The 2020 Mustang GT350R will be rare, but it’s well done

Let’s get down to brass tacks—or maybe down to carbon-fiber wheels—and answer the one question on the mind of every serious Mustang buyer regarding the 2020 GT350R: My dealer is going to make buying a GT350R a lot tougher on me than buying a plain GT350 would be. Is it worth the hassle?

It’s a fair question; the R-model isn’t just 13 grand more expensive than its cooking-grade sibling, it’s also far less likely to leave the showroom at a discount. A few brief conversations with a Ford dealer indicate that the real-world spread is sitting at 20 grand… or more. Should you spend the money, time, and hassle to get the rarer cut of Shelby, particularly when the same amount of cash and groveling is likely to get you behind the wheel of a new zero-options GT500?

Quick answer: Absolutely. More considered answer: Absolutely, if. In other words, if you can deal with the ridiculous lack of a rear seat (or buy the Ford Performance kit that puts it back). If you are prepared for the next pothole you hit to cost you five thousand dollars. If you’re surrounded by patient, understanding, and non-litigious neighbors.

Ford opened the M1 Concourse country club track last week to give us a quick look at the revised-for-2020 GT350R. The invite specified that there would be no chance to drive the car on the street, but on the day of the event, the company made the proverbial bold move and released their four-car fleet for a little road time before the road course time. Although M1 is surrounded by some truly lamentable pavement with an omnipresence of potholes, all of the cars returned with their $4000-a-corner Carbon Revolution wheels intact.

2019 Ford Shelby GT350R
Jack Baruth

Truth be told, while exposing the GT350R’s exotic and exemplary running gear to broken concrete probably qualifies as at least The Second Most Dangerous Game for most owners, a few miles of bad road displays the genuine value of the wheels in a way that track use does not. The radical reduction in unsprung weight—which is to say, the weight that crashes into the pothole rather than being suspended above it—gives the Mustang a remarkably inertia-free feeling each time you hear that curiously-hollow thunk from beneath the floorboards. It’s wonderful, right up to the moment that you realize just how expensive a slightly louder-than-normal thunk would be.

Not to worry. You can put aluminum wheels on a GT350R for use off-track, and many owners do. There’s one catch: you’ll need to use open-ended lug nuts, since the lug studs on carbon-fiber-equipped Mustangs are longer than normal to allow for the more substantial mating area of the wheels. (That’s why you can’t run CarbonRev wheels on a plain-Jane GT350—or an EcoBoost ‘Stang, for that matter.) Ford preserved the capability to make sure its owners weren’t forced into additional expense after the fact.

That admirable policy continues with the 2020 model’s change to solid front brake discs. That’s solid as in “not drilled”; they’re still internally vented, but they’re lacking the holes that look so good in the paddock but generate hairline cracks so quickly in serious use. The new discs last more than twice as long. (Incidentally, the GT500’s brakes are larger, because the weight and terminal velocity are higher, but they’re steel rather than carbon to keep the running costs reasonable.)

The big feature for this year, however, is a change in steering geometry and calibration. The trail, which Ford’s chief vehicle engineer Derek Bier analogizes to “the amount of shopping-cart-front-wheel action going on,” is increased. This adds a little more self-centering action to the steering. The change in leverage is addressed with a change to the calibration of the power assist. Does it work? Absent a previous GT350R for comparison, it isn’t possible to quantify the difference, but the new car steers quite nicely, particularly as the load on the front tires increases.

2019 Ford Shelby GT350R
Jack Baruth

Around M1’s relatively tight and short layout, the Mustang is a true joy to operate. The 8200-rpm redline never fails to gratify, particularly through an exhaust system which defaults to “operatic” the moment you tip in more than half of the throttle, but it also reflects a remarkable adjustability on the throttle at corner exit. The power band is, ahem, a bit import-ish, which means you can be a bit clumsy at the apex without looping the car.

This benign behavior is also the product of a stability-control system whose vigilance has been relaxed somewhat in this revision. Use Track Mode, and it’s possible to hang the tail out in second gear without any fear of appearing in someone’s YouTube roundup. If you can get this nanny to scold you, chances are you both deserve and need it.

The GT350R is hugely satisfying to drive on track; it even feels a little stronger than its non-R sibling thanks to those carbon wheels. The rears of which, by the by, are wider than their aluminum counterparts, which in turn leads to a slightly lower tire profile and a consequently lower effective rear gear. The balance is remarkably even for a street-tagged pony car and the brakes make a bit of a stink but don’t display fade in hard use.

2019 Ford Shelby GT350R
Jack Baruth

Ford likes to describe this car as a limited edition. The GT350R, like the 1978 Ford LTD, is limited to as many as they can make—but in this case, that’s limited to the number of wheels available from Carbon Revolution. Which leads to another question: since the GT500 will also rely on wheels from that firm for its Carbon Fiber Track Pack, does that mean that GT350R availability will be negatively affected as a consequence? “Not to worry,” Bier assures us, “production capacity was increased for that program.”

So the GT350R won’t be any harder to get than it was in previous years, but it also won’t be any easier to get. Even at full sticker or beyond, it’s still a remarkable value. There’s no other production car under six figures which feels even remotely as special. The Voodoo V-8, the sci-fi running gear, the naked visual aggression. It’s not the fastest pony car out there, and pretty soon it won’t even be the fastest pony car from Ford—but once experienced, it’s impossible to forget. So if you don’t want to pay the extra money, make sure you don’t drive one. Simple as that.

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