As one of twelve automotive journalists Ford invited to drive the 2020 Shelby GT350R, I was able to spend ample time with the purpose-built track car to become familiar with its performance, both on and off the track.
To test the GT350R’s performance, Ford brought us out to the same track where I had previously driven the 2020 Shelby GT350. The 1.5-mile circuit at the M1 Concourse, in Pontiac, Michigan, features 25 feet of elevation change throughout the course, and a mix of tight, sharp corners with fast, sweeping turns.
What Makes the 2020 Shelby GT350R Different From The 2020 Shelby GT350?
What surprised me most about the GT350R was how different it feels from the GT350. While I found the 2020 GT350 to be a serious contender as one of the best Mustangs to date, the “R” distinction makes an enormous difference. The GT350R comes across a bit rawer and less refined.
Visual differences that set the GT350R apart from the GT350 include red-painted brake calipers, red pinstriping, and Shelby GT350R badging. Carbon fiber wheels come standard on the GT350R, in addition to a larger front splitter and rear wing.
Previously, the 2016 model did not offer air-conditioning, a rear seat, trunk panels, or any major stereo components. The 2020 model comes with an optional “Technology Package” that consists of a 12-speaker sound system, a blind-spot system, cross-traffic alert, and voice-activated navigation.
Other visual differences inside the GT350R include high-contrast red stitching, Shelby GT350R badging, and a D-shaped steering wheel complete with a red center mark at the top.
Like the 2020 GT500, Ford has not updated the front fascia for performance reasons, but unlike the GT500, the GT350R does not come with the standard model’s 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. My guess would be to save weight, but the performance data display could be useful. Still, the 2020 GT350R represents a thoughtful update to a popular track car.
Does It Have More Power?
Like 2016+ models, the GT350 and GT350R come powered by a 5.2-liter, flat-plane-crankshaft, Voodoo V8 rated at 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, redlining at 8,250 rpm. It comes mated to a track-proven, lightweight Tremec six-speed manual transmission.
While the GT350R is purpose-built for the track and its engine revs eagerly, power does not develop in large turbo-like globs; instead, it comes linearly with predictable performance. It largely maintains its composure when the throttle is aggressively (or recklessly) applied. The only time the acceleration dips is when it’s time for a gear shift.
The transmission is appropriate for track driving, as the urgency to change gears allows us to ignore its short-throw notchiness felt on public roads and in the pits. While I found the clutch on the GT350 to be forgiving and easy to handle, the clutch on the GT350R is more aggressive and has more travel to it.
How Does It Handle On The Track?
The first corner behind the wheel of the GT350R felt tight, and the rear end felt stable and planted, while the nearly nonexistent redline of the 5.2-liter V8 revved on with a glorious, addictive, deep-throated, erotic exhale on the straightaway.
The GT350R feels considerably lighter thanks to the rear-seat delete, carbon fiber wheels, and the removal of its exhaust resonators – the source of its exotic roar. The sound combines the signature rumble of an American V8 with a hint of a high-pitched Ferrari-like scream. The GT350R Brembo brakes seem to bite a little harder and come with a pedal feel that inspires confidence to brake later and more aggressively on each corner of every lap.
Additionally, the GT350R is upgraded with the high-trail steering knuckle from the 2020 Shelby GT500. It receives a redesigned front suspension geometry with a new steering rack and recalibrated electric-power steering to elevate driver confidence and steering precision.
While the revised setup is incredibly quick, it felt a little numb to me and didn’t offer the same direct feedback I got from the GT350. Chassis communication helps make up the rack’s shortcomings, but not ultimately. Despite a lack of feedback, the setup allows the GT350R to rapidly change direction, which only furthers driver confidence to wait until the last possible second to turn in. And the R will respond eagerly every time.
Can You Daily The GT350R?
Where there is a will, there is a way . . . but, only the genuinely hardcore would enjoy daily driving the GT350R as it’s an unapologetic track car first and foremost.
As mentioned above, the suspension updates are perhaps felt most on public roads where the GT350R is impressively well composed. The 2020 iteration doesn’t suffer the same aggressive pull from side-to-side created when the suspension reacts to uneven roads as the prior model did. Instead, it responds well to bumps and imperfections in a relatively stable straight-line. It comes across civilized and relaxed-enough to make driving with other traffic, manageable.
That said, the GT350R has a raw and mechanical feel to it. Those interested in daily driving would most likely enjoy the GT350 more as it’s track-ready but retains enough tractability and creature comfort to make it comfortable.
Is it worth getting the new model?
While the 2020 Shelby GT350 transforms the Mustang from a straight-line powerhouse to a track-capable, agile car for the street or track, the GT350R puts its focus on setting quick lap times. It asks you to drive it harder and faster — daring you to brake later and take each corner deeper.
The 2020 GT350R is a thoughtful update to a popular track car, though the subtle changes make it a tougher sell for owners with an S550 Shelby already.
The improvements to its street manners are significant, but for many amateur drivers, track performance improvements will feel minuscule, except by those who drive the car at its limits.
Regardless, the GT350R remains a likable and confidence-inspiring track car with an accessible level of performance, even if it isn’t radically different for the 2020 model year.