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.
While wet pavement is an annoyance out on the street, it can be downright sketchy on a road course, especially when you’re 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.
Aesthetically, the 2019 Shelby GT350 doesn't stray far from the template established in 2016 – even the new 19-inch wheels look remarkably similar to the outgoing ones. While the rest of the Mustang lineup has adopted the front end tweaks that were part of the 2018 refresh, the Shelby models have not. I'd consider that to be a benefit rather than a drawback. Images: Ford
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 won’t 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.
M1’s road course is a ten-turn stretch of tarmac that offers a good mix of technical low-speed corners and faster sweepers that encourage you to test the limits of lateral grip. While most of the course can be done in 2nd and 3rd gear in the high-revving Shelby, the back straight allows the GT350 to stretch its legs a bit more. Image: Ford
By some small miracle the storm held off just long enough for me to get my fill of M1’s 1.5-mile road course – a tight, technical track that emphasizes agility over horsepower. It’s here where the GT350’s chassis can really shine. But before I get into that, let’s talk about what’s new for 2019 in Shelbyville.
Enhancing The Breed
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 couldn’t make it through a 30-minute lapping session before overheating and limping back to the pits.
While the 5.2-liter Voodoo V8 is a fantastic piece of engineering, it wouldn't be worth much without the array of chassis components that support it, like the six-piston Brembo calipers that clamp down on massive 15.5-inch rotors.
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 Shelby’s 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.
With the introduction of the 2019 Shelby GT350, Ford now has three different Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires for the various Mustang models in the stable. These new tires for the GT350 are an FP (Ford Performance) specification, and are dialed in to provide more stability in wet conditions.
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 that’s exclusive to the standard GT350. The new tire features a compound and tread pattern unique to this particular tire that’s 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.
As any road racer worth his or her salt will attest, a good track setup starts where the wheels meet the pavement.
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 that’s 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.
Though much hasn’t change in the cabin, the Mustang still boasts the most refined interior in the pony car segment. Image: Ford
Inside it’s a similar story – a standard machined aluminum instrument panel appliqué, dark suede door panel inserts, and a wrapped center console comprise the lion’s 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 GT350’s 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 new 19-inch forged wheels and rear wing are perhaps the obvious changes from a visual standpoint.
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 that’s a hallmark of an excellent sports car. Even after multiple back to back lapping sessions, the GT350 always felt ready for more.
When it came to the powertrain, Ford rightfully didn’t fix what wasn’t broken. The 5.2-liter remains unchanged for 2019, but that’s perfectly fine - this is still one of the best naturally aspirated V8s ever produced.
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 M1’s 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 GT350’s 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 it’s unchanged for 2019, the Shelby’s six-speed Tremec gearbox is still worthy of praise as well, pairing up short throws and track-focused gear ratios with a clutch that’s fairly light on effort but still clearly communicates its engagement point.
Folks who are used to a cushy buckets may be put off by the tight squeeze of the Recaro sport seats, but those bolsters definitely prove their worth out on the track. As has been the case since the car was introduced for the 2016 model year, the GT350 remains a manual-only affair. Images: Ford
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. I’d 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 that’s a geared more toward grand touring.
It’s 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 Ford’s factories. Fifty-five years into production that’s high praise indeed, but the Shelby earns it with its on-track thrills, skillfully engineered performance capability, and Ford’s earnest approach to track durability.
While it went through some early teething issues, the GT350 has truly come into its own with the 2019 updates. None of the changes are revolutionary on their own, but working in tandem, they elevate the Shelby to an entirely new level. Image: Ford
And while that would be enough to sing the car’s 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.