You don’t need to cast your mind back far to a time when performance cars were built to rev, and even some affordable ones had tacho red zones that now seem impossible in these turbocharged times. Almost all have died out. These days, even most quarter-mill'-plus exotics don't pull past eight grand.
But here’s one that does. The US-market Ford Shelby Mustang GT350 uses a glorious flat-plane V8 that has been built to rev, and which is happiest when being worked all the way to its 8250rpm red line. With the imminent arrival of the supercharged 560kW GT350, it is set to lose its mantle of being the quickest Mustang in those parts of the world where it is offered, but it is definitely the best sounding. Indeed, it must be high on the list for the most listenable factory-spec road car on sale anywhere in the world.
The GT350 has been on sale since 2015, but has just received a modest package of mid-term revisions, including revised front suspension geometry, stiffer dampers and anti-roll bars, and a switch to ultra-grippy Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. As before, the GT350 is intended primarily for road use with occasional excursions on-track, the harder-cored (and more expensive) GT350R tipping that balance in favour of circuit work (while still being road legal). I grabbed a drive in a 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 during a recent visit to the Midwest.
It looks great – a more attractive version of what is already a handsome car. The GT350 builds on the regular Mustang's muscularity with a bigger front grille, front wing air intakes, 19-inch black alloys (carbon wheels are standard on the GT350R) and a lowered stance. There’s also a sizeable rear wing on the tailgate. Most US buyers opt for the factory stripe pack, which puts a pair of Shelby’s trademark contrast-colour lines down the centre of the car from bow to stern. For only US$495, it’s hard to imagine not ticking that box on the form.
The interior feels less obviously different to the standard Mustang, although the hardness and scratchiness of some of the cabin plastics feel less forgivable in a car that is more than twice as expensive as the entry-level 2.3 Ecoboost in the States. The GT350 gets Recaro seats as standard, plus some carbon trim and a flat-bottomed Alcantara-rimmed steering wheel carrying Shelby's cobra logo (there isn't any Ford badging anywhere on the car).
Starting the engine immediately confirms that the GT350 is a very different proposition to the standard Mustang GT. While the regular car has the sort of lazy 'bubba-bubba' idle long associated with American V8s, the GT350 bursts into life with a far busier and more aggressive tone. It sounds like a racing engine warming in a pit lane. Dubbed Voodoo by Ford, the engine uses a heavily revised version of the regular 5.0-litre's block, but with a flat-plane crankshaft, a changed firing order, and extensive friction reduction to turn it from slugger to screamer.
While the new engine is the GT350's stand-out feature, it offers a very different experience to the regular V8. Low-down torque is lacking compared to the GT, and the Shelby feels anemic below about 3000rpm. Trundled around at town speeds, it doesn't feel that special. Revs make it better, but I found it took time to build up to exploring the top of the rev range, instinctively changing up well short of the red line.
Peak power comes at 7500rpm, but the engine keeps pulling all the way to 8250rpm, with the instrument pack's shift-up lights encouraging you to flirt with the limiter, and sometimes to kiss it hard. It sounds great, at any revs and load – hard-edged and raspy lower down, snarling and savage at the top end. It’s all real: no digital augmentation, no added pops and bangs.
Unusually for a modern car, it actually feels quicker than it is. While impressively rapid, the GT350 is actually slightly slower than the most muscular versions of the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger, and will be comprehensively out-dragged by the GT500. It turns in a 4.0-second 0–60mph (0–97km/h) time, which is fast, but most of the segment is deep into the threes.
Yet, beyond a head-to-head drag race that really doesn't matter, though, given the charisma of the engine and the cleanness of its responses. The GT350 gets a six-speed Tremec manual transmission as standard – the regular GT uses a Getrag – and the shift action is heavier, but with a more mechanical feel.
Steering is another highlight. The GT350 uses a version of the same electrically assisted rack as lesser Mustangs, but with unique software and the car's tighter front suspension giving a far more dialled-in feeling. Assistance isn't too heavy, but the helm is deadly accurate and communicates both grip and (rarely) slip as experienced by the front tyres.
Yet, it also passes on the more granular messages about surface textures and changing cambers that EPS systems often try to filter out as unwanted noise. It reminded me strongly of the best BMW M steering systems, in a way that modern M-cars don’t.
The engine’s lack of low-down torque actually helps to drive the GT350 hard. There’s no need to be worried about the sudden arrival of a sizeable torque peak, or even to trust the stability-control system to maintain discipline. The outstanding throttle response and engine’s linearity mean that even on-road you can easily and instinctively drive the Shelby to the edge of the rear axle’s adhesion, and that’s despite the huge grip generated by the Cup 2s. Choose a quiet location with some run-off, and you can shutter the stability and push it harder than that if you want. Few cars stay as friendly when you transgress their limits.
You’ll be unsurprised to hear that the Shelby isn’t the most civilised steer. The ride is firm all of the time, and gets jagged over rougher surfaces. It’s noisier and less refined than the regular Mustang, or indeed alternatives like the BMW M4. But it also has the soul that better-isolated sports cars often seem to lack, or add through dynamic modes. Based on experience of a pre-facelift car, it’s also far more everyday useable than its GT350R sister, which is a pretty crude beast at less than ten-tenths.
The new GT500 is the blue-collar equivalent of a 911 GT2 RS, but the GT350 is like the GT3 (leaving the GT350R to play the GT3 RS): there’s less firepower but more finesse and – arguably – a better-rounded driving experience. My drive in rural Michigan couldn’t produce much of the sort of challenge this car is designed to tackle. I’d have needed a racetrack or maybe the Angeles Crest Highway for that. But it definitely left me wanting more, and convinced that this is one of the most honest performance cars currently on sale.
Unfortunately, there’s no chance of it reaching Australia in official guise, with Ford having no plans for any right-hook versions. That’s a huge shame, because this is one of the highlights of Henry’s global portfolio.
Engine: 5163cc V8
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power: 392kW @ 7500rpm
Torque: 582Nm @ 4750rpm
Top speed: 300km/h (estimate)