Here is why the Shelby GT350 is more fun than any modern BMW M Car
Digging a little deeper into the sometimes underappreciated greatness of arguably the best (Pony) Car to ever come out of the United States.
Look, I do not intend on hating on BMW's M cars. Actually, they are rather great, and that is why I make this comparison. M division cars are and always have been the benchmark for fast performance saloons and coupes with the perfect blend of daily usability and performance as well as driver engagement. The lower to mid-range M cars, like the M2, M3 and M4 are also fairly similar in overall layout and philosophy. Simply put, they are all big power, front-engined, rear wheel drive fun boxes, capable of accommodating at least four people. Also, I actually am - at least to a certain degree - somewhat of a BMW fanboy. I have driven a lot of M cars, and I personally own the "lesser" "M Performance" version of the 2 series, the M235i, which I love to pieces. And still, on the day I got to drive a Shelby GT350, this car totally changed the way I look at "fun and engaging" performance cars. I am not sure if this is good or bad, as I am uncertain if I will ever be able to be exited about driving a sports car anymore. And here is why.
The modern BMW M car has become a little too perfect for its own good. Yes, I know, I sound like a broken record of many motoring journalists but there is actually some degree of truth behind that statement. You sit in it, start it up, put it in drive (unless you have a manual) and off you go. Anyone at about any skill level will be able to take it safely from A to B, without firefighters having to scrape them off of a tree on the side of the road. Also, the overall level of refinement is something that makes it perfectly usable on daily bases, but slightly gets in the way of pure fun and excitement when pushing it, and also makes it rather dull and boring when you are just pootling around. The GT350 is the perfect antidote to that.
But before we start raving about its greatness let us get one annoying thing out of the way first. The overall quality of the interior. Mustangs generally have come a long way in terms of interior. I have driven all "modern" generations from early S197s , to facelifted S197s, to various S550s. You can really feel the steps they took over their respective life-cycles. But unfortunately they are still lagging a long way behind their European counterparts. Well, they are actually not only worse than their direct competitors, for Christ's sake even a modern (f56) MINI interior blows them out of the water in terms of materials, fit and finish. You want an example, let us talk toggle switches for a second. A very neat design feature that makes an interior really stand out these days. Both have toggle switches. In the MINI, they feel and look expensive, have a great tactility to them, and crucially, they can be pushed in both directions - up and down. In the Mustang, they feel cheap, plasticy, and - this is what really frustrates me every time I interact with them - only can be pushed upwards. Can any Ford engineer maybe tell me why that is? Why do I even mention something like that? a) It bugs me every time I drive a Mustang and b) this scheme unfortunately applies to most of the interior. Looks good at a first glance, falls short on closer inspection.
BUT - driving a Shelby GT350 you could not care less about the interior, because the moment you start up that utterly sensational engine you will quickly forget about anything that bothers you with the car or shall I say with the world in general.
1-5-4-8-3-7-2-6 - That's the firing order of its very special, 526HP, naturally aspirated, 5,2l "flat plane crank"-engine, codenamed "Voodoo". It has been exclusively developed for the GT350. A mass producing car manufacturer like Ford, developing a bespoke engine for just one car in its entire lineup is really something special. Especially given the fact we are living in days that are driven by cost cutting measures such as platform unification, powertrain standardization and joint developments between manufacturers it is really something you could not applaud the Ford Motor Company enough for doing. And what an engine it is.
Firing it up, it erupts a noise that will get your dear backside removed from any European track day before you can say the words "sorry, what did you just say?" It is rather shocking at first, that something like this is street legal. It is a slap in the face of all idiotic European automotive NVH regulations, and I love it for that. You also quickly notice, that this is no "ordinary" American V8 you are dealing with. And that is just a sneak preview of what awaits you once you are on the roll and getting into the strides of its rev-band.
Putting it into gear, taking off and rolling through the gears for the first time, you are also pleasantly surprised by the engine's brilliant partner-in-crime. I am talking about its fabulous Tremec "TR-3160" manual 6 speed transmission. Also something you will not get in "lesser" Mustangs. Up until now I had no idea, that an American car manufacturer can come up with a transmission that has such a short, precise and mechanical interaction. You also really have to manhandle it, therefore it is hugely engaging, a joy to use, and it can give you rifle bolt style gear changes when really punched through the gears.
These two factors combined mean that just cruising around town gives you incredible amounts of entertainment and interaction, of the sorts you just do not get in modern BMW M cars or pretty much any kind of performance cars anymore. A brief throttle blip on downshifts lets pedestrians on the sidewalks frantically jump aside. As dumb and childish as it may sound, when you witness something like that, you know you do not need silly sound enhancers that pipe fake engine noise into the cabin. Yes I am looking at you dear German car manufacturers.
Finally putting it through its paces you really get to know its true character. And it is that of an unleashed, fully in its element acting psychopath. The first time revving its powerplant you are short-shifting way before its actual rev limit of 8250 RPM. Yes you read that right, 8250 RPM in an American V8. And the thing is, that 5000 RPM already sound like nearly double the actual revs. So next time you try, you keep your foot in it and what awaits you above 5000 is nothing short of sensational and simply eye watering. The engine note changes from an already very nasty high pitched rumble to a frenetic scream that resembles a wild lion herd chasing down 50 elephants. The whole car takes over these frequencies to a point where it starts rattling and shaking, giving you the impression it is about to fall apart. Just pure insanity. Then punching it from second to third right at the limiter you are encountering a nice little sidestep of the whole rear of the car, which can be quite unsettling at first. That alone gives you such an adrenaline rush, that you want to do it all over again. Never before have I felt such a wild and visceral acceleration in a car. I have driven faster cars, but none of those were able to replicate the experience, that the GT350 gives you when you are letting it loose. Accelerating hard is also a very engaging act, as you really need to work all the revs the engine has to give to wholly unleash all its 526 raging horses, and its full straight line potential. Below 4000 RPM not a lot is happening, which is very "Un-American", as typical American V8s tend to be very torquey at low revs. Keep it above 5000-6000 and it really starts to fly. Also, not everyone will be able to simply stomp on it, because it actually takes skill and all of your focus and attention if you do not plan on being cut out of the car's wreckage and taken care of by paramedics - "Richard Hammond style". And that is in the end all that matters. It is not about the numbers, it is about how a car makes you feel and what it demands from you as a driver.
But the thing is, it is not only great in a straight line, which may be a common misconception about American cars. It will also go around corners in a - for its weight and size - surprisingly agile, precise and direct manner. The pure rock-solidness, compliancy and outright grip it generates during cornering are really its final party trick that round up the whole package, and crucially, make sure it does not fall short of German performance cars in the overall "dynamic department". The only handling caveat is its pretty strong tendency to pick up road undulations and let the steering wheel go wild if you let loose too much. The steering, like the transmission and engine also needs your full awareness. This can sometimes be unnerving, but also adds to the overall driving sensation. This car needs to be packed by the scruff of its neck, and you should never fully relax.
I could drool all over this fantastic car for hours, but that would make this article even longer than it already is. The bottom line is, that this maniac of a car is simply unmatched by anything I could think of in terms of unfiltered engagement and interaction, drama, and pure entertainment at any speeds. All these traits are being delivered in bucket loads to the lucky driver that gets to experience this very special machine. Everyone should drive one of these at least once in a lifetime. This is a car that needs to be worshiped for what it is. A very well set up, and dynamically capable performance coupe, with a great manual transmission and a history making, gloriously sounding masterpiece of an engine, of the sorts we might not be able to ever witness again. And for that, it tops the list of the best, most fun, and most exhilarating cars I have ever driven.
Sorry M girls and boys...