When we last met the Shelby GT350 Mustang, it was in its base form, and while the GT350 certainly proved to be a very track ready offering, the feeling that it had more lurking underneath its imposing bodywork was hard to ignore. The intoxicating snarl of its 5.2 liter 526 horsepower V8 certainly does its best to distract you from thinking such things, but despite its attempts at luring you into its charms, the feeling of more still permeates the overall driving experience. Ford engineers have felt the same way too, and have unleashed a new iteration of the Shelby Mustang GT350R for 2020. But can the latest chapter in the R story still resonate well with buyers, and will its new upgrades also allow it to standout from a field of high performance muscle cars that are creeping closer and closer to its domain? We were keen to find out the answer, and in the process we learned a lot more than we could ever possibly imagine.
Exterior Refresh Manages To Keep All The Essentials Intact:
Like the GT350, the “R” variant benefits from a very light exterior refresh that aims to refine some of its rougher edges. The overall look is still very mean, purposeful, and straight to the point, but the “R’ adds some of its unique flair to the overall package. This includes a healthy dose of red, with the brake calipers, the red pin striping along the edges of the optional stripe package, as well as the red hued GT350 badging. But the upgrades go far beyond mere splashes of red paint, with the “R” gaining a bigger front splitter, as well as a bigger rear wing that is designed to help improve rear downforce. Like the GT500, and its lesser GT350 counterpart, the “R” is available in a wide swath of colors including the eye grabbing Grabber Lime green that adorned the two testers we took both on the road, as well as through M1’s twist and turns.
The carbon fiber wheels also aim to shave precious amounts of weight, and certainly look good doing it. But be careful near curbs since these exotic hoops are not cheap to replace should they suffer from accidental curb rash. When viewed as a whole, the GT350R is a welcome enhancement on the GT350 formula, and with the Chevrolet Camaro facing an uncertain future, and the Dodge Challenger starting to show its age, the GT350 in both of its forms is a welcome breath of fresh air, and the broader impact of its track ready message is noticeably amplified in “R” guise. This is especially apparent when you leave a track environment, and take the GT350R on your daily commute. Ford reps allowed us to briefly take one up and down Woodward Avenue before the track portion of our day began, and the amount of stares (and even a lone appearance of a camera phone) generated by our tester certainly helped it be a highlight of the typically mundane traffic scene that defines a fall day in Michigan.
Race Ready Cabin Is Eager To Please:
Like the exterior, the interior of the GT350R also benefits from a number of changes that help it be more race ready than the base GT350. The seats for example are the same Recaro Sport cloth seats that also see duty in the GT350. Here in the “R” though, these thrones benefit from more side and thigh bolstering that does a really good job of holding occupants in place when the car is thrashed about on the track. The seats themselves receive red accents, and the backrests themselves even feature an “R” logo that adds a bit of uniqueness to the cabin’s presentation. All GT350R models are also identified by a special dash mounted plaque that denotes where in the production order each on falls into. Other goodies include an optional carbon fiber panel for the dashboard, splashes of Alcantara trim on the steering wheel, as well as a red center stripe on the steering wheel.
Ford engineers also wanted to give customers the opportunity to make this track ready vehicle a friendlier one for the rigors of every day commuting. Like the GT350, buyers benefit from standard dual-zone climate control, an optional Bang & Olufsen 12 speaker audio system, as well as heated and cooled front seats. But don’t let these luxury appointments fool you into thinking that the GT350R has gone soft, since there are several track focused bits baked into the overall presentation. The front seats feature all manual adjustments, while all GT350Rs come standard with a rear seat delete that helps cut weight, but forces you to resort to drawing straws to find out which lucky friend gets to join you in the front passenger seat. Driving the R around town reveals a lot of tire noise, and the removal of the exhaust resonators (another attempt to shave precious pounds) allows more exhaust note to enter the cabin with all the exciting pops and bangs that come with it. Visibility is also commendable for a track focused vehicle, though the bigger rear spoiler does cut into rear visibility somewhat when undertaking lane changes. When compared to the Chevrolet Camaro 1LE, however, the Mustang does come out on top in this regard, with the Camaro giving occupants the feeling they are in a pillbox especially in regards to side visibility. The GT350R will never be known for the cave like cargo capacity boasted by its corporate utility vehicle cousins, but having a trunk that is bigger than the Camaro and is within firing range of the Challenger’s is a welcome plus that certainly cannot be ignored.
Turning Up The Heat With Sharper Handling And Confidence:
When we took the standard GT350 around the twists and turns of the M1 Concourse, we loved the way it handled itself around the 1.5 mile track, and considered it one of the best track offerings we ever experienced. However. slip into the GT350R, and be prepared to experience some of the inner potential that now has the chance to shine when it is tossed about on the track. Like the iconic transformation Goku undergoes in the iconic Japanese anime Dragonball Z, The GT350 taps into a whole new level of track capability. Ford engineers learned valuable lessons from developing the GT500, and as a result, the “R” model benefits from a number of features that were borrowed from the range topping serpent. The revised front suspension features all new geometry, as well as an all new redesigned high trail steering knuckle that is borrowed from the GT500. While this setup does help eliminate the front end tram lining that defines the GT350 and its lesser cousins, the new suspension also allows the “R” to have unreal amounts of grip and confidence when tasked with the rigors of track work. The steering benefits from an upgraded rack as well as a tweaked electronic power steering control unit and they played a key part in giving drivers a high degree of confidence when negotiating some of the tougher portions of the M1 track. The GT350R comes equipped with numerous driving modes, and while we kept things in comfort for road work, as well as sport mode for our first few learning laps, we eventually switched things to track mode, and it is here in this particular mode where the GT350R unleashes all of its full potential, and helped make every one of our hot laps a fun experience. The added downforce created by the bigger rear spoiler greatly improves rear stability, while the bigger front splitter helps keep the front end poised and ready for action. The weight saving measure employed on the “R” also help make it an easier steed to handle, and you are spared from dealing with the extra flab and bodyroll that defines the Camaro and the Challenger.
But while the revamped suspension and aerodynamic aides do their best to hog the spotlight, the 5.2 liter flat plane crank V8 lurking under the R’s flowing hood provides drivers an ample reminder about its role in achieving perfect balance in this very potent recipe. The “R”s upgrades don’t extend to the engine, but we’re not complaining considering that this flat plane crank equipped wonder still produces a stout 526 horsepower, and an equally potent 429 lb-ft of torque. This translates into potent acceleration when exiting corners as well as lengthy straightaways. The engine is at its best when it is allowed to reside in the lower portions of the rev band, and like the GT350, the amount of torque available in this region delivers instant response when powering through switchbacks and allows the “R” to be truly in tune with the driver. Also the exhaust note that enters the cabin at full song is 100% real, with no infusion of fake noise from the stereo.
A six speed manual is the only transmission available, and per usual, shifts were clean, accurate, and precise, with the clutch being light enough to easily modulate especially when doing heel toe shifts. Braking in both of our testers was strong and controlled, with the “R” shedding high amounts of speed with little drama and fuss thanks to its solid rotor discs, as well as the Brembo four and six piston brake calipers that also come along for the ride. Meanwhile, sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires deliver high levels of grip, and they allow the “R” to have high cornering limits, while also allowing drivers to find and stick the apex of tight turns far longer than you were able to in the standard GT350.
Pricing for the 2020 Shelby GT350R starts at $73,435 which technically makes a base “R” more expensive than the base GT500 which starts at $72,900 before options and fees are factored into the equation. The two Grabber Lime testers we drove on the road and the track had a final estimated sticker of $77,030 with this figure easily approaching the $80,000 barrier when other select options are added. These include the stripe packages that are available, as well as the $695 contrasting roof paint. This pricing puts the “R” in the firing line of the more powerful but ergonomically flawed Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, and the Challenger Hellcat.
Ford engineers were also eager to point out that the GT350R was also benchmarked against several international rivals including select BMW M and Mercedes AMG models,. While the Germans have more polished interiors and trick automatic transmissions, they simply cannot replace the levels of old school cool and driver involvement offered by the whole GT350 family.
While the discussion of which Ford performance Mustang is the best will be clouded by the 760 horsepower GT500, a few Ford excecs that were on hand admitted that they prefer driving the GT350R over the that particular model. After experiencing the GT350R’s unique flavor on and off the track ourselves, its easy to see why its old school character still manages to win over buyers young and old when all is said and done.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.