2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R first drive review: Prescription strength grip and balance – Roadshow

Standing in front of the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, is a deja vu moment. Five months ago, I caned the non-R GT350 around this same track, nestled in the suburbs of Detroit. The 2019 GT350 boasts a host of go-faster updates that help it blitz around short, challenging 1.5-mile track. This sharper GT350R, then, should be a real peach.

Trickle-down performance 

The chief upgrade to the GT350R is a redesigned front suspension and high-trail steering knuckle, both of which are borrowed from the upcoming GT500. These upgrades improve balance on track while also making the car less susceptible to tramlining on public roads -- the latter of which is a big problem with the GT350. In addition, a new steering rack and electric power steering tuning allow for sharper and easier track driving. 

All of that joins the GT350R's existing list of performance goodies, like two-mode adaptive dampers, monstrous six-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo brakes, and meaty 19-inch 305/30 front and 315/30 rear Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, wrapped around carbon-fiber wheels. Those wheels account for roughly 60 of the 88 pounds of weight savings the R boasts over the standard GT350. The remaining 22 pounds comes from the removal of the Mustang's rear seats and the exhaust resonators. 

Out on the M1 Concourse, the R does everything you tell it to, once some heat is built up in the Michelins. The Brembo clampers wick away speed in a hurry, allowing you to dive into brake zones later than you'd think. Cranking the steering wheel results in the front end immediately turning in, and there's an absolute ton of grip, easily getting you to apex and track-out points.

When the GT350R tackles M1's ridiculously tight hairpin turn, you'll get a hint of understeer as you feel the front tires reach their limits through the communicative steering, but it's quickly dealt with by rotating the rear end around using the throttle. Everywhere else on the track, the GT350R never sets a foot wrong, with dynamics that are approachable at the limit, yet retaining a raw and massively entertaining personality. 

Carbon fiber wheels, Brembo brakes, and Michelin tires are part of the GT350R's deal.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

A big part of the R's personality can be credited to the 5.2-liter, naturally aspirated, flat-plane-crank V8 thumping away under the hood, with 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque. The engine is unchanged from the GT350, which is fine, because it's wonderful. With muscular, linear power delivery up to its 8,250-rpm redline and soul-stirring engine note, this is one of the best V8 engines available anywhere. Instant throttle response and well-spaced pedals allow for heel-and-toe shifting, making downshifting before turning a breeze. For fans of automatic rev-matching, you're out of luck -- Ford doesn't offer that feature in the GT350R.

Is there a difference between the standard GT350 and GT350R around M1? Yes. The R is more eager to turn in and has a touch more grip through corners. It's just not quite so apparent around M1's tight confines, but no doubt the increased grip levels will be more noticeable and appreciated on a larger road course with wider, higher-speed complexes.

Tolerable on road

While the R's main mission in life is torching race tracks, owners are likely to be spending a fair amount of time on normal roads, too. A very brief drive on city streets outside the M1 track reveal firm bump stiffness, light steering and a less boisterous exhaust soundtrack -- with the car in its Normal drive mode, anyway. Medium to large impacts are certainly felt inside the cabin, but it's not overly uncomfortable. Short trips around town and driving to and from a track day won't wreck occupants. 

The GT350R is firm on road, but it's not jarring.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Of course, with great power comes poor fuel economy. The EPA estimates the 2020 Shelby GT350R will return 14 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg highway. Those numbers are low enough to warrant a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax, too. Not uncommon for a car like this, but still -- yikes.

Inside, the R is the same as it ever was, save for some red accent stitching and GT350R badges. Standard Recaro front race seats are comfy and tightly hold passengers in place, and you don't need to worry about scooching up to accommodate rear passengers since, you know, you can't bring any. There's serviceable space in the trunk, too, with 13.5 cubic feet of area on offer.

On the tech front, the GT350R employs Ford's Sync 3 infotainment interface, housed on an 8-inch touchscreen. A nine-speaker audio system, satellite radio, Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard. Navigation with real-time traffic and a new 12-speaker B&O sound setup are optional. For safety, a rearview camera is standard (because it's federally mandated), while available features are limited to blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R will set you back $73,435 to start.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

The R premium

The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R is in dealers now with a base price of $73,435, not including $1,095 for destination or $1,300 for the gas-guzzler tax. With that amount of coin, customers can also have a 650-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE that begins at $69,500 and have a lot more power to boot -- the American muscle car wars are certainly fierce.

So, if you're in the market for the most powerful, track-focused pony car you can get your hands on, the Chevy is likely going to be the one for you at the moment. But if you're like me and appreciate a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine, and value a car that feels genuinely special when driven on track, the Shelby GT350R might be the one for you.

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