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At Speed With The 2019 Mustang GT350: A Properly Track-Tuned Pony
By Bradley Iger, Courtesy FordNXT

I nervously shifted around in my seat, anxious to get the show on the road. The forecast called for thunderstorms throughout the day, but the sky had yet to unleash its fury on M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan.



While wet pavement is an annoyance out on the street, it can be downright sketchy on a road course, especially when youíre behind the wheel of a 500+ horsepower, rear wheel drive pony car on track-spec rubber. But aside from a brief bout of drizzle during our technical briefing, Mother Nature seemed to be listening to my internal pleas for dry tarmac.



Ford invited a group of journalists out to this private track facility in Pontiac, Michigan to get some seat time behind the wheel of the updated Shelby GT350. The changes are difficult to discern from a cursory glance at the new model, and they probably wonít cause a specifications sheet to spontaneously combust.



The engineers at Ford Performance instead took a surgical approach to their revisions, applying a number of subtle yet key changes to the Shelby that result in much more than the sum of their parts. But none of it would mean a damn thing if we had to hobble these things around on a soaking wet track. Drive now, talk later, I thought to myself.



By some small miracle the storm held off just long enough for me to get my fill of M1ís 1.5-mile road course Ė a tight, technical track that emphasizes agility over horsepower. Itís here where the GT350ís chassis can really shine. But before I get into that, letís talk about whatís new for 2019 in Shelbyville.



When the GT350 debuted alongside the GT350R, there was a distinct sense that Ford had purposely engineered a substantial performance gap between the standard-issue Shelby and the limited-production R-spec model. While the GT350R comes with its own set of compromises, particularly in daily driving context, the standard GT350 just felt a little bit tame for a proper track-tuned machine, and that vibe was only bolstered by a class-action lawsuit by Shelby owners who were frustrated with cars that couldnít make it through a 30-minute lapping session before overheating and limping back to the pits.



Ford addressed that particular issue by making the Track Package standard on all GT350s in 2017, bringing additional oil, transmission, and differential cooling into the mix, but standard Shelbyís overall setup still seemed a bit conservative terms of suspension tuning and overall grip. And with the introduction of Performance Pack 2 for the garden-variety GT, which offered a more aggressive tire and suspension package than what was available on the 2018 GT350, it was clear the Shelby was overdue for an update.



As any road racer worth his or her salt will attest, a good track setup starts where the wheels meet the pavement. To that end, Ford Performance teamed up with Michelin to create an FP-spec Pilot Sport Cup 2 thatís exclusive to the standard GT350. The new tire features a compound and tread pattern unique to this particular tire thatís designed to enhance its wet handling characteristics while offering a substantial upgrade in dry grip versus the Pilot Super Sport summer tire that was outfitted to the outgoing model.



To complement the newfound grip, Ford also increased the front spring rates by 10%, softened the rear springs while increasing the rear sway bar size, and retuned the MagneRide dampers for more responsive handling. The software saw some tweaks as well, with Ford revising the stability control and antilock braking algorithms to tailor the code around the new hardware.



The car also sees aerodynamic improvements by way of a new rear spoiler with an optional Gurney Flap thatís designed to increase high speed stability with additional downforce at the rear. A new set of 19-inch forged aluminum wheels are on hand as well.



Inside itís a similar story Ė a standard machined aluminum instrument panel appliquť, dark suede door panel inserts, and a wrapped center console comprise the lionís share of updates to the Shelby, subtle tweaks that all but the most die hard Shelby fanatics would be forgiven for overlooking. But the new availability of a new Bang & Olufsen premium audio system is a welcome addition to the options sheet, while the now-standard 8-inch Sync 3 touchscreen system brings the GT350ís technological prowess into closer parity with its rivals.



At The Track
After familiarizing myself with the course layout, I quickly got the Shelby up to pace, acutely aware that our dry laps were happening on borrowed time. The handling improvements provided by the new tires are immediately noticeable, delivering the responsive turn-in and wealth of grip that the Cup 2 is known for while also staying admirably resistant to overheating.



The suspension tweaks pay dividends as well. Where the outgoing GT350 felt a bit soft at track pace with an overabundance of sway, squat, and dive for a track-tuned machine, the updated Shelby feels taut in Track mode, communicating just enough body motion to indicate where the weight is when setting up for a corner, but nothing more. It translates to a feeling of confidence behind the wheel that was formerly a bit lacking, and that buttoned-down vibe paired with the excellent Brembo stoppers encourages the kind of bravery thatís a hallmark of an excellent sports car. Even after multiple back to back lapping sessions, the GT350 always felt ready for more.



But even with the updated chassis, the 5.2-liter, 526 horsepower naturally aspirated Voodoo V8 remains the star of the show. The flat-plane crank monster sings its way to a lofty redline of 8250 rpm, making M1ís back straight a true delight. The car briefly kisses 120 mph in fourth gear here, making this the only section of M1 where the new aero has a chance to provide any meaningful downforce. Still, the rear end of the car feels eminently planted during the threshold braking here, so the new wing appears to be doing its job.



On The Street
By the time I had a chance to point the nose of the Shelby toward Woodward Avenue the storm had finally come in, soaking the pockmarked roads of a post-winter Michigan. Track tuning is typical at odds with everyday drivability, so this crucible of a street drive undoubtedly put the revised Shelby to the test.



Despite the GT350ís revised spring rates and Cup 2 rubber, the Shelby was impressively composed out on the road when set to Comfort drive mode, delivering enough compliance to contend with the array of potholes I encountered. A hint of tramlining did present itself here and there, but the GT350 still feels significantly less nervous on the highway than its R counterpart does. And although itís unchanged for 2019, the Shelbyís six-speed Tremec gearbox is still worthy of praise as well, pairing up short throws and track-focused gear ratios with a clutch thatís fairly light on effort but still clearly communicates its engagement point.


Recaros are standard on the GT350, and while their beefy side and thigh bolsters will keep drivers planted during the high speed lateral maneuvers, some drivers may find them to be a bit much out on the road during longer drives. Iíd consider the compromise in comfort to be well worth the trouble, but Ford also offers a less performance-focused, power-adjustable seat for buyers that are looking for something thatís a geared more toward grand touring.

Itís easy to get lost in superlatives, but the upshot is that the 2019 Shelby GT350 may in fact be the best performance-tuned Mustang to ever roll out of Fordís factories. Fifty-five years into production thatís high praise indeed, but the Shelby earns it with its on-track thrills, skillfully engineered performance capability, and Fordís earnest approach to track durability.

And while that would be enough to sing the carís praises on its own, the fact that the new GT350 is totally suitable for everyday driving, even under less-than-ideal conditions, seals the deal for this particular gearhead. Although it took a few years to get it, Ford Performance has finally delivered a GT350 that lives up to its full potential.


 

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