People do insane things in search of thrilling new heights. Some leap off mountainsides with kites strapped to their backs. Some take psychotropic drugs. Heck, someone obsessed with hitting the ultimate high even came up with the castrati.
Ford officials think they have a better way to reach new heights, and their efforts center on three words: Flat-plane crank. The 2016 Shelby Mustang GT350 has been fitted with just such a crankshaft with the goal of reaching stratospheric engine speeds and big horsepower. Job done: the crank enables the naturally aspirated, 5.2-liter V-8 in Ford’s muscle coupe to rev all the way out to 8,250rpm, churning out big numbers in the process. In fact, this is the highest-revving V-8 in Ford history, capable of more revolutions than nearly every engine on the market, regardless of size. As you might imagine, all of those whirling parts creates a deliciously unholy racket en route to realizing 526 horsepower at 7,500rpm and 429 pound-feet of torque at 4,750 rpm.
While members of the media have yet to get behind the wheel of the race-ready coupe, I recently strapped in to the passenger seat for some hot laps on one of Ford’s favorite test tracks, Grattan Raceway, a demanding, 10-turn, 2-mile road course sitting just northeast of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It’s here where Ford says a prototype GT350 recorded lap times within one-hundredth of a second of a Porsche 911 Carrera S with its PDK twin-clutch transmission, and within one-hundredth of a Chevrolet Corvette fitted with the optional Z51 package. That’s an incredible claim — not only is the Mustang GT350 much larger than those two vehicles, it’s also heavier, yet it’s markedly less expensive — under $50,000 to start.
What’s more, Ford maintains the even racier GT350R that provided my thrill ride is quicker still. Utilizing specially formulated, ultra-gummy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber wrapped around innovative carbon-fiber wheels, Ford says the GT350R is the stopwatch equal of Porsche’s $130,000 911 GT3 at Grattan, itself over a second quicker than a race-ready Chevy Camaro Z/28, this Mustang’s most obvious rival.
There were no elapsed times recorded on my laps, but my resulting neck strain and thoroughly sloshed-about cerebellum suggests Ford isn’t exaggerating. The GT350R may possess the most authoritative soundtrack of any production Mustang in memory, but it also shows evidence of having the best lateral grip and brakes I’ve encountered on a street-legal car in some time. That, combined with a surprisingly compliant suspension works out to a machine capable of blistering road-course speeds.
The GT350’s unexpectedly sympathetic suspension is furnished by MagneRide, the same high-tech, electronically adjustable magnetorheological shocks found on sports cars like the Audi R8 and any number of Ferraris. For my hot laps, the Ford engineer in the driver’s seat put our GT350R in Track mode to relax its safety nannies to allow for more wheel slip and chassis rotation. However, he “knocked the suspension setting back down” to Sport mode (a rung lower in terms of stiffness) in acknowledgement of Grattan’s less-than-perfect surfacing. The result was a surprisingly flat and compliant ride, even when leaping over a blind crest only to land cleanly and stab the massive Brembo brakes getting set for a corner.
Despite a fondness for higher engine speeds, flat-plane-crank V-8s remain something of a rarity outside of race cars because they tend to produce more noise, vibration and harshness, and they’re also physically larger, necessitating more room under often-cramped hoods. It’ll take a street test to know for sure, but the GT350’s tractability doesn’t appear to be any worse because of the inclusion of the flat-plane crank, and the howling, naturally aspirated soundtrack when all eight cylinders are on boil seems more than appropriate for a high-performance track car.
Both the $49,179 Shelby GT350 and the $62,670 GT350R (pricing includes gas-guzzler tax) utilize the same 6.2-liter V8, but the R gains the aforementioned lightweight carbon wheels, saving 60 pounds of unsprung mass (resulting in 40 percent less rotating inertia). The R also dispenses with all manner of extraneous features in a quest for lower weight. Jettisoning items like the rear seats means that the GT350R weighs in at 3,650 pounds – about 110 lbs. lighter than the standard GT350.
You might expect a modern track car to use a fancy computer-controlled dual-clutch transmission, but all GT350s will be paired with a lightened, specially reengineered Tremec TR-3160 six-speed manual for maximum durability and driver engagement. And if you’re hustling down the track and can’t risk stealing a glance at the tachometer before nailing the next gear change, the GT350 will even oblige with new programmable shift lights that display along the lower edge of the windshield, head-up style.
For all its apparent on-track prowess, Ford seems to understand that high performance alone won’t make this car a success. GT350 program members confided to CNET that they’ve been closely monitoring the fortunes of crosstown rival Chevrolet’s Camaro Z/28. General Motors’ similar-of-mission street-legal race car launched to great fanfare and rave reviews from car magazines and racers in 2014, yet industry analysts say sales have been tepid at best (Chevrolet doesn’t break out Z/28 sales). Ford seems to think that’s got a lot to do with the Z/28’s hefty $72,000 asking price, and considerable work has been expended to keep GT350 sticker prices down.
At first blush, it seems Ford has succeeded at creating not just a worthy, less-costly rival to the Z/28, but also one heck of a Mustang for both track and street. We won’t know for sure until we hear the howl of that flat-plane crank V-8 from the driver’s seat, which should happen in the next couple of months.