In an era where 600 horsepower sedans are essentially commonplace, and 700 horsepower coupes roll out of the factory on a daily basis, there is a predilection for the number-obsessed contingent of performance enthusiasts to dismiss the Mustang GT350 and its hardcore counterpart, the GT350R, as also-ran muscle coupes.

But that would be a huge mistake, because although the GT350R might not boast all the biggest numbers there are to be had in this age of readily-available, neck-snapping performance, it is without question a modern sportscar destined to be a classic.

After a handful of laps on the track with a standard GT350 (which will soon detail in a future article), and a few days on the back roads and urban sprawl of Los Angeles in the GT350R, I’ve finally had enough seat time in both cars to really get a feel for this unique pony. But before we get behind the wheel, let’s talk about what makes these cars truly special amongst a sea of highly capable competitors.

While the GT350 offers a more aggressive look than the standard Mustang GT, the R model takes things a step further with even more aggressive, yet functional, aero bits. Compared to the standard GT350, the R model seen here adds a bigger front splitter along with a sizable rear wing to keep the car planted at high speeds.

Exotic Cuisine At Steakhouse Prices

When Ford launched the redesigned sixth-generation Mustang, it finally modernized the suspension with a four-wheel independent setup; ditching the solid rear axle design that could trace its origin back to other Ford models that predate the original 1964½ Mustang debut. While its simplicity equated to relative light weight and effective drag launches, it left a lot to be desired on the handling and ride quality front, despite admirable tuning in cars like the recent ’12-’13 Boss 302.

The GT350R certainly looks the business. Fortunately, it also has the hardware to back up those looks. Properly aggressive without resorting to outlandishness, the Shelby GT350R is a head-turner for sure.

With this new suspension setup and a more sport-focused platform to work with, Ford engineers decided to take the car’s handling to realms never before seen on a Mustang produced for the street. The result is the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, Mustangs that serve as an authoritative answer to not only the fifth-generation Camaro Z28 but the sportscar ecosystem as a whole.

But don’t for a second assume that the GT350 is an overblown handling package. While this new Shelby is fantastic in the corners, any time you dip into the throttle with Shelby’s active exhaust system set to full song, it’s very obvious that the star of the show is the all-new, 5.2-liter naturally aspirated ‘Voodoo’ V8 engine. Using a flat-plane crankshaft like those you’d find in a V8 built by Ferrari or McLaren, the new engine dishes out a healthy 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque.

You will hear this engine in your sleep. At about 7500 rpm one's natural inclination is that a shift is definitely overdue, but you've got another 750 rpms left on the table.

You will hear this engine in your sleep. At about 7,500 RPM, one’s natural inclination is that an upshift is long overdue. But you’ve still got another 750 RPM left on the table.

Yet it’s how the two cars deliver the output that’s most impressive, building power all the way to a screaming 8,250 RPM redline. Those insane revs change the personality of this performance-focused Mustang on a fundamental level, requiring Shelby pilots to adjust their driving habits to get used to this massive breadth of rev range. Even on the street, you’ll drive the GT350 and GT350R like a track car; because, aside from a few concessions for the sake of daily driving use, this new Shelby is set up to be at its best on the road course.

Mated to a Tremec six-speed gearbox, the GT350 will dispatch a sprint to 60 MPH from rest in about four seconds flat. Although it’s not the kind of world-altering acceleration delivered from musclecars like the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, it’s still hauling the mail by any conventional measure. Reigning in the Shelby from speed is a set of massive Brembo brakes with six-piston calipers clamping down on 15.4-inch rotors up front, while four-piston units are installed in the rear.

The GT350R takes things a step further from the GT350, bringing with it even more focused performance, although it comes at the cost of some daily-driver comfort. There’s some effort to reduce weight with some especially-trick carbon fiber wheels and by de-contenting the car – ditching the rear seats, radio, and air conditioning. Like track-focused Porsche models, these features can be added back to the R as options from the factory.

But more importantly, the R features more aggressive suspension tuning, which corrals some of the brake dive and body roll we noticed while piloting the standard GT350 at speed on Buttonwillow Raceway. The R also rides on a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, which are significantly grippier than the Pilot Super Sports on the standard car. To be clear, the PSSs are great street tires but they ultimately yield a looser car at road course pace than the Cup 2 shoes do. All told, the Shelby GT350 and the GT350R finally provide the Mustang with the hardware to give cars like the C7 Corvette a very serious run for their money.

On The Road

Although it was not by my design, I drove the standard GT350 on a race track and the GT350R on public roads, which is essentially the opposite way it would have been done in an ideal world. But the drivetrains of the two models are identical, and the long legs of the Voodoo V8 coupled with the short, precise throws of the Tremec’s shifter (along with an incredibly capable braking system) equated to an impressive display in my short stint behind the wheel at Buttonwillow Raceway in California.

Ford had a mixture of GT350 and GT350R models for our brief stint on the road course, and I found myself in the standard GT350 simply by the luck of the draw. It's undoubtedly a capable performer on the road course, but even after a few laps it is obvious that this model is tuned for street use as a higher priority, which isn't necessarily a negative unless you happen to be driving it exclusively on a race track.

As mentioned earlier, the suspension tuning felt a bit soft to me for serious track work – more ideally suited for daily driving duty, I theorized – and while the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires provide a great amount of grip for the street and occasional road course duty, it was clear that additional tire grip would likely benefit the car by a substantial amount.

Both of these issues are addressed by the GT350R with aplomb. Along with the massive grip offered by the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, the R’s stiffer suspension tuning seems spot-on for a hardcore, sport-focused road car. Combined with the R model’s significantly lighter wheels, enhanced aero, more raucous exhaust system (the R model ditches one of the GT350’s intermediate resonators) and more easily accessed performance settings, this is the model I would put in my driveway.

Handling on the GT350R is simply outstanding, though the 305/30ZR19 tires up front do have a habit of tracking along grooves and bumps in the road that requires driver correction and takes some getting used to. But the turn-in, composure, and overall grip that the GT350R exhibits is flat-out intoxicating, while the banshee wail of that 5.2-liter motor is the stuff dreams are made of.

As others have noted once getting their hands on a GT350, this engine is all about high-revving output, and down low in the rev range it does indeed feel a bit lazy. Below 3,000 rpm you’re not going to get much response from this V8, and on the freeway at about 65 mph you’ll quickly discover that putting the throttle to floor in sixth gear does almost nothing, meaning you’ll want to downshift to fifth or fourth if you’re hoping to overtake a car with any sense of urgency.

The Recaro buckets in the R model are outstanding sport seats, though I did wish for some lumbar support adjustability.

The Recaro buckets in the R model are outstanding sport seats, though I did wish for some lumbar support adjustability.

If I had one other gripe about the R model it would be the unavailability of luxury content simply for the sake of the R model’s “specialness.” Make no mistake, this car is absolutely special – I have no doubt this car will be remembered as one of the great sports cars of this era. But even with the $3,000 optional technology package, which adds a backup camera, the Sync 3 infotainment system, and a nine-speaker stereo, the audio system is still deplorably poor.

Although the GT350R is not exactly set up to be a grand tourer, the prospect of listening the tire roar of those big Cup 2s on the freeway every day because the optional stereo isn’t capable of drowning it out effectively is a bit of a bummer, particularly when you’re dropping at least $67,000 for the privilege.

But the truth is these are issues of trivial consequence at best. The Shelby GT350 – and the GT350R, in particular – are destined to be remembered as a testament to what’s possible when an automaker lets the performance engineers build the car they’re capable of building. There just aren’t enough superlatives in our lexicon to do this car justice.

Drive one and you’ll understand what I mean. Just make sure you get some seat time in an R model before you pull the trigger, and don’t forget to open those exhaust valves.

Photo gallery