These two unlikely combatants scrap for the title of the best everyday American sports car. And America wins . . . again!
Chairman Mao Zedong, a fan of the red but not so much of the white or the blue, once said, “I got more hoes than the ozone.” Oh wait, it might have been Abraham Lincoln who said that.
The quote we were Google-searching for from Chairman Mao was something about asymmetric warfare, about how a fighter must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea, which is way more poetic and stuff. And what we have here is a classic asymmetric fight; a battle in which one side is conventionally powerful and established and the other is a fish.
All of this brings us inextricably to the showdown that neither Chevrolet nor Ford probably had in mind: the one between the Corvette and the new Shelby GT350. We set out to find the best American sports car that a successful, but not necessarily rich, person could attain. We would want road-course competence from our winner, but not at the expense of real-world drivability, since it is sadly the real world in which we spend most of our time. Our winner should look fast, sound fast, and be fast. But most important, it should be thrilling to drive.
Playing the role of the established powerhouse is the seventh-generation Corvette. We chose an example with the Z51 performance package to bring the track prowess we were looking for. And because driver engagement and enjoyment are paramount in this test, we chose the seven-speed manual transmission. Chevy provided just such a car, loaded up with the 2LT package of niceties ($4455), Magnetic Ride Control shocks ($1795), the data-and-video system for recording laps ($1795), the vibrant but extra-cost Laguna Blue paint ($995), and “sueded microfiber” seat inserts ($395). This ballooned the Z51’s suggested price from $61,395 to a whopping $70,830. But if you were to spec out a more basic performance Z51, you could easily cut $7000 from what this car cost.
Our insurgent, the Shelby GT350, is a car that would easily swim through the sea of EcoBoost and GT Mustangs undetected, were it not for its ripping exhaust note. Mustangs were never really intended to battle Corvettes. Hell, they have at various times shared platforms with Falcons, Pintos, and Fairmonts. But this one—this frankly shockingly special version—can put up a legitimate fight even though it’s more than 300 pounds heavier and is more than five inches taller than the Corvette. We specified a regular GT350 with the optional Track package instead of the R version because we wanted as much on-road sophistication as possible, and also because we wanted tires that roughly match the stickiness and longevity of the Corvette’s. The Track package—which brings magnetic shocks, a front strut-tower brace, firmer springs, and oil coolers for the engine, transmission, and differential—rings in at a not-insubstantial $6500. The only other option on our test car was the $475 “Over-the-Top Racing Stripes.” Unfortunately, once you opt for the Track package, Ford locks out the navigation system, upgraded stereo, and a few other goodies available to standard GT350 buyers.
All in, our GT350 cost $56,970. That’s a substantial discount from our Corvette. The Chevy makes back all the points it loses for its inflated sticker in our features and amenities category—and then some. After all, this is supposed to be an asymmetrical fight.
We bombed around Willow Springs International Raceway in Southern California, gleefully roasting Michelins. We strapped on our instruments for our normal battery of proving-grounds tests. And we assaulted some of the country’s finest roads between our high-desert test facilities and the clogged thoroughfares of Los Angeles. In the final accounting, it was the insurgent that wound up with more hoes.
2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51
Second place: Red, Fight, and Blue.
With a thoroughbred bloodline and a track-focused setup, this Z51 clobbered the Big Willow road course. Senior editor and chief lapper Tony Quiroga said with uncommon enthusiasm, “That car is really good out there.” Indeed, the Corvette, with an inch lower center of gravity, a slight rearward weight bias, and huge grip from sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, felt perfectly at home on Willow’s high-speed constant-radius turns. It shouldn’t be a surprise: The Corvette’s front tires chatter in low-speed, high-steering-lock situations, such as parking maneuvers, as if to say, “Hey, I’m aligned for the track. Will you speed up already?”
The big-displacement and relatively lazy-revving 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 provides plenty of thrust across its rev range. No need to zing the engine; it’ll pull plenty hard below the tachometer’s Mason-Dixon line. Making laps even easier are the automatic rev-matched downshifts, which we grew to appreciate. A fine performance, then, and a quicker lap than the GT350 by 1.3 seconds over Big Willow’s 2.5-mile length, all accompanied by a deep-throated roar.
The caramel-hued seats look more delicious than they feel.
The Z51’s proving-grounds performance was likewise impressive at less than four seconds to 60 mph, less than 150 feet braking from 70 mph, and more than 1.0 g of grip on the skidpad. Those figures were supercar feats not so many years ago.
Improbably, our road drive was where the feature-laden Corvette began losing this comparison test. The Corvette is no track-day special, despite its excellent track-day performance. It doesn’t ride like a buckboard, and the thick torque delivery and supertall seventh gear provide quiet, relatively fuel-efficient, and relaxed touring.
But the Corvette is a little too relaxed and easy for our back-road desires. What works on the track doesn’t always work on the road. The Corvette’s steering is a disappointment, remaining relatively inert regardless of how much lateral load the front tires are experiencing.
The Vette’s big, low-revving engine and tall gearing make for relaxed touring.
Then there’s the shifter, which feels resistant in action, as if it’s bound up. There’s no positive sense of mechanical engagement. Worse, it’s easy to grab the wrong gear. “Oh, damn. Why is there no power? Oh, right, I’m in seventh, not fifth,” the buzz-killed driver will say. Sure, it has seven gears to accommodate in a relatively small space, but then so does a Porsche 911’s manual and we’ve never had a problem finding the correct gear at the correct time in that box. The Corvette’s seats, though a great improvement on the C6’s floppy buckets, are not as supportive or comfortable as the GT350’s Recaros.It’s a disconnect that saps driver confidence in the machine. If we weren’t driving the Corvette back-to-back with the GT350, we might not be so hard on its steering system. But it should be better than it is.
The Corvette, even in Z51 guise, still has to satisfy a pretty broad selection of potential buyers—the more leisurely of whom might squawk about restrictive seats or busy steering. But the result is a vehicle that, despite its excellent performance, simply doesn’t feel that special, and one that is ultimately just not as fun to throw around.
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
First place: Red, Fight, and Blue.
Our always-succinct Quiroga summed up the Shelby GT350 thusly: “If Porsche’s GT team built a Mustang, it would be the GT350.” There’s not nearly as much hyperbole in that statement as might first appear.
There’s surely some freedom in developing a performance car that need only sell in the thousands, instead of the tens of thousands. You needn’t worry about the poseurs. The lack of an available automatic transmission should keep many of them away. The blaring exhaust note and vibration from the 5.2-liter flat-plane-crank V-8 will frighten off the others. Also, let’s stop to consider that the company undertook a significant engine program for the sake of this one vehicle. You couldn’t drop this thing into an Explorer to amortize its development costs. It might have started as a Coyote 5.0-liter, but it is essentially nothing like the Five-Oh in character or specification.
And it is glorious. True, it doesn’t really come alive and pull in earnest until 4000 rpm. But even then, it’s barely halfway through the tachometer. Its 526 horsepower arrives at 7500 rpm, and by the time you get there, you’re also at peak titillation—your nerve endings buzzing in concert with the engine’s zing. It’s not a pretty-sounding thing. Instead, its blare is of a machine that seems to care only about the beauty of power. Its creators think burbling exhaust notes are, at best, cute.
Owing to its crankshaft design and lack of balance shafts, this is not the smoothest V-8. It is, in fact, one of the least smooth. Shoot through to the far side of the tach and the engine sends a mighty vibration through the pedals and the dash and your seat bottom. Perhaps this is why Quiroga described the GT350 as a “Sybian.” We wouldn’t know. But we do know that, in this case, the vibration is exhilarating, even if the instrument-panel pieces might not like it in the long run.
Ford Performance swapped out the GT’s six-speed Getrag manual transmission for this Tremec six-speed that is lighter and better shifting. It can be rushed into its gates with minimal friction and maximum mechanical feel, keeping the engine fully on the boil and making the thing feel like, well, a GT-edition Porsche. Curiously, the shifter itself does not vibrate in sympathy with the engine.
We dig that Ford didn’t try to pretty-up the engine with a plastic cover. Steering, brakes, seats, shifter, and engine: Ford got ’em all right.
The GT350’s pedals are a study in performance-car effectiveness. The clutch pedal is light in action—an unexpected boon for commuting in traffic—and the take-up allows for smooth, quick shifting. The brake pedal is firm and progressive, significantly better than the Corvette’s. One note about the GT350’s braking performance: Don’t do a day of lapping the day before you go to the proving grounds. That’s a roundabout way of saying that the GT350’s 171-foot braking distance is not representative of what a GT350 can do. An earlier GT350 of the same spec did the deed in 152 feet. So, yeah, we think our track day might have glazed the pads a bit. Oops. There’s no real need for an automated rev-matching system in the GT350, which is good because it doesn’t have one. It’s easy enough to heel-toe, and the free-revving engine is blip-tastic.
There’s no shame in the GT350’s 4.3-second zero-to-60-mph run, or its 12.5-second quarter-mile time. The car is not set up for drag-race launches. Drop the clutch below 4000 rpm and the car will bog a bit as the fat rear tires maintain their death grip on the pavement. Launch it at or above 4000 rpm, while the engine nears its torque peak, and you will roast those tires. That’s why the GT350 is only a tenth of a second quicker than the Mustang GT to 60 mph but half a second quicker through the quarter. This is not an issue on the road or the road course. The increased grip of the R variant’s gumball tires, and the lower rotational inertia of the R’s carbon-fiber wheels [see page 018], puts the Shelby’s acceleration number directly in line with the Corvette’s.
It’s the seamless interaction, that second-nature feel between the GT350’s controls and its excellent body discipline, that makes this car feel so eager, so playful, and so fun. Ultimately, it’s a heavier thing than the Corvette and, while Ford fits aluminum front fenders, aluminum knuckles, and a carbon-fiber radiator support, the GT350 still carries 53 percent of its weight on the front axle, so it tends to understeer during turn-in relative to the Vette on the track. But that’s at the very limit, which you’ll seldom visit on public roads. Otherwise, the GT350 acts as if it were raised on the track, so natural does it feel there. On the road it feels planted and alive. This is the perfect balance.
We wish Ford would allow Track-package GT350 buyers to opt for an upgraded stereo or a nav system that would bring a center screen larger than the playing-card-sized unit in our tester. But if engagement is your primary aim, the GT350 Track package is as engaging a performance car as you’re going to get for less than the cost of a Porsche GT3. It’s that good.
Final Scoring, Performance Data, and Complete Specs
2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
|PRICE AS TESTED||$70,830||$56,970|
|LENGTH||176.9 inches||188.9 inches|
|WIDTH||73.9 inches||75.9 inches|
|HEIGHT||48.6 inches||54.2 inches|
|WHEELBASE||106.7 inches||107.1 inches|
|FRONT TRACK||63.0 inches||63.3 inches|
|REAR TRACK||61.7 inches||63.7 inches|
|INTERIOR VOLUME||F: 52 cubic feet||F: 55 cubic feet
R: 30 cubic feet
|CARGO VOLUME||15 cubic feet||14 cubic feet|
|ENGINE||pushrod 16-valve V-8
376 cu in (6162 cc)
|DOHC 32-valve V-8
315 cu in (5163 cc)
|POWER HP @ RPM||460 @ 6000||526 @ 7500|
|TORQUE LB-FT @ RPM||465 @ 4600||429 @ 4750|
|REDLINE / FUEL CUTOFF||6500/6600 rpm||8250/8250 rpm|
|LB PER HP||7.5||7.2|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed manual||6-speed manual|
MPH PER 1000 RPM/
|AXLE RATIO:1||3.42, limited slip||3.73, limited slip|
|SUSPENSION||F: control arms, leaf spring, anti-roll bar
R: control arms, toe-control link, leaf spring, anti-roll bar
|F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|BRAKES||F: 12.6-inch vented, grooved disc
R: 13.3-inch vented, grooved disc
|F: 15.5-inch vented, cross-drilled disc
R: 15.0-inch vented, cross-drilled disc
|STABILITY CONTROL||fully defeatable, traction off, competition mode, launch control||fully defeatable, traction off, competition mode, launch control|
|TIRES||Michelin Pilot Super Sport ZP
F: P245/35ZR-19 (89Y)
R: P285/30ZR-20 (95Y)
|Michelin Pilot Super Sport
F: 295/35ZR-19 (100Y)
R: 305/35ZR-19 (102Y)
C/D TEST RESULTS
|0–30 MPH||1.8 sec||2.0 sec|
|0–60 MPH||3.9 sec||4.3 sec|
|0–100 MPH||8.7 sec||8.9 sec|
|0–150 MPH||22.1 sec||22.1 sec|
|¼-MILE @ MPH||12.2 sec @ 119||12.5 sec @ 119|
|ROLLING START, 5–60 MPH||4.4 sec||4.7 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 30–50 MPH||12.6 sec||10.9 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 50–70 MPH||11.5 sec||11.3 sec|
|TOP SPEED||181 mph (drag ltd)||175 mph (redline ltd, C/D est)|
|BRAKING 70–0 MPH||149 feet||171 feet|
|1.05 g||1.00 g|
|CURB||3452 pounds||3790 pounds|
|CG HEIGHT||18.0 in||19.0 in|
|TANK||18.5 gallons||16.0 gallons|
|RATING||91 octane||91 octane|
|EPA CITY/HWY||17/29 mpg||14/21 mpg|
|C/D 200-MILE TRIP||16 mpg||14 mpg|
|IDLE||52 dBA||54 dBA|
|FULL THROTTLE||89 dBA||90 dBA|
|70-MPH CRUISE||71 dBA||73 dBA|
Max Pts. Available
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51
|FIT AND FINISH||10||8||9|
|FUN TO DRIVE||25||25||22|
* These objective scores are calculated from the vehicle’s dimensions, capacities, rebates and extras, and/or test results.