they actually shone, as I hammered down the back straight. The GT350 just keeps on pulling hard to the 8,250 rpm redline. My rough math tells me that the Shelby is good for 111 mph in third gear and 145 mph in fourth.
At Detroit’s M1 Concourse track, meant strictly for track days and lined with garage condos, I only touched fourth gear a couple of times before becoming immediately aware of the combination of light rain, shallow grooves on the dry track-focused tires, and the possible inadequacy of my life insurance policy. As I sit safely at my desk, I have no doubts that the brash Ford could have easily handled more. I just don’t know that I was good enough to do it.
Honestly, I can’t tell you how the GT350 handles at the limit. The conditions inherent in this event – specifically, the limiting nature of this third-and-sometimes-fourth gear track – mean I couldn’t wring the metaphorical neck of this caged pony. Maybe that’s okay, however.
Maybe letting untrained journalists, best known for wreaking havoc on the English language, loose on a wide-open track in a car that is much, much faster than they are isn’t the best way to showcase a performance car. Best to let the writers feel like they’ve done something incredible as they barely touch triple digits and go back to their MacBooks both unscathed and excited.
To be clear, the Shelby GT350 is almost certainly faster than you are. It’s definitely faster than I am. But that’s what makes it heroic. Knowing that little bit of danger lurks beneath your right foot as you finger the starter makes every drive exhilarating. The staccato bark of the exhaust at idle, familiar yet slightly unusual, reminds you that you wield incredible power – and that you, like a superhero, must use that power wisely.
(As an aside, journalists were treated to track rides in a “continuation” model of the early GT350 as built by Original Venice Crew.)
[Images: © 2019 Chris Tonn, screenshot courtesy TireRack.com]