2019 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 First Drive: More Accessible Performance

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“Make it more confident and intuitive to drive.” That was the feedback current owners of Ford‘s wild-child, track-rat, flat-plane-crank, manual-only Mustang Shelby GT350 offered when the development team went asking. Although buyers of the Shelby GT350R tend to be pretty accomplished shoes, buyers of the “base” GT350 are more likely to drive their cars daily and take them to a track much less frequently. As such, these owners tend to be less practiced and more fearful of wadding up their babies. The team kept this wish in mind as it pushed the current Mustang platform to new levels of performance while developing the forthcoming GT500, and is now rolling out a new GT500 with higher performance limits that are easier to reach. (The GT350R remains unchanged for 2019.)

Assisting with the aforementioned development was veteran race driver Billy Johnson, who’s spent three years working with the team while also racing Ford GTs and prepping the Mustang GT4 race car, which he’s campaigning this year. Billy apparently shares Randy Pobst’s knack for articulating how a car feels and helping direct changes to make it feel better.

Perhaps the lowest-hanging chassis-development fruit is improving tire grip. Tire Rack can help you do that to your car right now, but when you’re the Mustang team you don’t call Tire Rack—you work with Michelin to custom-tailor a tire for your car, and then you re-tune the entire chassis to take full advantage of the newfound grip. Let’s start with the tires.

Upgrading from Michelin Pilot Sports to Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires represents a serious performance and technology leap. The GT350R has used wider-section versions of this tire from the start (305 front/315 rear to the GT350’s 295/305), and the tires look rather similar. Both feature a broad, featureless outer shoulder for lateral bite, three shallow tread channels (the old Pilot Sports had four deeper ones), and large tread blocks. The tread-wear rating is 180, down from 300 for the old Pilot Sports. We’re told the new ones should last 12,000-15,000 miles on the street (track days will shorten their life—a lot,). The tread compound differs from that of the GT350R. To make it more street-friendly in the “shoulder seasons” (this IS a summer tire), its “glass-transition temperature” (when rubber turns from grippy to hockey-puck slippy) is lower—but never drive on them under a frost/freeze warning. The more angular sidewall profile shape and construction contributes to the way the tire performs in lateral maneuvers (and serves to protect the rims from brushes with the curb). The scant shallow treads suggest these tires would be a handful in the rain, but Mustang chief program engineer Carl Widmann swears they meet the same wet-traction standards as the old one. Ford Performance-engineered tires wear an “FP” mark on the sidewalls that buyers need to insist on when replacing their tires. Frequently. (Tire Rack price: $1,822.74 for a set.)

Working up from the tires, the spring rates are stiffened 10 percent in front, where the anti-roll bar remains unchanged. In back the spring rates soften by 6 percent to coordinate with a larger, stiffer, hollow rear bar (now 24mm, up from 22mm). The Magneride shocks are completely retuned to suit these changes and the new tires, and also to take advantage of improvements in the software and algorithms that have simply come with the march of progress.

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