Michael SimariCar and Driver
It may seem crazy to compare the Ford Mustang to a Porsche 911—until you consider the growing size of the Mustang lineup. Like the 911, there's seemingly a Mustang for every buyer. There's an entry-level turbocharged four-cylinder all the way up to the 760-hp Shelby GT500 and even an EV with the Mustang name is coming soon. Right in the middle of that range are the GT and the Shelby GT350. Both bring impressive yet still relatively affordable performance and track-ready handling. But which is the better value? Is the GT350 worth the extra cash? We took these two pony cars to the track to find out.
On paper, both the GT and the GT350 are very similar. Both have a naturally aspirated V-8, a six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, and are within three pounds of each other on our scales. But a closer look reveals some major differences. Under the GT's hood is the Coyote 5.0-liter V-8 with a conventional cross-plane crankshaft and a 7400-rpm redline. Output is a glassy smooth 460 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. The Shelby GT350, however, has Ford's Voodoo V-8, one the most special engines of the decade: a rev-happy and gritty 5.2-liter V-8 with a flat-plane crank and a hair-raising 8250-rpm redline. The GT350 delivers 526 horses and 429 lb-ft of twist. The GT's six-speed is a Getrag unit, while the GT350's stouter gearbox comes from Tremec, with each transmission having unique gear sets tailored to the very different engines.
To even up this matchup, we selected a GT coupe with the optional Performance Package Level 2 (PPL2), which, for $6500, adds magnetorheological dampers and larger front and rear brake rotors with six-piston Brembo calipers in front. Additional goodies include extra chassis bracing, additional cooling capacity, aerodynamic enhancements, a Torsen limited-slip differential, and super-gooey 305-section-width Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 summer tires at all four corners. An active exhaust system is $895, leather-wrapped Recaro buckets are $1595, and our test car came with $2200 in creature comforts that pushed our test car's bottom line to $51,640.
In addition to its unique and more powerful V-8, the Mustang Shelby GT350 justifies its higher asking price with additional chassis updates that sharpen its already honed reflexes. For 2019, Ford recalibrated the standard magnetorheological dampers, stiffened the front springs by 10 percent, softened the rears by six percent, and fitted a stiffer rear anti-roll bar. Like the GT PPL2, the GT350 now rolls on standard 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, albeit in a staggered setup with 295s up front and 305s in the rear. Our test car was fitted with the optional $850 Handling package, which adds a Gurney flap to the rear wing and adjustable camber plates for a more aggressive setup. Add in-dash navigation, an upgraded stereo, and some driver-assist features for $2000, as well as vinyl stripes for $475, and the total came to $64,860.
At the Track
To see how the GT fared against the GT350, we headed to the 2.2-mile road course in nearby Grattan, Michigan. Both the GT and the Shelby GT350 thunder down the track's long front straight and make ferocious noises. The GT's 5.0-liter emits a deeper and more guttural exhaust note versus the menacing high-rpm wail of the Shelby's 5.2-liter. Both cars arrive to the Turn 1 braking zone at speeds above 130 mph, but how each reacts to the big braking event reveals some differences. The GT PPL2's slightly wider front tires bring plenty of stopping grip—stops from 100 mph require 281 feet to the GT350's 289—but the PPL2 squirms and dives onto its nose in a way that unsettles it. Do the same thing in the GT350, and it remains relatively level and planted, which helps its pilot focus on not blowing the corner entry.
The PPL2 has more grip than the GT350—1.13 g versus the GT350's 1.09 g. That advantage aside, we prefer the way the GT350 rotates and responds to weight transfer. The GT350's loss of grip is more fluid and easier to predict. Both Mustangs have minimal body roll, but the GT350 is more composed in quick left-right-left transitions. The PPL2 isn't as responsive and feels a bit skittish as a result. There's more boost and lighter efforts through the GT's steering wheel, and, at times, it can feel a bit nervous. It's a good setup for track work, but the GT350's steering is even better, more alive, communicative, and better at placing the car within an inch of where you want it. Perhaps it's the additional camber provided by the Shelby's camber plates that allow it to change direction more assertively, but it's clear that the recent refinements to the GT350's track-tuned chassis have resulted in very special handling.
You get what you pay for in the GT350 when it comes to what's under the hood. Not only is the Voodoo V-8 more powerful, but the 5.2-liter's sky-high redline keeps it churning away after the GT has to shift. The GT PPL2 does have a rev-matching-downshift function that the GT350 lacks, but it's slow to call up the right rpm on really quick gear changes. You're better off blipping the throttle with your foot. We also prefer the greater accuracy and lighter effort of the Tremec TR-3160's shifter in the GT350 to the GT's Getrag 'box. As a result of the additional power and superior handling, the GT350 turned laps that were nearly two seconds quicker around Grattan than the GT PPL2.
The Bottom Line
Even at the well-optioned $51,640 as-tested price, we can't deny the GT PPL2's price advantage. It becomes an even better value if you consider the PPL2's $44,950 entry point. For those looking for a Mustang that'll tackle a track, the PPL2 will never fail to impress and delight, but consider investing some of the savings into a differential cooler. In other track tests we've managed to overheat the GT PPL2's differential in just a few laps. You might also want to put $1800 of the savings aside to replace the sticky and relatively short-lived Michelin tires. The GT350's narrower front tires will save you $400 when it comes time to buy a new set. While both of these Mustangs boast serious performance chops, as our last comparison test of $60K sports cars showed, the Mustang Shelby GT350 is a very special car. The bigger price on the window sticker is commensurate with its added benefits.