Driving the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R Heritage Edition

Author: Bradley Iger | 11/10/2020 < Back to Motor Life Home

Fifty years from now, when contemporary vehicles do the lion’s share of the driving and the most emotive element of motoring experience is the infotainment system’s social media widget, old gearheads will sigh wistfully. And when they offer the old chestnut about how “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” they’ll refer to cars like the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R.

Here’s the thing, though: The GT350R is already out of step with the world it exists in today. It’s a visceral, uncompromising performance machine that’s just barely civilized enough to be a road car. There’s no advanced hybrid system, no forced induction. There’s no rear-wheel steering or torque vectoring. Instead, Ford chose to focus on the sports car fundamentals: a powertrain purpose-built for high-RPM responsiveness, a sophisticated track-tuned suspension, boatloads of mechanical grip and, above all, driver engagement.

With that in mind, we thought it would be wise to spend a few days assaulting the twisting tarmac of the Angeles National Forest with the new Mustang Shelby GT350R Heritage Edition. The limited edition package will serve as the GT350’s swansong for this generation, as Ford will soon put the naturally aspirated Shelby out to pasture to make way for the upcoming Mach One.

Inside And Out

Before Ken Miles took on Ferrari in a GT40 at Le Mans, he first made a name for himself in SCCA B Production class racing at the helm of a competition-spec ’65 Mustang Shelby GT350. Colloquially known as the GT350R, Ford sold 34 of these turn-key race cars to competitors across the country, each wearing the Wimbledon White paint hue with contrasting Guardsman Blue stripes. These drivers would go on to make the GT350R the SCCA’s B-Production champion for three years straight, in turn helping to redefine the Mustang’s place in the automotive performance food chain.

The 2020 Shelby GT350R Heritage Edition can be looked at as something of a love letter to those original 34 cars, decked out in the throwback paint scheme and outfitted with Guardsman Blue badging. Although the primary mission of the new GT350R differs from that of its purpose-built race car ancestors, this road-going machine undoubtedly does the nameplate proud.

Under the hood is Ford’s venerable Voodoo V8; a 526 horsepower, 5.2-liter V8 that’s equipped with a unique flat-plane crankshaft that enables the naturally aspirated mill to wind out to an eye-watering 8250 RPM redline. Mated to that revy mill is a close-ratio Tremec six-speed manual gearbox – the sole transmission available with the GT350 and GT350R – which sends the power to a Torsen limited slip differential with a 3.73 axle ratio.

The GT350R also benefits from a handful of notable upgrades that go above and beyond the standard GT350. Along with its more aggressive aero and suspension tuning, the R scores adjustable strut mounts and a set of trick 19-inch carbon fiber wheels wrapped in a staggered set of specially-developed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber that measures 305mm in width up front and 315mm in the rear. The wheels shed 65 pounds of unsprung weight, and with the deletion of the rear seat, the R is about a hundred pounds lighter than a similarly equipped GT350.

The Heritage Edition also debuts on the heels of a mechanical refresh for the GT350R. The updates focus mainly on the chassis, with the R receiving revised front suspension geometry and a high-trail steering knuckle borrowed from the GT500 to improve steering feel, while the MagneRide adaptive dampers have been retuned for better ride compliance and stability, and the ABS software has been tweaked for later intervention.

This all bodes well for a sports car that has already proved its worth, but then again, the automotive world has changed quite a bit since its debut four years ago. To find out if the GT350R still has the magic that we recalled so fondly, we strapped in and headed for the hills.

Behind The Wheel

As with many track-tuned cars, the characteristics that make the GT350R such a joy on a road course come at a compromise to its behavior in every day driving. For instance, the aggressively bolstered Recaro buckets are excellent sport seats that will keep you firmly in place during the high-G maneuvers that this car is capable of, but it comes at the cost of adjustability, features, and overall comfort. That’s to be expected in a car like this, to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss lumbar support and air conditioned ventilation.

And, like the GT350R we tested a few years ago, the beefy Cup 2 tires cause this car to tramline in almost every groove or pothole it encounters. The front end’s waywardness on less-than-perfect road surfaces means you can’t really let your guard down while cruising – you just never know when a crack in the road is suddenly going to point the nose toward the center divider.

With that said, the GT350R is actually fairly easy to live with otherwise. Sure, the suspension’s stiff, but with the dampers set to Comfort it’s not overtly abusive. The clutch also feels no heavier than that of a garden-variety Mustang GT, yet the GT350R’s Tremec gearbox is miles ahead of the former’s MT82 – both in terms of its short, positive throws and its close-ratio gearing. Ford has also managed to provide bespoke hard buttons for many of the important drive mode characteristics, allowing the driver to tailor the car’s behavior to taste on the fly rather than being forced to endlessly thumb through menus to create a custom preset that will probably need to be tweaked again and again depending on the driving situation. That may seem like a minor inconvenience, but it’s the kind of thing that can become a significant source of irritation over time.

GT350R engine bay

Although the GT350R’s naturally aspirated, 526 horsepower V8 has been supplanted by the GT500’s 760hp supercharged mill as the most powerful engine in the Mustang lineup, the Voodoo V8’s unique flat-plane growl and soaring 8250 RPM redline make it one of the most emotive modern power plants ever put into production.

Any quibbles we have with the GT350R as a daily driver instantly dissolve once we get the car into its natural habitat. The Shelby attacks mountain roads mercilessly, encouraging you to explore an expansive rev range that doesn’t reach peak HP until a lofty 7500 RPM. Track mode loosens the reins of the electronic aids, adds weight to the steering, and lets the exhaust sing at its full race car-like song.

The damping in this setting is a bit too stiff for the less-than-perfect surface of Angeles Crest Highway, but a tap of a toggle button on the steering wheel corrects the issue, switching the dampers to Sport while leaving everything else alone. With the GT350R properly dialed in for the environment, the magic is still there. The tenacious grip, braking capability, and overall feedback remind us that this isn’t merely a showcase for an exotic engine design – it’s a complete American sports car package.

Enthusiasts are pretty spoiled for choice right now – there’s no shortage of great performance cars available today at nearly every price point. But the GT350R isn’t just a great performance car. It’s a special performance car.

By all measure of automotive business sense, it probably shouldn’t exist – as a sports car it’s perhaps a little too earnest for its own good. But Ford built it anyway. And that’s the kind of approach that breeds legends.

Despite the fact that the Heritage Edition Shelby isn’t a turn-key race car like the original GT350R was – the Voodoo-powered Mustang GT4 would actually be a closer approximation in that regard – the modern GT350R is a stunning performer in its own right.

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