As many of you know, I am a diehard Ford and Shelby guy. As such, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Ford’s then-new S550-generation GT350 when it was introduced in 2015. Why? Because the specs were not only mouth watering but also simply unheard of in this segment. For starters, even Ferrari doesn’t have the guts to try building a massive 5.2-liter flat plane crank V-8, let alone bolt one in a pony car. But Ford? That nobody else saw the need to produce such a thing didn’t seem to faze them, and the engineers let it spin to an 8250-rpm redline. Oh, and with 526 horsepower, 91 more than the GT at the time. The other hardware on the then-new GT350 was also pretty dreamy. Huge vented, floating, co-cast brake rotors front and rear (over 15 inches up front, with Brembo six-piston calipers), a unique GT350-only front clip with a carbon-fiber core support and aluminum panels, a bespoke Tremec TR-3160 six-speed transmission, and about a hundred other unique components throughout that made a GT350 a GT350. At least on paper, it was one of the most impressive bits of kit to ever roll out of Ford.
That said, paper doesn’t mean much (as proof, DMC-12; Shelby Series 1, and so on). So I wasn’t banking on the then-new GT350 to be some revolutionary world-beater no matter how good the specs were at the time. I expected it to be really, really good, as the outgoing 2014 GT500 was pretty spectacular, and even the new S550 Mustang GT, the basis for the GT350, was fantastic in its own right.
But I wasn’t prepared for just how incredible the new GT350 was when I finally got to drive one. It was like Ford found some pixie dust and sprinkled it on these things when they left the assembly line. That flat plane crank engine, “Voodoo” as it is known, belted out a song that was worth the price of admission alone—not to mention it pulled like a fox running away from a forest fire all the way to that 8250-rpm redline. Combined with the transmission, suspension bits, MagneRide dampers, and those hand-of-God brakes, the GT350 was a Mustang that could punch above its weight to give a new 911 or BMW M4 a solid run for their money on track, for a lot less, well, money. The GT350 was just one of those rare cars that did everything right and did it at a price point that just seemed like it shouldn’t be possible. Especially the track-focused GT350R with its even more finely tuned hardware, lightweight carbon-fiber wheels, enhanced aero, and sticky Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires. That car? Insert “mind blown” emoji here.
Wait, can you tell I liked these things? If not, let me point out one more detail that might prove it. I immediately bought one—a 2016 GT350R. The 59th one built, in fact. Upon delivery I had the dealership install camber/caster plates for the front struts and set the alignment to the factory recommended “Road Course” settings, and I also installed Ford Racing oil separators to both left and right side PCV hoses as recommended in the owner’s manual “for track day use by a highly skilled driver.”
And in my three years of ownership, I’ve never tired of the 350R. It now has about 4000 miles of track driving under its belt and another few thousand of (usually fast) road use as well. I’m on my second set of brake pads and Sport Cup 2 tires. Oh, and three oil changes. Other than that, it has had no issues at all. Sure, it’s a little buzzy inside, and the ride does tramline on anything other than a billiard table-smooth surface, but that’s all a result of the aggressive tires and alignment.
As much as I like my car, we all know time waits for no one. Especially when it relates to any latest and greatest performance car such as the GT350, now entering its fourth model year, or fifth if you count the 137 examples of the 2015 GT350 that Ford produced in a “friends and family” round. Either way, that’s certainly long enough to see if a car can stand on its own merits or perhaps was more sizzle than steak. And while GT350 and GT350Rs continued to sell quickly through 2018, they were essentially unchanged from the first model year.
So when we were invited to sample the “new” 2019 GT350, I was quite curious to see what, exactly, Ford changed. After all, the car is rumored to be finished after the 2020 model year (or maybe not), and late-run model year revisions often consist of inconsequential changes that amount to little more than a cosmetic effort to get fresh press and provide fodder for the showroom floor.
The big question for me was: Is the 2019 GT350 still relevant? We live in a great time for performance car enthusiasts with a plethora of options that seem to get better every year. So, in this world of new 650-horsepower ZL1 Camaros and 797-horsepower Challengers, and a 700+ horsepower Shelby GT500 on the way, does the track-focused, 526-horsepower GT350 still have something to offer buyers?
After a day of driving the new and improved 2019 GT350 on both the track and the street, I’d say absolutely yes, and I walked away just as impressed as I did the first time I drove a GT350 in 2015. If not more.
And this was just from the “regular” GT350, as I didn’t have an opportunity to drive a GT350R at this press preview. Its speaks volumes of Ford’s reboot of the base GT350. According to Ford, a good amount of what’s new came from lessons learned in testing the upcoming 2020 GT500 and from hundreds of hours of on-track and vehicle simulations, including the Mustang GT4 racing program.
Much of this revised magic comes from improved aero and more downforce from an available Gurney flap on a larger rear spoiler, plus updated brake, chassis, and suspension tuning to take advantage of increased grip offered by the enhanced aero but also that of new Ford Performance-spec (branded “FP”) Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires. It is the latter that really elevates this new non-R GT350 to 350R levels of athleticism. On track, the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, even in cold, damp conditions the 2019 GT350 was nearly unflappable, with remarkable grip even at speeds where the aero surely had limited involvement. The engine and transmission are unchanged, as is the brake hardware (only the ABS tuning was revised to play nice with the new tires), and both are still in a class of their own. And again, while I wasn’t able to drive a 350R on the same track on this same day, I’d say the new “base” car really closed the gap in performance between the two thanks to this 2019 refresh.
On the road, the 2019 GT350 seems to belie the fact that it is a track star riding on Sport Cup tires. With the MagneRide set in its softest mode, and the exhaust on quiet, it is actually a much nicer and quieter ride than you would expect. It is also evident that Ford has spent some time refining the interior for 2019, with both aluminum and carbon-fiber instrument panel appliqués available. Other subtle trim changes, such as accents on the seats, were incorporated as well, and a new B&O sound system is also optional (I’m sure it sounds great, but I spent my limited time behind the wheel listening to the engine). The interior, overall, is more comfortable and less buzzy than before, my only complaint about my 2016. It even seems as if Ford revised the shifter so it, too, doesn’t buzz at high rpm.
In the end, yes, the 2019 Shelby GT350 continues to offer everything we loved about the model when it was first introduced. And with its recent graduation from finishing school, and its fancy new shoes, it not only remains relevant but offers near-GT350R performance levels without any sacrifice in comfort.