For once, all the rumors were correct. Ford's reveals of the new-generation Raptor and yes-they're-building-it Ford GT at their press preview at the Detroit Auto Show weren't the only news from the "Ford Performance"brand. Finished in the same shade of metallic "Liquid Blue" as the aforementioned show stopper introductions, the Shelby GT350R flat-crank roared its way onto the display platform from back stage and twirled a tire-spinning 180-degree turn to a surprising amount of cheering from the assembled press.
If there was anything about the pre-show rumors that was not correct, it was the belief that the 350R would stand in essentially the same relationship to the standard GT350 as the Boss 302 Laguna Seca did to the not-so-plain-Jane Boss back in 2012. While the basic idea of the GT350R is similar to that of the Laguna Seca, there's more differentiation—and even more visual drama.
To begin with, there's a 130-pound weight savings from deletions (rear seat, air conditioning) and additions (the first-ever mass-market application of carbon-fiber wheels). Not to worry, you can add the comfort stuff back with an optional package if you're so inclined. A far more visually aggressive aero package includes a sharply-angled rear spoiler rendered in carbon fiber and a new front splitter that is deep and aero dynamically complex.
What will the GT350R be like to drive? Our experience with the 2015 GT Performance Pack, which lapped the Motown Mile faster than a 2012 Boss 302, shows that the base car is a solid foundation for a track car. A few hundred extra pounds and a less aggressive suspension package can't quite undo the clear advantages gained from the much stiffer S550 platform and the remarkably effective independent rear suspension. Most notably, the new Mustang offers much more detailed feedback from the steering, which helps the driver extract a quicker lap time in ways that aren't readily apparent from the lateral-grip and quarter-mile numbers.
Adding the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that come as standard equipment on the "R" will further exacerbate this steering-feel advantage. Our experience with the standard 2012 Boss 302 and Laguna Seca models back-to-back indicated that it was not always perfectly easy to work the Laguna Seca's Pirelli P Zero Corsas at their absolute limit on anything besides a billiard-smooth track. This was partially due to the live rear axle, but it was also a function of steering that was outstanding for a pony car but only adequate by sporting standards. The new Mustang is much better. For this reason alone, look for the GT350R to obtain a bigger lap time advantage over its "base" sibling than the Boss 302 Laguna Seca could eke out.
The GT350R doesn't need the X-brace of the Laguna Seca,but it does benefit from track-oriented changes ranging from the alignment and ride height to spring settings, anti-roll bar stiffness, and a new calibration for the MagneRide.
Which leads to the question: How will the GT350R fare against the Camaro Z/28? Well, the bowtie fans in the audience won't want to hear it, but this is likely to be a two-hit situation: The GT350R is going to hit the market, and the Z/28 owners are going to hit the aftermarket looking for ways to keep up. Not only is the 500--horsepower flat-crank Shelby engine likely to offer more area under the curve than the LS7, particularly in the rev ranges that really matter to track day drivers, the S550 GT has already shown itself to offer more feedback and more driver satisfaction than the relatively massive and inert current-generation Camaro.
While the Z/28 is spectacular in the right environment—like the Alan-Wilson-penned Thermal Club racetrack where it impressed us inApril of 2014—around the Motown Mile our staffers preferred the stock GT to the super-Camaro. The Shelby enhancements will only widen the gap.
Of course, the Camaro's primary weaknesses, namely size and weight, are likely going to be rectified by the Alpha-platform successor when it arrives. A Camaro with the Z/28's power and the back road aplomb of Cadillac's ATS might reset the rule book in a hurry. GT350R driver might rule the roost when they get the keys from the dealer in late 2015, but the future after that is much less certain.
Which leads us to the obvious question, or at least the obvious question to the gearheads around the R&T offices: If there's a market for even more hardcore versions of hardcore pony cars, why isn't Chrysler in that market?
Not with the Hellcat, mind you; that's a well-rounded boulevardier that just happens to deliver the raw power of a General Electric turbo jet.What about an SRT8 with R-compound tires, adjustable suspension, no back seat,an X-brace, and a high-revving variant of the 6.4-liter? Call it the F6F, maybe. It might not be able to whip the GT350R on a racetrack, but it might be close enough for unusually skilled Mopar pilots to close the gap around VIR or Laguna Seca.
Only time will tell, but in the meantime, trust us: If you have a deposit with a Ford dealer for a GT350, you need to pick up that phone and make sure you can add the "R".
It'll be worth the money.