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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Muscular Mustang GT350 can dance

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I’ve wrestled the twin-striped snake before.

The 662-horsepower, Cobra-badged, 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang — distinguished by its supercharged, 5.8-liter V-8 — could strike quickly at a stoplight, hitting 60 mph in just 3.4 seconds. It could also bite you back. Based on the solid-rear axle, sixth-gen chassis, the Shelby was a reptile-by-the-tail in the twisties. In the rain it was downright diabolical. Give the big V-8 too much boot and you could take out a whole block of mailboxes.

The all-new, razor-sharp, curve-carving 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang is not that car.

Indeed, I should check the wedding registry at The Henry Ford. I swear the GT350 married a Ferrari California and spawned a child. Despite the Hatfield and McCoy history of the two companies (cue the Ford GT supercar’s war on Ferrari at LeMans next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their last assault), Ford engineers went to Ferrari school.

Pay attention, class. There will be a quiz at the end. Under the football-field-long hoods of the Mustang and Ferrari beat flat plane-crank, V-8 engines. Until now the exclusive territory of Ferraris and race cars, the flat crank is a Ford first. It was worth the wait. The GT350 team chose the lightweight design for its inherent, high-revving character while engineering out its less desirable tendency to shake like a wet dog. The result is a smooth eight-holer that revs to (no kidding) 8,250 RPM with an endless torque band over 3,500 RPM that will have you begging for more.

But the Shelby’s handling is the revelation here — allowing this snake to transcend muscle car stereotype and compete with more expensive exotics.

I admit some trepidation before taking the big pony out on Laguna Seca, California’s legendary Mazda Raceway last week. The 2.3-mile rollercoaster is appropriately brought to you by the makers of the sprightly MX-5 Miata. This is a track that demands nimble handling. Even its lone straightaway has a blind kink in the middle that requires a deep breath in the smallest of cars.

I’ve flung 1,400-pound Barber School formula cars, 2,400-pound Alfa 4Cs, and 3,400-pound, AWD Subaru STIs around Mazda Raceway, but never a 3,800-pound muscle car. Forget Oakland County in the rain. A GT500 would be a challenge around Laguna in the most-experienced of hands in the dry.

The GT350 is a revelation from the first turn of its Cobra-tattooed steering wheel.

My striped steed crouches with astoundingly good corner manners for a big palooka. The clutch pedal is too long, but ceases to be an issue as I launch up the hill toward the famous Corkscrew turn, all 526 ponies straining at 8,000 RPM in third gear. I snatch fourth near the summit and imagine Pegasus sprouting wings and flying across San Francisco Bay — but as I slam on the huge, 15.5-inch front brakes, the Mustang crouches again, nailed to the pavement. No drama. No search for the eject button. Over the heart-in-your-mouth, straight-drop Corkscrew with throttle — with throttle! — my confidence soars. By the time I’ve reached final Turn 11, I am Hiccup in “How to Train Your Dragon.” We are one. I slide the rear end under throttle onto the pit straight and fearlessly attack the kink. Get thee behind me, trepidation.

Credit additions like “MagneRide shocks” and sticky, bespoke Michelin rubber. But more importantly, the stem-to-stern, comprehensive remake of the sixth-gen Mustang. With its independent rear suspension, revised double-knuckle MacPherson front, and lighter skeleton the ’15 expanded the playing field for Ford’s formidable performance team.

“We did the usual tricks to make the GT350 more suited to the track,” says Adam Wirth, the car’s chassis dynamics engineer. “But the new chassis gave us so much to work with.”

How much?

“Frankly, we didn’t see the need for a chassis brace,” he continues when pressed on why the Shelby doesn’t bear a bat-winged support like Cadillac ATS-V or BMW M4. “The basic chassis is that good.”

Perhaps. Or maybe Mustang is watching costs and holding something in reserve pending Camaro’s response to the GT350. Because respond it will. Talking Mustang vs. Camaro is like rehashing Balkan territorial disputes: after a few minutes you’re arguing about wars that happened centuries ago. In the case of Detroit’s muscle car rivals, the Battle of the Sixties.

This is the first GT350 since Carroll Shelby’s modified 1965-68 models started a Detroit arms race that by decade’s end had Roger Penske Camaros and Ford Boss Mustangs exchanging body blows in the Trans Am ring.

Ford has dusted off the Texas gunslinger’s badge for good reason: Chevy’s Camaro Z28. The 505-horsepower track weapon combines formidable power with track savvy and set a new benchmark for performance. Mustang’s new chassis gives the Shelby added versatility, from producing a base, $48K GT350 that is comfortable both on and off the track to the bonkers, $66K GT350 R which can not only arm-wrestle the Z28 but challenge Porsche GT3s too.

Speaking of GM’s finest, the R completes a murderer’s row of Detroit muscle. Got $70K? You have a choice between the ’Stang, Camaro Z28, Dodge Hellcat, or Corvette with Z51 track package.

Indeed, with its quicker, more cobra-like reflexes, the GT350 signals an evolution of the muscle car. This new generation deserves consideration as a discount competitor to the Cadillac ATS-V and M4 — if not on interior appointments (essentially unchanged from the Mustang GT), then in looks and good road manners.

The GT350 is confirmation that Ford hit the bulls-eye with its controversial, sixth-gen design.

The Mustang is burning up the sales charts because its styling is both retro and refreshingly modern. While some of my most partisan Mustang pals complain the pony’s snout had been Fusion-ized, it has a distinct presence on the road. The new Shelby (available in Competition Orange, Avalanche Gray, Shadow Black, Triple Yellow Tri-coat, Deep Impact Blue, Magnetic, Race Red and Oxford White) distinguishes itself from the base pony with all-new body panels from the doors forward. The lower, shark-like snout gets carbon fiber for stiffening, and the corner fog lamps have been replaced by air-sucking nostrils to cool the massive brake shoes.

Thus the Shelby’s most distinguishing feature: The vertical shark’s gills behind the front wheel which suck air from the brakes. It’s a subtle but effective touch — like gills exhausting the Corvette Z06’s similar, 15.5-inch front rotors.

But don’t think the GT350 is the last word. There’s an arms race on. Can a 700-horsepower, GT500 Hellcat-fighter be far behind?

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.

2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang and GT350 R

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Price: $47,795 base ($57,970 GT350 as tested)

Power plant: Flat-plane crank, 5.2-liter V-8

Power: 526 horsepower, 429 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.7 seconds (Car & Driver estimate)

Weight: 3,791 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/21 mpg highway/16 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Athletic handling; revs to the moon

Lows: You call those rear seats?; touchy clutch

Overall:★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★