or reasons too mundane to waste paper on, I wandered around the halls of the Detroit motor show while photographer Aston Parrott flew to Los Angeles and picked up the Shelby Mustang GT350. Once I’d finished looking at the Buick Avista and numerous F-150s, I flew to San Francisco, hired a Kia Rio and met Aston in Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose. He had clearly been having a fine old time these past few days.

F

‘Here’s the Mustang and me on the Pacific Coast Highway,’ he says as we sit in the slightly fusty-smelling reception of a rashly prebooked motel, ‘and here we are with a gorgeous sunset at Pebble Beach. We found this great little wine saloon in Monterey. Oh, and there’s the Golden Gate Bridge – there’s a hilarious story about…’ It all sounds lovely, but eventually I have to tell him that I really need

to get some sleep so could we look at the second half of his holiday snaps in the morning?

And now the new day is dawning and it’s raining. I can hear the pitter-patter very clearly because the motel walls are so thin it actually feels like I’m camping out in the storm. Hardly ideal weather for a GT350, but I’m still final-episode-in-a-boxset-find-out-who-the-killer-is-excited

about driving it. In case you need reminding, this Shelby is possibly the most mouth-watering Mustang ever. At its heart is a naturally aspirated 5.2-litre, flat-plane-crank V8. Not only does it put out 526bhp and 429lb ft of torque, but it also revs to 8200rpm. That is high by European standards but stratospheric for an American muscle-car. Add adaptive MagneRide dampers, Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, Brembo brakes, a six-speed manual gearbox linking to a Torsen limited-slip diff between the rear wheels and you have what sounds like a surefire recipe for success.

And a success it has certainly been, with American magazines heaping praise and five-star reviews on it ever since it was launched. However, no-one outside North America seems to

have been able to get their hands on its Alcantara-clad steering wheel. Until now. It feels like quite a responsibility, especially given that American performance cars don’t always translate to European tastes. What we clearly need is a good piece of road to test the GT350 on, something that can

hold a candle to Scotland or North Wales. And, after much searching and a few text messages to a friend who works at the Specialized bicycle company nearby (thank you, Chris), I think I’ve found a suitable strip of tarmac…

An hour or so later the rain has thankfully stopped and the Super Sports are finding remarkable traction as we splash through what water is left on the roads. As we head out of San Jose the Mustang is making a very good first impression, with an exhaust that is unobtrusive on the freeway in Normal mode but then becomes considerably louder and more boisterous when you push the toggle for its Sport setting. It might seem odd to compare it to the Focus RS, but the change in volume and histrionics when you switch between the Normal and Sport modes is very similar in both cars. I can only assume it is the same person within Ford that was responsible for developing them both.

‘In case you need reminding, this Shelby is possibly the most mouth-watering Mustang ever’

The Mustang is actually so raucous in Sport mode that I have to turn it back to Normal while we’re pottering through the ’burbs for fear of inducing a heart attack in some octogenarian Californian. Soon, however, we are climbing free of civilisation and through some incredibly tight and steep hairpins that almost require a shift back to first. The gearbox is a Tremec six-speeder (a TR-3160 if you’re interested) as opposed to the standard Mustang’s Getrag MT-82, and it is a genuinely pleasing device. There is some heft to it, but it feels tight across the gate and in no way obstructive. In some past Mustangs, the ’box felt sufficiently ponderous that you would balk at changing gear if it was a last minute decision, but not so in the GT350, which has a nice short throw and can be rifled through the ratios with the stubby lever.

Our route snakes up and over a small ridge into Joseph D Grant Country Park. This is where The Road begins – a stretch of tarmac more squiggly than just about anything I have ever seen on a map. In truth the first section is too narrow for the Shelby. Despite being only 5cm wider than a BMW M4, it still feels like a big car. It is certainly much more direct than its lesser Mustang brethren, though, and there’s serious grip available, both of which give you confidence when placing it in a turn.

The slopes we’re climbing are those of Mt Hamilton, which sits in the Diablo range. It actually has numerous summits that are strung out along a ridge, each one named after something to do with astronomy (Copernicus, Kepler, etc) as it is home to the Lick Observatory. The sky is so clear today that when we reach the top we don’t need a telescope to see across to the snow-capped peaks of Yosemite way out east. A curious, almost Spanish wilderness covers the landscape that we’re heading into and, more importantly, the road looks spectacular. Aston and I agree that we should spend the morning exploring, so we head off down the San Antonio Valley road, which is a bit wider and very beautiful as it carves through what I assume are ranches, with huge open fields.

‘Launching the Mustang into bends with much more aggression, it begins to feel more alive’

Eventually you reach a junction, which offers you the choice of the Mines road or the Del Puerto Canyon Road. We take the latter, which is lined with reddish rock and is much rougher, exercising the GT350’s MagneRide suspension. Three damper settings are available: Normal, Sport and Track. Perhaps predictably it is the middle setting that offers the best compromise, but the Shelby feels pretty ruthlessly tied-down and short of travel. You’re certainly kept informed of any imperfections in the road surface, and over the bigger bumps I’m sure that individual wheels are getting airborne at times.

Free of the canyons, the road spits us out into a final fast flourish through lush green rolling hills, just before we reach

the West Side Freeway, or Interstate 5. We stop to refuel on unleaded (still amazes me how cheap it is – about $40 for a full tank) and some vitamin water the shade of Calpol. It has been a long drive across the Diablo mountains and now we’ve done our recce the only thing to do is head back the other way, stopping to take some photos at the points we noted on the way over. Typically, of course, the weather has been chasing us and the light is not what it was – ‘unusable’ is the word Aston plucks from the photographer’s lexicon of exaggeration – meaning we stop less often than intended and I get more time to get to know the 350. Fine by me.

By the time we regain the Summit of Mt Hamilton, however, I am slightly puzzled.

It sounds glorious and it is capable of monstrous straight-line speed, but I can’t escape the feeling that in the corners the Mustang is an awful lot of effort for not a lot of dynamic reward. I’ve been driving quickly, although not flat-out, and it feels heavy and hard work, particularly in the first stage of any corner. A big part of the problem is that the steering isn’t giving me enough information, so I can’t judge the grip level. And then there’s the tyres, or more specifically their size. The 305-section rears are big and sticky, but of greater significance is the fact that the 295 section fronts are nearly as broad and tacky, giving the Shelby a pretty square balance.

At seven-tenths you know the front is sticking, but it just feels slightly cumbersome and aloof.

As a result you seem to spend a lot of time steering the big nose through a large part of each bend before you feel confident to get on the throttle and fire it down the next straight. What I want to do is turn in and with that first application of lock instantly feel how much the tyres are or aren’t keying into the surface of the road. That would then give me confidence to get on the power early and start working the car through the majority of the corner with the throttle as well as the steering.

The only thing to do is trust in the tyres’ tenacity. Launching the Mustang into bends with much more aggression as we plummet down from the summit of Mt Hamilton, the 350 begins to feel more alive and enjoyable. It’s certainly

hard work, and it doesn’t exactly feel light on its feet, but it’s much more like the car I had hoped it would be. The six-piston Brembo brakes also prove to be superb allies on the long descent, the middle pedal remaining firm and reassuring from the top of its travel despite the constant abuse. It feels like a slightly frantic drive, but it’s invigorating and I’m certainly buzzing by the end.

That evening I realise that my arms and shoulders are gently aching from the day’s effort. As we eat our Five Guys burgers and slurp on salted caramel milkshakes thick enough to seal a tyre with, I ponder that it feels like I’ve done a session in the gym that is ironically placed in the building next door. It’s not a feeling I’m used to, but I like a challenge. I’m looking forward to driving the GT350 again in the morning…

Even though it’s still dark, the pool of white light from the street lamp makes the differences between the two cars plain to see. I parked up next to a standard Mustang last night and it’s amazing just how much more aggressive the Shelby looks. We’re up early because we’ve only got a few hours before Aston has to take the Shelby back to LA (no doubt via Laguna Seca or the Hollywood sign). Climbing back up through the tight switchbacks, we get the most incredible view of San Jose sprawling in slumber below us, an ocean of orange and white lights.

‘The car is moving nicely underneath me. I finally feel like I’ve got a handle on it’

The run up to Mt Hamilton is taken swiftly, partly as I’m feeling more and more comfortable with the Shelby, but also because we’re chasing a sunrise. The V8 is clearly enjoying the cold morning air and feels incredibly strong. It’s responsive, too, and the sounds it produces are endlessly fascinating. It starts off really gruff and rumbly low down, then from 2000 to 4000rpm there’s a burble almost like a Subaru with a drainpipe exhaust, before changing back into something that is more sonorously V8 but also acoustically much harder-edged. During the final 6500 to 8500rpm you almost get this VTEC timbre, with a slight vibrato right up at the top that is unexpectedly quite harsh.

Perhaps that’s why the natural point to change up seems to be just over 6000rpm, rather than hanging on for the red line at over 8000. When I do steel myself to keep the throttle pinned until the needle is approaching the red hatching, it’s a huge rush that’s almost intimidating, but the 5.2 litres aren’t quite possessed of the sort of screaming, free-revving top end that we’ve become used to with Maranello’s flat-plane-crank V8s. On the road, at least, I think it’s better just to revel in the more natural-feeling band between 4000 and 6000rpm. It’s enough.

One peak that certainly doesn’t disappoint is the one atop Mt Hamilton. As we arrive on the ridge, a palette of pinks and oranges is beginning to bleed into the dark blue eastern sky, so we park up near one of the white observatories and watch the dawn grow ever more violent in its colouring.

After Aston has got some shots in the ‘borderline acceptable’ light, we drop down to the valley where a thin frost is clinging to the fields. Once again we seem to have the place to ourselves. There was a rush around lunchtime yesterday when we saw two cars in the same hour, but apart from that we really have been left in total peace – the Ford V8 a loud lone voice growling in the wilderness.

I’ve decided the best bit of road is the stretch running along the valley before climbing up Mt Hamilton from the east. It’s fast at first and, although the light grey surface is quite loose and far from smooth, it feels like the perfect width and speed for the Shelby. I had thought the hairpins would be the most fun, but actually the limited-slip diff struggles to lock adequately on the steeper 180s and the Mustang feels more fluid on the quicker stuff where it can truly stretch its legs.

By mid-morning I’ve also concluded that I’ve never driven a car that requires you to grab it by the scruff of the neck quite so forcefully to get the best from it. There is a leap of faith that you have to take, trusting rather than feeling the grip in the initial part of every bend where you need to be quick and committed with your first steering input.

Because there isn’t much feel through the wheel (the three different ‘steering feel’ modes just change the weight, not the texture) you need to learn how aggressive you can be with the front end, taking time to gain confidence in the huge grip. As you get braver, you work through the heavy, slightly uncooperative phase at seven-tenths, gradually pushing harder, nudging it faster and faster, until after a while you are almost throwing the front end into corners. It’s only then, once you are really, really pushing it, that the GT350 finally starts to come alive, feel agile and make sense dynamically. Imagine a hi-fi that has nasty distortion at medium volume but suddenly gains audio clarity as you turn it up tub-thumpingly loud and you get the idea.

The GT350 is massively exciting when it’s in full cry, too. As I head along the valley road for the last

time I’m putting in a lot of effort and the suspension still feels ruthlessly aggressive (it’s still in Sport despite everything else being in Track, which slackens the ESC plenty and adds the most appropriate weight to the steering) but the car is moving nicely underneath me and I finally feel like I’ve got a handle on it. The key is to get the nose pointing into the corner and to do so quickly. Once you’ve got the front Michelins hooked on line you can get on the throttle and switch your attention to the rear. Traction is mighty and you’ll feel serious lateral grip pushing your torso into the seat bolsters before it lets go. Then it does so quickly and you need to be paying attention, but if you’re on top of the car then you can hold the oversteer at a small angle and keep driving through the slide as the corner unfurls.

As you get faster still, leaning on the brakes harder and later, using them to lessen the required steering input as you trail the middle pedal into the corners, so the Mustang becomes truly intoxicating. While the engine obviously has enough torque to make progress in pretty much any gear you choose, if you want to keep the car on its toes out of corners you can’t be lazy with your shifts. Down-changes need to be smoothed with footwork across all three pedals, otherwise you’ll unsettle the car on the way into the bends and find yourself grappling with it rather than flowing through. Similarly, the throttle needs careful, precise modulation to keep the roaring 5.2-litres spinning the rear tyres enough but not too much. When you get it right and the speed flows, it is deeply satisfying as you wrestle and coax smooth progress from this hard, brutish, physical car. It’s like teaching a reluctant but ultimately talented bear to quickstep.

By the time I pull into a layby just under the summit, I know I’ve had a drive I’ll remember for a long time. The Mustang is entertaining when you’re pottering about because the sound of the engine is wonderful, the gearbox is satisfyingly mechanical and the view over the striped bonnet is majestic. However, if you want to enjoy it dynamically, then there is no middle ground – you have to commit. All morning I’ve flitted between finding that hardcore nature rather satisfying as I worked to get the best out of it, and at other times feeling that it was making the process of going quickly too much like hard work. Drive a Porsche down the same piece of road at the same speed and you would probably only have to put in half the effort. But that is why I ended up liking the GT350.

No, it won’t flatter or indulge half-hearted commitment. Those massive front tyres make it intimidating and it can be difficult to get under its snakeskin as a result. It doesn’t feel as sophisticated as the spec-sheet might have you believe either. Yet to drive the Shelby GT350 fast engages you totally, immerses you in a barrage of sensations and leaves you feeling very much alive, if a little tired.

It would be interesting to try the Shelby on a track, as that could prove to be its real home. Ironically, I wouldn’t mind betting that the supposedly more track-focused R version of the GT350 is the better road car because of the reduction in unsprung weight thanks to its fancy carbon wheels. Some will say it is all academic anyway, because Ford sadly isn’t going to produce it in right-hand drive. Nonetheless we’d love to try one in the UK.

What I know for certain is that the Mustang couldn’t have wished for a better road than the one we found in the shadow of Mt Hamilton. And the reason I know this is that after I’ve waved Aston on his way, standing and listening to the big V8 diminish into the deserted distance, I climb into the automatic Kia Rio saloon and still manage to have quite the brake-fading hoot as I drive back to San Jose.

‘When you get it right and the speed flows, it is deeply satisfying’

Ford Mustang
Shelby GT350

Engine V8, 5162cc
CO2 n/a
Power 526bhp @ 7500rpm
Torque 429lb ft @ 4750rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff, ESC
Front suspension
MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 394mm front, 380mm rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels
10.5 x 19in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres 295/35 R19 front, 305/30 R20 rear
Weight 1715kg
Power-to-weight 243bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 180mph (claimed)
Basic price $48,695
On sale Now (US only)

SEEING

THE LIGHT

The new Shelby GT350 Mustang packs a 526bhp V8, Brembo brakes, MagneRide dampers and Michelin Super Sport tyres. Has Ford finally produced a muscle-car for European tastes? An epic road holds the answer

by Henry Catchpole
PHOTOGRAPHY by
aston parrott

or reasons too mundane to waste paper on, I wandered around the halls of the Detroit motor show while photographer Aston Parrott flew to Los Angeles and picked up the Shelby Mustang GT350. Once I’d finished looking at the Buick Avista and numerous F-150s, I flew to San Francisco, hired a Kia Rio and met Aston in Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose. He had clearly been having a fine old time these past few days.

‘Here’s the Mustang and me on the Pacific Coast Highway,’ he says as we sit in the slightly fusty-smelling reception of a rashly prebooked motel, ‘and here we are with a gorgeous sunset at Pebble Beach. We found this great little wine saloon in Monterey. Oh, and there’s the Golden Gate Bridge – there’s a hilarious story about…’ It all sounds lovely, but eventually I have to tell him that I really need to get some sleep so could we look at the second half of his holiday snaps in the morning?

And now the new day is dawning and it’s raining. I can hear the pitter-patter very clearly because the motel walls are so thin it actually feels like I’m camping out in the storm. Hardly ideal weather for a GT350, but I’m still final-episode-in-a-boxset-find-out-who-the-killer-is-excited about driving it. In case you need reminding, this Shelby is possibly the most mouth-watering Mustang ever. At its heart is a naturally aspirated 5.2-litre, flat-plane-crank V8. Not only does it put out 526bhp and 429lb ft of torque, but it also revs to 8200rpm. That is high by European standards but stratospheric for an American muscle-car. Add adaptive MagneRide dampers, Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, Brembo brakes, a six-speed manual gearbox linking to a Torsen limited-slip diff between the rear wheels and you have what sounds like a surefire recipe for success.

And a success it has certainly been, with American magazines heaping praise and five-star reviews on it ever since it was launched. However, no-one outside North America seems to have been able to get their hands on its Alcantara-clad steering wheel. Until now. It feels like quite a responsibility, especially given that American performance cars don’t always translate to European tastes. What we clearly need is a good piece of road to test the GT350 on, something that can hold a candle to Scotland or North Wales. And, after much searching and a few text messages to a friend who works at the Specialized bicycle company nearby (thank you, Chris), I think I’ve found a suitable strip of tarmac…

An hour or so later the rain has thankfully stopped and the Super Sports are finding remarkable traction as we splash through what water is left on the roads. As we head out of San Jose the Mustang is making a very good first impression, with an exhaust that is unobtrusive on the freeway in Normal mode but then becomes considerably louder and more boisterous when you push the toggle for its Sport setting. It might seem odd to compare it to the Focus RS, but the change in volume and histrionics when you switch between the Normal and Sport modes is very similar in both cars. I can only assume it is the same person within Ford that was responsible for developing them both.

Eventually you reach a junction, which offers you the choice of the Mines road or the Del Puerto Canyon Road. We take the latter, which is lined with reddish rock and is much rougher, exercising the GT350’s MagneRide suspension. Three damper settings are available: Normal, Sport and Track. Perhaps predictably it is the middle setting that offers the best compromise, but the Shelby feels pretty ruthlessly tied-down and short of travel. You’re certainly kept informed of any imperfections in the road surface, and over the bigger bumps I’m sure that individual wheels are getting airborne at times.

Free of the canyons, the road spits us out into a final fast flourish through lush green rolling hills, just before we reach the West Side Freeway, or Interstate 5. We stop to refuel on unleaded (still amazes me how cheap it is – about $40 for a full tank) and some vitamin water the shade of Calpol. It has been a long drive across the Diablo mountains and now we’ve done our recce the only thing to do is head back the other way, stopping to take some photos at the points we noted on the way over. Typically, of course, the weather has been chasing us and the light is not what it was – ‘unusable’ is the word Aston plucks from the photographer’s lexicon of exaggeration – meaning we stop less often than intended and I get more time to get to know the 350. Fine by me.

By the time we regain the Summit of Mt Hamilton, however, I am slightly puzzled.It sounds glorious and it is capable of monstrous straight-line speed, but I can’t escape the feeling that in the corners the Mustang is an awful lot of effort for not a lot of dynamic reward. I’ve been driving quickly, although not flat-out, and it feels heavy and hard work, particularly in the first stage of any corner. A big part of the problem is that the steering isn’t giving me enough information, so I can’t judge the grip level. And then there’s the tyres, or more specifically their size. The 305-section rears are big and sticky, but of greater significance is the fact that the 295 section fronts are nearly as broad and tacky, giving the Shelby a pretty square balance.

At seven-tenths you know the front is sticking, but it just feels slightly cumbersome and aloof. As a result you seem to spend a lot of time steering the big nose through a large part of each bend before you feel confident to get on the throttle and fire it down the next straight. What I want to do is turn in and with that first application of lock instantly feel how much the tyres are or aren’t keying into the surface of the road. That would then give me confidence to get on the power early and start working the car through the majority of the corner with the throttle as well as the steering.

The only thing to do is trust in the tyres’ tenacity. Launching the Mustang into bends with much more aggression as we plummet down from the summit of Mt Hamilton, the 350 begins to feel more alive and enjoyable. It’s certainly hard work, and it doesn’t exactly feel light on its feet, but it’s much more like the car I had hoped it would be. The six-piston Brembo brakes also prove to be superb allies on the long descent, the middle pedal remaining firm and reassuring from the top of its travel despite the constant abuse. It feels like a slightly frantic drive, but it’s invigorating and I’m certainly buzzing by the end.

That evening I realise that my arms and shoulders are gently aching from the day’s effort. As we eat our Five Guys burgers and slurp on salted caramel milkshakes thick enough to seal a tyre with, I ponder that it feels like I’ve done a session in the gym that is ironically placed in the building next door. It’s not a feeling I’m used to, but I like a challenge. I’m looking forward to driving the GT350 again in the morning…

Even though it’s still dark, the pool of white light from the street lamp makes the differences between the two cars plain to see. I parked up next to a standard Mustang last night and it’s amazing just how much more aggressive the Shelby looks. We’re up early because we’ve only got a few hours before Aston has to take the Shelby back to LA (no doubt via Laguna Seca or the Hollywood sign). Climbing back up through the tight switchbacks, we get the most incredible view of San Jose sprawling in slumber below us, an ocean of orange and white lights.

I’ve decided the best bit of road is the stretch running along the valley before climbing up Mt Hamilton from the east. It’s fast at first and, although the light grey surface is quite loose and far from smooth, it feels like the perfect width and speed for the Shelby. I had thought the hairpins would be the most fun, but actually the limited-slip diff struggles to lock adequately on the steeper 180s and the Mustang feels more fluid on the quicker stuff where it can truly stretch its legs.

By mid-morning I’ve also concluded that I’ve never driven a car that requires you to grab it by the scruff of the neck quite so forcefully to get the best from it. There is a leap of faith that you have to take, trusting rather than feeling the grip in the initial part of every bend where you need to be quick and committed with your first steering input.

Because there isn’t much feel through the wheel (the three different ‘steering feel’ modes just change the weight, not the texture) you need to learn how aggressive you can be with the front end, taking time to gain confidence in the huge grip. As you get braver, you work through the heavy, slightly uncooperative phase at seven-tenths, gradually pushing harder, nudging it faster and faster, until after a while you are almost throwing the front end into corners. It’s only then, once you are really, really pushing it, that the GT350 finally starts to come alive, feel agile and make sense dynamically. Imagine a hi-fi that has nasty distortion at medium volume but suddenly gains audio clarity as you turn it up tub-thumpingly loud and you get the idea.

The GT350 is massively exciting when it’s in full cry, too. As I head along the valley road for the last time I’m putting in a lot of effort and the suspension still feels ruthlessly aggressive (it’s still in Sport despite everything else being in Track, which slackens the ESC plenty and adds the most appropriate weight to the steering) but the car is moving nicely underneath me and I finally feel like I’ve got a handle on it. The key is to get the nose pointing into the corner and to do so quickly. Once you’ve got the front Michelins hooked on line you can get on the throttle and switch your attention to the rear. Traction is mighty and you’ll feel serious lateral grip pushing your torso into the seat bolsters before it lets go. Then it does so quickly and you need to be paying attention, but if you’re on top of the car then you can hold the oversteer at a small angle and keep driving through the slide as the corner unfurls.

As you get faster still, leaning on the brakes harder and later, using them to lessen the required steering input as you trail the middle pedal into the corners, so the Mustang becomes truly intoxicating. While the engine obviously has enough torque to make progress in pretty much any gear you choose, if you want to keep the car on its toes out of corners you can’t be lazy with your shifts. Down-changes need to be smoothed with footwork across all three pedals, otherwise you’ll unsettle the car on the way into the bends and find yourself grappling with it rather than flowing through. Similarly, the throttle needs careful, precise modulation to keep the roaring 5.2-litres spinning the rear tyres enough but not too much. When you get it right and the speed flows, it is deeply satisfying as you wrestle and coax smooth progress from this hard, brutish, physical car. It’s like teaching a reluctant but ultimately talented bear to quickstep.