by Gabe Beita Kiser
Aging is something our culture sees as one of life’s cruelest realities. With each year, hairs start to grey, skin gets a little looser, and even eyes seem to lose their glow. But retreating into a depression over it is something only cynics do, and by design, Ford Performance employs no cynics at its Dearborn, Michigan headquarters. In Ford’s eyes, aging just means there’s more wisdom and experience to call upon when redesigning the Shelby GT350, its most enthusiast-focused Mustang yet. And yes, the GT350 is still the enthusiast’s go-to Ford, even in the post-unveil days of the Shelby GT500. The two will be on sale at the same time, leaving Ford’s upcoming 700 horsepower-plus coupe as the tech-stuffed missile for customers seeking a Challenger Demon and Camaro ZL1 trump card, while the GT350 - boasting a manual transmission, a naturally-aspirated flat-plane soundtrack, minimal driver aids, and delivering a more demanding and technical driving experience - is intended as the enthusiast’s first choice.
In order to show off the sort of refinement aging has brought to the 2019 Shelby GT350, Ford brought us out to Pontiac, Michigan and let us loose in the revamped Stang.
A glance at the new GT350’s exterior is all it takes to realize Ford wasn’t kidding about sticking with the car's current design to avoid offending purists like the GT500 does. Changes are hard to spot and are limited to a new rear spoiler/wing combination that Ford calls a "swing,” an optional gurney flap that can be added to the "swing” for additional downforce in the corners, and a grille closeout that reduces the amount of air passing through the radiator and in turn, keeps front-end lift to a minimum. But similarities between the 2016 GT350’s bodywork and the 2019’s aren’t intentional.
Ford did toy with the idea of updating the GT350’s front end - which is and has always been completely different than the regular Mustang’s - to keep it in line with the current car’s fresh face, but those changes would have resulted in a negative impact on performance. Instead of ballooning the GT350’s redesign budget to make the new hardware work, Ford decided to stick with the Mustang’s pre-facelift front-end.
That same philosophy boils over to the GT350’s drivetrain, which keeps the already-great 5.2-liter naturally-aspirated Voodoo V8 and six-speed Tremec manual transmission. Output stays at 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque, and the engine’s 8,250-rpm redline is still as much of a treat to listen to as it is to reach given the Voodoo’s habit of delivering horsepower linearly. Unlike the Shelby GT500, the GT350 is not a car for the drag strip. A 0-60 mph acceleration time of 4.3 seconds confirms that, but this Shelby does manage additional bragging rights in the top speed department given that it can hit 180 mph, 7 mph more than the drag-laden GT350R, thanks to its V8’s absurdly high redline. The improved aerodynamics do nothing for fuel economy, which still comes in at an EPA-rated 14/21/16 mpg city/highway/combined.
The upgrades that matter most all revolve around the Shelby GT350’s new set of tires, which Ford developed together with Michelin. The set of all-new Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber come with a specific tread pattern and compound that’s been optimized for the GT350. All that effort results in increased grip, acceleration, peak lateral Gs, and braking performance. The 295/35 front and 305/35 rear tires also enable Ford to improve the GT350’s stiffness and fit its new set of standard 19-inch aluminum wheels under the wheel arches.
To cope with the additional forces the upgraded tires and aerodynamics exert on the car, Ford updated the Stang’s standard MagneRide active suspension system and retuned the springs so that it remains composed on both the road and race track. Additional improvements were made to the antilock braking, stability control, and steering systems to take advantage of the extra grip as well as factor in subtle software tweaks the Ford Performance team added after hundreds of hours of testing.
The 2019 Shelby GT350 also follows its predecessor’s footsteps by offering only the slightest of upgrades to the interior. All it can claim over a standard Mustang is a set of heavily bolstered Recaro seats and a few Shelby and Ford Performance badges strewn about the cabin. Upgrades that put the 2019 GT350 ahead of the older GT350 include power adjusting abilities for the Recaro seats, an optional carbon fiber instrument panel, and door panels that get dark slate Miko suede with accent stitching. Aside from that, the new GT350’s interior is very much like the one it replaces: simple, cheap-feeling for a car in this price range, and right on the cusp of becoming too dated.
While Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Sirius XM, and FordPass Connect are standard on the 8-inch SYNC 3 touchscreen display, the Shelby doesn’t even get interior upgrades that other Mustangs get, like Ford’s new digital instrument cluster or an auto rev-matching function. Perhaps this is just a way of keeping the GT350 in the hands of "real” drivers?
Given that most of its tweaks revolve around performance, the 2019 Shelby GT350 doesn’t change much dimensionally. Wheelbase and width remain the same across the entire Mustang lineup, staying at 107.1 inches and 81.9 inches, respectively. The GT350’s length grows by 0.4 inches, to 188.9 inches, and height drops by 0.1 inches, to 54.2 inches, over the standard Mustang. Likewise, track width gets wider up front and narrower at the rear to lessen the stagger that standard Mustangs have, with measurements coming in at 63.3 inches up front and 63.7 inches at the rear. The trunk still offers 13.5 cubic feet of cargo space, which seems low until you realize it outclasses most of the GT350’s competitors. While the Mustang isn’t the most spacious car money can buy, its 37.6 inches and 45.1 inches of front headroom/legroom can accommodate drivers of many sizes. The back seats, on the other hand, are no place for adults given their 34.8 inches and 30.6 inches of rear headroom/legroom.
What isn’t as obvious about the GT350’s modifications is that you don’t need to be on a race track with the flat-plane cranked V8 wailing to feel the difference they make. Ford made no mention about retuning brake and clutch pedal feel for the GT350’s update, but we could swear both were leagues ahead of the 2017 model we last drove. Brakes no longer bite too hard and too soon like the old GT350’s, which made the car an utter chore to drive in stop-and-go traffic. More importantly, the clutch no longer has a vague and abrupt engagement point that required hours behind the wheel to get accustomed to. Instead, both systems seemed to have larger areas of tolerance - the brakes engaged more progressively and made it easier to precisely add stopping power on both the street or the race track, while the clutch’s wider range of engagement meant it was less demanding to drive the Shelby comfortably around town.
The track, however, are where the enhancements really become clear. In order to stretch the GT350’s long legs, Ford suited us up in racing helmets and neck restraints and let us loose on the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. We only managed half a dozen laps before Michigan’s weather turned sour and dumped enough rain on the course to hide the Pilot Sport Cup 2’s advantages and start highlighting the benefit of ABS.
On paper, the GT350’s tweaks help a driver conquer a lap in less time by allowing faster cornering, later braking, and earlier throttle input upon corner exit. In reality, the GT350 benefits in all of those ways but goes a step further by feeling easier to drive at the limit. The tires and suspension aren’t the only pieces of hardware to thank for that, though. The smaller grille inlet, which Ford only included when it realized it could reduce front-end lift while still meeting the 5.2-liter Voodoo’s cooling needs, leaves weight over the front tires, making turn-in sharper and more importantly, increasing driver confidence through more assured reactions to steering inputs.
That confidence makes it apparent that the GT350’s tweaks aren’t just there to shoot the car’s limits higher (though not high enough to eclipse the lighter and more aerodynamically-savvy GT350R). They’re also intended to make this Shelby easier to approach for drivers without much prior track experience. Being a Mustang, the situation can still go awry if you dial in the throttle too early in 2nd while exiting a wet hairpin turn, but the extra grip and a communicative chassis makes quick recovery easy.
It’s hard to pick out something to complain about with the Shelby GT350 unless, of course, you highlight its achilles tendon: the interior. Yeah we know, complaining about the lack of luxury in a Detroit muscle car is a little like hating on a radio host’s acne, but it would be nice to see a few more modern amenities on the interior, such as the new Mustang’s digital gauge cluster, or even some body-color accent stitching, or really anything that adds come color to the GT350’s grey guts. On the hardware end of things, it should be noted that one of the GT350 test cars Ford left out for journalists to drive developed a glitch that kept its backup camera showing on the infotainment screen, even when the car was in drive.
One way to tell that Ford really thought about the enthusiasts is to look at the simplicity of the specs sheet. A base GT350 starts out at $59,140 but ends up at $61,535 once you factor in $1,095 for destination and $1,300 for the gas guzzler tax. Aside from that, all there is to option is the $2,000 Technology package that adds a B&O Sound System, Blind Spot Monitoring with Cross-Traffic Alert, heated mirrors with turn signal indicators and Cobra puddle lamps, and voice activated functionality to the 8-inch infotainment system in addition to Sirius XM and navigation. The handling package, which adds adjustable strut top mounts and a Gurney flap to the "swing," only costs $850, while leather trimmed sports seats (replacing the Recaros) and the carbon fiber instrument panel will only run you $495 and $500, respectively.
It's been four years since the first GT350 hit the roads and the funny thing is that its role has hardly changed. Even with the Mustang GT Performance Pack 2 out and the GT500 on the horizon, the GT350 remains the car we first encountered in 2017: a Mustang for purists who want the most authentic drive that modern engineering can produce, without technology reeling it all in when it deems the situation too risky. What's changed is that the GT350 feels more natural than it did before, working more closely with the driver and letting them hone their skills rather than letting the car's nuances steal attention from away from setting a personal lap record.
This Shelby still has the power and the guttural roar to misbehave in the hands of a novice, but if they're willing to shut up and listen to the car, the GT350 will transform them into a better driver.