Forget the 1960s: Today is a great time to be a horsepower fan. OK, don’t completely forget the ’60s — the Big Three clearly haven’t; in fact, they’re partying like it’s still 1969. The Mustang is selling like crazy, the new Camaro is giving it a run for its money, and the Dodge Challenger is the biggest bruiser on the market, with an available 707-horsepower V8 to boot. Hell, Ford is even running GTs at Le Mans this year!
So as far as American muscle is concerned, we’re living in a late-’60s version of the 21st century — one that thankfully doesn’t include HAL 9000, the wrath of Khan, or a trip to that awful planet of the apes. Instead, we’ve got blue-collar iron that approaches supercar territory, and it manages to do it without sending you to the poor house. Chevy’s recent Camaro Z/28 showed the world that Detroit could build a muscle car that could hang tough on the track, but it disappeared after 2015, opening up a vacuum for Ford’s new Shelby GT350 to pick up right where its rival left off.
Of course, this isn’t the first modern-day Shelby. Ford officially revived the name in 2005, and the 2013-’14 GT500 was a drag-strip special in classic mid-century tradition: 662 horsepower, 631 pound-feet of torque, 200-plus miles per hour, and God help you in the corners. But for 2015, the Mustang was all-new, and it was lighter, leaner, and — finally, after 50 years — had a fully-independent suspension. It’s on these good bones that Ford Performance built its range-topping Shelby, and to say that it’s impressive simply doesn’t do it justice.
The GT350 is built around the 5.2-liter “Voodoo” V8, which has a flat-plane crank design that’s more common in race-bred Ferraris than American muscle cars. Ford dubbed it the Voodoo because of its strange properties and scary exhaust note — especially if you hear it coming up behind you. That comes from its incredible 8,250 RPM redline, which gives the car an otherworldly howl as you run through the gears. On top of its incredible ability to rev, the mill is good for 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful naturally-aspirated engine on the planet.
But it doesn’t end there. Ford Performance’s engineering team went over everything in the Mustang and refocused it to make it lighter for the GT350. The sheet metal from the A-pillar forward is unique to the Shelby. The hood and front bumper bar is aluminum to save weight (as are many of the upgraded suspension components), transmission, oil, and differential coolers are added to keep everything running smoothly, and its Brembo brakes are massive, with cross-drilled two-piece iron rotors that feature a finned aluminum hat, to keep your wheel hubs cool and to combat brake fade.
Inside, everything that shouldn’t be there is gone, replaced by Recaro racing seats and a Tremec six-speed manual. The Track-Pack (an option on ’15 and ’16 models) is now standard on the car, and if it’s still too civilized for you, there’s always the GT350R, a no compromise factory-built racer. The R has everything the GT350 does — well, less actually, since it lacks niceties like a rear seat, radio, air conditioning, sound insulation, or carpeting in the trunk. Instead, it has carbon fiber wheels — the first ever built by a mass-market automaker — which save over 60 pounds of unsprung weight, more aggressive aero, and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, built with track use in mind.
The Shelby twins are no ordinary Mustangs, and Ford treats them accordingly. Despite the cars being a relative bargain — the GT350 starts at $47,795, and the R at $61,295 — the Blue Oval treats them like the supercars they are. It built just 137 of them for 2015 (100 350s, and 37 Rs). It will build less than 5,000 GT350s and fewer than 500 Rs for ’16. And we got to drive one at Pocono International Raceway.
While the idea of owning the most exotic and blindingly fast Mustangs may seem intoxicating to some, if you aren’t going to track the thing, don’t bother buying one. Sliding behind the wheel clad in a helmet and HANS device at Pocono, it’s clear that you’re engaging the car in its natural habitat. Most Ferraris and Lamborghinis have become civilized to the point where they’re comfortable to sit in traffic, but we have a strong feeling the GT350 wouldn’t be as happy there. Ford’s asceticism is obvious the minute you slide into the firm, supportive Recaro throne. The nicely appointed aluminum accents and big infotainment screen you get in a standard V8 Mustang are replaced by acres of light-weight black plastic and a rental-spec radio (an option on our test car). The dark interior is dominated by two things: the big red start button and the red shifter. Press the button, hear the Voodoo roar to life, put it in gear, and off you go.
Your standard V8 Mustang may handle like a dream compared to a pre-2014 model, but the GT350 blows the standard car away. It feels like a race car because it is one — it hunkers down at speed, sticking to the track, its MagneRide suspension adjusting in real time and keeping the car arrow-straight in the corners. The brakes feel like they could stop a 747, and the gearbox is heavy and precise, making shifts feel like an event. We hit 110 in the straightaway (in third gear), which was the limit for us interloping journalists, and after a blur of three laps in the driver’s seat, we switched with a driver from Ford Performance Racing School in Toole, Utah, and rode along for a few hot laps.
If we were feeling good about our first time on the track, our pro put us back in our place quickly. You could smell hot rubber after the first corner, and the car sounded much happier wailing at redline in the hands of a professional than it did with us (revving a car to 8,250 RPM feels very strange at first, it goes against every driving instinct you have). After an even quicker few laps, it was all over, leaving us with one hell of an adrenaline rush, and giving us a lot to ponder about the GT350.
Until Chevy drops the ’17 Camaro ZL1, the GT350 is in a class by itself. And even after Chevy retaliates, we’re not so sure it can be topped that easily. Because the Shelby — in a tradition that dates back to the 1960s — is one hell of a car. It’s special not just because it’s brutally fast, tears through corners, and is powered by one of the most exotic engines ever to come out of Detroit, but because it’s a purpose built car that doesn’t compromise. Any creature comfort is viewed as suspect, and if you really want them in your Shelby, you’re going to have to pay for them. In an era when virtually every new car feels civilized, the GT350 doesn’t, and we love it for that.