LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

In the beginning there was the 1965 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang. The first performance mule based on the wildly popular Dearborn coupe. The first Mustang developed between Ford and racing genius Carroll Shelby. The first, track-focused pony car.

Rejoice Mustang faithful. The legend has returned.

Just in time for its 50th birthday, the Shelby GT350 is here — the first Ford-engineered GT350 since the first generation went out of production in 1968. On Wednesday, I had a chance to put it the test on one of America’s most challenging race tracks, Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca, California. Lookout Camaro Z28. The muscle car wars are going nuclear.

In that great racetrack in the sky Carroll Shelby is smiling. The GT350 not only lives up to his name, it promises a car as comfortable on the street as it is fearsome on the track. But let’s begin on the track, where the GT350 made its name collecting Sports Car Club of America trophies by the bag-full.

As part of its new performance division, Ford has developed a coven of assault vehicles from the Ford GT supercar to the Ford Focus RS. The GT350 is Mustang’s contribution, featuring the highest horsepower, normally-aspirated V-8, Ford has ever made. The 5.2-liter mill develops a stunning 526 horsepower, a number that dwarfs performance coupes like the BMW M4 and Cadillac ATS-V and approaches the lofty numbers of supercars like the Porsche Turbo S and Nissan GT-R.

Ford achieves this feat using lightweight, flat-crank engine, a technology rarely used except by Ferrari and purpose-built race cars — that allows the 317-cube V-8 to spin to stratospheric 8,250 RPM. Not even Ferrari’s flat-crank, $240,000 458 (which makes 570 horsepower if you’re wondering) tips the scales as light as the ‘Stang.

Yet the GT350 begins at just $49,995 — pocket change for a Ferrari owner. Even a loaded GT350 R will set you back just $66,495, well south of an air conditioning-less Camaro Z28.

With my foot buried at 8,000 RPM and 125 mpg over the crest into Laguna Seca’s blind Turn One, the sound is glorious. This is not the ground-shaking V-8 rumble I’m familiar with from classic 600-RPM V-8s, like the Shelby GT500 drag-racer that Ford has made since 2007. No, this is more like the high-pitched bellow I hear from NASCAR V-8s that belt out 850 horses at 9,000 RPM.

But the Mustang is more than a pony with an engine. Strapped to Mustang’s new, sixth-generation chassis featuring the badge’s first independent rear suspension and fitted with gummy, specially-made Michelin sport shoes the GT350 is remarkably nimble for a 3,700-pound beast.

As a result, the pony combines the finest attributes of the old, musclebound GT500 and the corner-carving Boss 302. This combination of high-revving power and handling inspired Ford to not only benchmark the car to Camaro’s ferocious Z28 track start, but to look beyond to Porsche’s 911 GT3.

A stretch, you say? Early testing shows the GT350 R — which saves another 100 pounds from the standard GT350 with tricks like carbon-fiber wheels and no backseats — lapping in the low 1.30s at Laguna alongside the Porsche.

Yet this track-focused thing is surprisingly docile on the street. The V-8 makes a pleasing rumble at ignition but quietly strode the boulevards of Southern California in under 3000 rpm. The interior is blessed with Recaro seats, but otherwise GT350 buyers can opt for all the amenities of a Mustang GT with the “tech” package — including the latest version of Ford’s communication system, SYNC 3.

Even owners of the wicked GT350 R — distinguished by its high rear spoiler and first-ever carbon-fiber wheels — can upgrade from the AC-less base to a “electronics” package with all the creature comforts.

Mustang has thrown down the gauntlet to Camaro with the GT350. And with its lightweight, Cadillac ATS-based chassis, the sixth-gen Camaro is sure to respond. Put in your ear plugs folks, the muscle car wars are just beginning.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://detne.ws/1EkYSOY