Great things don’t always last forever. In fact, some of them go out in their prime—Chris Farley, Jolt Cola, Barry Sanders’s NFL career. Much to our dismay, one of the greatest pony cars since the invention of the internal combustion engine now joins that list. As if 2020 hasn’t been a big enough bust, we must now find ways to cope with the loss of the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 and its track-rat brethren, the GT350R.
When the GT350 arrived in 2016, it was an instant hit. A 5.2-liter V-8 with a flat-plane crank pumped out 526 horsepower and was complemented by a six-speed manual transmission and a lively chassis. It quickly dispatched a 2016 Corvette Z51 in a comparison test, where reviews editor Tony Quiroga stated, “If Porsche’s GT team built a Mustang, it would be the GT350.” Shortly after, the GT350 would win back-to-back 10Best awards, spend 40,000 miles under our care, and eventually beat out a Toyota Supra, Porsche 718, and BMW M2 Competition in another comparison test.
Quiroga was on to something. As the GT350 and R aged, Ford turned the tuning knobs to improve its thoroughbred. More recently, we stacked a 2020 Corvette Z51 up against a Porsche 718 GT4, but perhaps the Chevrolet wasn’t the right fit. The 2020 GT350R and Porsche’s to-die-for hatch might have been more thematically aligned. Both track specialists are two-seaters, ride on gummy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber, have amazing do-it-yourself gearboxes, and feature two of the most special engines available on the market today. But it’s not just the hardware that defines these sweethearts, it’s the experience they deliver.
The GT350 has always had fantastic steering, but it’s been plagued by the tendency to tramline, faithfully following ruts in the road. For 2020, the GT350R receives a revised steering knuckle from the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 that increases the caster to improve steering precision and straight-line stability. Even with the adjustable camber plates kicked all the way in, the front wheels’ eagerness to follow every crack in the road is largely removed. Around the skidpad, the Mustang clung to the tarmac with 1.11 g of force. That’s better than both GT4s we’ve tested. On the streets, the revised steering rack speaks loud and clear through the fuzzy steering wheel, communicating what the chassis wants. And what it wants, always, is more action. The GT350R changes direction like the aforementioned Sanders in his prime. It’ll destroy corners and highway ramps and make whoever’s riding shotgun question your sanity.
For 2020, Ford swapped out the previous crossed-drilled brake rotors for non-drilled discs because the latter are more durable and less expensive. The pedal feel remains firm and progressive, and during repeated panic stops the brakes shrug off the abuse, bringing the GT350R from 70 mph to a standstill in 146 feet. Yes, that’s better than the GT4. It’s a different story standing on the center pedal at 100 mph. While fade wasn’t an issue, the Mustang’s 3717 pounds certainly didn’t help its cause. At 301 feet, its 100-to-zero-mph figure was 20 feet beyond the lighter GT4 with the optional carbon-ceramic brakes, and eight feet farther than the 718 with standard iron rotors.
And then there’s Voodoo, the naturally aspirated, snarling, high-revving V-8. With two resonators removed from the exhaust to help shave some weight, cold starts will rattle cinder-block garage foundations apart. The deafening swing of the tach on its way to 8250 rpm peaks at 96 decibels in the cockpit, and the ensuing snaps and crackles during deceleration are prominent enough to raise Henry Ford himself from the grave. The six-speed is robust, and gear changes are mechanically heavy as the blast to 60 mph occurs in 3.8 seconds, bisecting the times we’ve recorded in the GT4s. The GT350R roars through the quarter-mile in 12.0 seconds at 120 mph, again cleaving the performance of the Porsches. But the Voodoo is more than just a straight-line performer. It begs to be rung out at every opportunity, such that bystanders will beg you to stop.
If the GT350R is so great (and it is), why is it joining the Mustang Ghia and 7-Up Edition on the list of Mustangs past? Maybe because the fire-breathing 760-horsepower GT500 starts for $535 less than the GT350R’s $74,630 base price, which is $5100 more than the previous year. Or perhaps the bean counters in the warranty department could no longer justify the replacement cost of the Voodoo long block, which consumes 5W-50 like John Daly does Diet Coke. Ford says the death of the GT350 makes room for the forthcoming Mach 1 Mustang, but the Blue Oval set itself what might be an impossible benchmark with the GT350 and R. We’ve already stamped the GT4 as the best car of 2020, which it certainly is. But the final version of the GT350R isn’t far off, delivering all the same emotions and sensations at a much cheaper price point. It will depart as one of the greatest pony cars ever conceived, one that proved that hyperbolic horsepower isn’t everything. Fly high, Shelby GT350R. We’ll see you on the other side.
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