Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsEvents
First Drive! Behind the wheel of Ford Performance’s most balanced non-R Mustang yet — the 2019 Shelby GT350
Driving the freshly tweaked 2019 Shelby GT350 is a pure performance driving experience
Accelerating onto the M1 Concourse track, the sound of the flat-plane-crank 5.2L V-8's percussive burble at low speed swells into a banshee serenade of glorious revving power. From the midrange to nearly 8,000 rpm, the power ripples and bulges as it pushes your scribe into the supportive Recaro bucket.
Wearing a helmet and a HANS device while behind the wheel makes me feel like I'm driving a racecar, and thanks to a host of changes the car itself feels like I'm driving a racecar as well. However, this is a fully functional street machine benefiting from a mature platform, a dedicated cadre of engineers, and the niche focus that a variant of Ford's only remaining car in North America can receive.
"As that platform evolved, we don't normally do those vehicles over that period of time. We did a two-year run on the 2013-2014 GT500. We did a two-year run on the Boss 302," says Ford Performance Marketing Manager Jim Owens. "On the GT350, the men and women from Ford Performance have been able to learn from that platform and then take the chance and opportunity to advance it."
And advance it they have. While it has been too long since we drove the last version to give you a truly direct comparison with the last GT350, it is clear that this car is something special. Having recently driving the Performance Pack Level 2-equipped Mustang GT, we have a good idea what the best handling base Mustang can do, and the GT350 has it covered in spades.
While the 2015-2018 version is an impressive machine in its own right, Ford Performance engineers set out to make it perform at a higher level, while also making it intuitive for everyone from novice drivers to seasoned track junkies. They focused on tweaking the aerodynamics, suspension, and various calibrations, including the antilock braking, electronic power assist steering, and MagneRide programming.
Before the engineers could maximize their own hardware and software, however, they needed the help of a trusted partner. A better GT350 would need a better tire, and the result is the first in a series of FP Spec Tires specifically designed for Ford Performance vehicles: Pilot Sport Cup 2 FP tires, which measure 295/35ZR19 up front and 315/30R19 out back. They are mounted on new aluminum wheels measuring 19x10.5 and 19x11 inches respectively.
"We knew we couldn't move it really anywhere until we changed the tire," Carl Widmann, chief engineer at Ford Performance, says. "And so for the tire technology we called Michelin and said, 'OK, here's what we want to do.' They said, 'Well, of course we can do really quick turnaround because of our partnership. '"
Those FP Spec tires deliver more grip in a variety of conditions (see sidebar), but making the most of that traction required a refined aerodynamics package. Thanks to development already done on the GT350R and the forthcoming Shelby GT500, engineers used the smaller R-model grille opening and paired it with a spoiler/wing hybrid, affectionately dubbed "the Swing," to balance the downforce and lift.
"From the aero perspective, the inclusion of the Swing—which was developed for the GT500 and put on the GT350—gives us even more," says Derek Bier, Vehicle Engineering Manager at Ford Performance. "So we don't get penalized for the added downforce for the track-oriented customer, we can give them the Gurney and we'd get all of that, and for someone who is going to drive on the boulevard and cruise, we can give them the Swing and its normal state."
You won't feel the aero benefits at street speeds, and you likely won't notice the stiffer front springs or softer rear springs. The R-model rear sway bar don't really give themselves away there either, thanks in part to the electronic magic of MagneRide. Transitioning in and out of the corners on the race track is where they are readily apparent, when they work in concert with the improved programming and more advanced MagnaRide algorithm.
"Then you bring in MagnaRide and that's really the icing on the cake to get it all working together," Widmann enthuses. "And then your ABS calibration and EPAS has calibration to kind of bring it all together. As you torque on the wheel you can actually feel that the cars were much more predictable, easier, more linear, all that comes together, and then that's how you can get a lower professional lap time, but you can also flatter the driver and be more intuitive."
In cases where your scribe successfully and less successfully navigated the M3 turns, the 2019 Shelby GT350 proved forgiving of errors and rewarding of the right choices. Like a good teacher, it encourages you to expand your horizons, push a little harder, and try the less restrictive drive modes. When you do so, the brakes become pretty important, and that's an area where Ford Performance's tech transfer from professional drivers plays a key role.
"We had actually changed the strategy to change the capability so that we could change that proportioning and still do trail braking, so that we can get professional lap time better," Widmann says of race driver Billy Johnson's impact on the brake tuning. "But also the big thing was to get it more intuitive. So again, this vehicle is much more like flattering the driver and their capability and a comfort level on a track."
Widmann continues, "That's why we'll have Billy drive and our guys drive, because we'll jump Billy into like three different types of cars while he's driving. So he's really, really in tune as he jumps from car to car, because he uses the feel to place the car in its ultimately capability. We may have more lap time in that particular version than Billy does to get it for that at that lap time, but his impressions are so top-of-mind that he can explain what he feels as he goes in and out of a curve."
As a driver of both the Ford Performance FIA World Endurance Ford GT and IMSA Mustang GT4, Billy Johnson became involved in development driving several years ago. His experience in a broad range of S550s coupled with his knack for translating a vehicle's behavior into words the engineers can work with, definitely benefitted the latest Shelby GT350.
Johnson says, "It's really special and an honor to play a small part in the development of these cars and to work with these unsung heroes and dedicated car guys. The engineers are passionate about Mustangs, passionate about performance, and are just a great group. It's really cool to see the behind-the-scenes workings of how cars come to market, and to see the actual technology transfer from Ford's racing to the production cars that their customers benefit from. It's not marketing hype. There are a lot of engineers and people who I work with in Ford Performance who are involved and consult on the production car side of things. I guess you can say that my involvement as a driver is another example, but there is a lot of people and information that is shared between racing and production."
In the case of the GT350, its R-model cousin is held up as the gold standard for track performance. Johnson is a fan of its characteristics, particularly its steering feel, so he knew just how to work with the 2019 GT350 engineers to close the performance gap.
He says, "The GT350 and GT350R were Ford's first cars to use MagneRide suspension. Over the years since then, we have further refined and developed the programming to make the 2019 GT350's MagneRide even better. In addition, a significant amount of work went into the ABS calibrations, which by themselves improved lap times by a measurable amount. The new ABS offers better brake feel, communication, and performance, and most significantly improves the trail-braking performance of the car. This allows the driver to brake later, rotate the car quicker, and get back to throttle sooner. It also makes it far easier to initiate drifts at corner entry—not that I would know about that."
Those calibration changes required new hardware, so they are not backward compatible with the prior GT350s, but their presence is apparent. While we weren't brave enough to drift the tight confines of the M3 Concourse track, the brakes were firm and predictable, and easily allowed your author's rusty heel-toe actuation to get the job done. There was always plenty of brake, even after a wide-open run down the straight.
On corner exit, it was easy to squeeze on the Voodoo power and as the tires started to break free a little. The car slid in a predictable, controllable fashion and never once felt like it would snap and bite. The steering was precise with just the right assist, making it easy to direct through the challenging passages.
As we noted previously, giving a direct comparison with the prior version would be tough, but we have no trouble believing this one is better and closer to the holy grail of R-model performance. Of course, who better to ask than the man who drives fast in all of them?
"The 2019 GT350 is significantly faster, more well-balanced, has better response and braking performance, and is more fun to drive," Billy Johnson says. "While not as fast as the GT350R, it's a big improvement that will still be significant over the 2015-2018 cars, even if they have the newer Cup 2 tire. The whole development team really loves the new car, and I agree. It's fantastic."
After some laps on the track, we headed out Woodward Avenue in search of a photo spot. It gave us a moment to marvel that the same car that could rip up the track was so docile on the street. It even gave us time to appreciate those touch points like the Alcantara wheel, softer console, and nicely actuating shifter on the Tremec 3160 six-speed manual.
There was no time to sample the optional 12-speaker B&O Sound System by Bang & Olufsen when you could just listen to the flat-plane music coming from the Active Valve Performance Exhaust. Plus, I had to squeeze in just one more track session before the airport shuttle dragged me away. In short, the latest GT350 is fun and easy to drive in both environments.
Rumbling back to the M3 garages, the GT350 passed an impressive lineup of its Mustang stablemates. Ford has really developed a Mustang for almost every niche, from the new High-Performance EcoBoost package to the giant-slaying GT500. In the middle is a trio of manual-trans driver's machines: Bullitt, PPL2, and GT350, each with its own personality and performance level. Having enjoyed all three for different reasons, I could be happy with any one of them, but there is a clear hierarchy when it comes to carving corners on the road course.
"The PP2 closed the gap to the old GT350, and delivers impressive lap times for a base Mustang," Billy Johnson explains. "The Bullitt is more powerful but does not have the track-focused tire of the PP2, so it's a little more well-rounded than the more lap-time focused PP2, which is still great on the street. The 2019 GT350 keeps a nice, sizable performance gap from those base cars, which is a good thing to see all around. The new base cars get closer to Shelbys, then new Shelbys go even faster. That's the name of the game!"
It's a game that we are glad to see the Blue Oval still playing. With Ford Performance using racing tech to push street car performance forward, the fruits of that development continue to keep the 2019 Shelby GT350 relevant amongst its performance peers. If a pure driver's Mustang is what you seek, the GT350 is that car. And, thankfully, it continues to get better with age.
While the 2019 Shelby GT350 gained numerous updates, they were largely geared toward improving its handling and braking. It did not gain the digital cluster offered on the base Mustang, nor did it garner auto rev-matching, like the 2019 and newer Mustangs with manual transmissions.
"There wasn't a high want to put rev match in it," Ford Performance Chief Engineer Carl Widmann says in regard to the absence of the auto rev-matching found on the base cars. "There was a high want to really push the track performance setup. And so rev matching is fun when you do this concepts and stuff, but for us coming in doing an update on this, it was really tires, chassis, and aero that were the focus. We wanted to stay really focused on pushing the performance of it and then the intuitive nature of the driving of it."
While Michelin has a long association with Ford Performance, dating back to the inception of the second-gen Ford GT racing program, the 2019 Shelby GT350 marks the first application of its FP Spec Tires, which are specifically tuned for Ford Performance Vehicles and wear an "FP" designation on their sidewall.
For this application, Ford Performance and Michelin engineers collaborated to create a tire that was both faster on the track and safer in the raid. The idea was to close the gap with the dry-traction-focused GT350R, while retaining everyday usability under varying conditions.
Built just for the GT350, the tires feature a unique tread pattern and compound meant to better harness that Voodoo power under acceleration and rein it in under braking. Interestingly, the rubber is the product of Bi-Compound Technology, which fuses an endurance racing-style compound on the outer tread with a more rigid elastomer on the inner tread.
The result is said to be faster on wet and dry track surfaces, while delivering increased longevity thanks to a combination of Michelin's Variable Contact Patch 3.0 tech with a racing-styling reinforced shoulder.
"The tires changed from Pilot Super Sports to Cup 2s, but it's important to know that not all Cup 2s are made the same. The tread design, depth, compound, and construction are all different from the GT350R Cup 2, which is far more dry-performance and lap-time focused than the 2019 GT350 Cup 2 that is more in line with the wet performance and all-around street focus of the outgoing Pilot Super Sport," says FIA World Endurance Ford GT and IMSA Mustang GT4 driver Billy Johnson. "In fact, the new GT350 Cup 2 is not only faster on track than the outgoing GT350 PSS, but is as good if not better in terms of wet grip and hydroplaning resistance! Overall the new GT350 Cup 2 is better all around for a daily driver, and there should be no concern or need to swap them out in a daily driver that will see rain."
The sort of all-around performance offered by the Pilot Sport Cup 2 FP tires is definitely desirable in a street car. That kind of targeted development won't stop with this tire, however. Look for more Michelin FP tires to appear on future Ford Performance machines, like the 2020 Shelby GT500.
When you are blasting down the straightaway at triple-digit speeds, confident braking under your foot is an absolute necessity. The 2019 Shelby GT350 braking is under control thanks to robust front and rear calipers from Brembo that clamp down on new, smooth brake rotors measuring 394 mm in front and 380 mm in back.
In practice, the pedal is firm and predictable, and that is attributable to a new front caliper designed for the GT350 and carried over to the Ford GT.
"It's a fixed aluminum caliper with a radial mount, which helps for stiffness of the caliper. And they also added the rear calipers. So this is the first time the Mustang had the front and the rear fixed opposed calipers," Tom Grant, engineer at Brembo, explains. "Basically what we tried to optimize was stiffness and weight. Our goal is to make it as stiff as possible, but not increase the weight significantly."
The front caliper in question is a six-piston, monoblock aluminum unit featuring an inner tie rod for maximum stiffness. Their pistons measure 34 by 36 by 38 mm. Meanwhile, the rear calipers are fix-mount aluminum units with 30 and 32 mm pistons.
Grant says, "Everything was thought through, even the external cross pipe, which helps us reduce fluid displacement. When you're applying the pedal, you want to have the least amount of fluid pushed through the system so that when the brakes are applied you are not getting too much travel from the pedal. Then you also have the feedback, so you understand where you are modulating."
Much like the tires built for this and other Ford Performance applications, Brembo has also designed a bigger, more robust caliper designed just for the 2020 Shelby GT500.
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