Through Wednesday, Yahoo Autos will unveil the 2016 Ride of the Year awards, our picks for the best of the best among new cars and SUVs. Here’s the second, our Epic Ride of the Year.
The car that brings the neighborhood kids running; the machine you brag about to your friends. The one that replaces caffeine in shaking that morning coma—the car that makes you feel alive.
When we tested 22 of the most important new models of 2016, searching for our Yahoo Autos Epic Ride of the Year, these were the traits we were looking for. And while the competition was hot, one vehicle stood tall above the rest, delivering a driving experience reminiscent of the first time you fell in love.
The word “epic” is often thrown around loosely. But the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang truly defines the term. It’s a car that ensures every fiber in your body tingles before you’ve even turned it on. And when you do, grown adults giggle like pre-pubescent youths, its 526 horsepower, 5.2-liter flat-plane crank V-8 gurgling and popping like a tectonic shift capable of demolishing an entire continent.
You wouldn’t notice if did. The GT350 captivates, in a way few modern cars can. But the Shelby didn’t have it all its own way, reminding us that we live in a glorious era for the automotive enthusiast.
General Motors has been on a tear. The Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 won our Performance Car of the Year 12 months ago and the year before that the Corvette Stingray took our overall prize. For this year’s competition, of our five top contenders for Epic Ride of the Year, three were GM products—the 2016 Chevy Camaro and the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V and wild CTS-V (the other favorite being the Lexus RC-F).
Ford hasn’t matched GM’s capability on the racetrack in recent years—not because its incapable, but because it hasn’t had a model that really demanded it. Cars like the Focus ST and Fiesta ST, while fantastic, require a different level of tuning to a track-ready monster like a Corvette Z06, and the Shelby GT500 was more straight-line maestro than on-track killer. With the return of the fabled Ford GT and a shot once again at Le Mans glory, Ford’s path has now changed. Its muscle car lineup, too, is evolving to one with more focus on lap times. The GT350R, then, is the Camaro Z/28 fighter, a car that’s sole purpose is to excel on the circuit; the base GT350 is somewhere in between—a more polished and improved version of the fabulous Boss 302.
But the new Camaro SS ($45,085 as tested) surpassed our expectations. Now based on the Cadillac ATS platform, with its previously numb steering well and truly fixed, dynamically the Chevy is leagues above its base V-8 competition. Plus it sounds positively menacing. When Chevy unleashes its ultra-high performance Camaros on this new platform in the future, watch out.
As for the ATS-V and CTS-V, well, one is quite sensible while the other is psychotic. Our $74,635 ATS-V, with its 6-speed manual transmission, is a fantastic package for the streets; powerful and yet accessibly fast, measured and controlled, like a well-oiled NFL offense.
The $91,690 CTS-V we tested, on the other hand, is like Jason Bourne—unassuming, until it isn’t. The speed in which its 6.2-liter, 640 horsepower V-8 hits you isn’t just vicious, it’s shocking. The rear wheels spinning even in fourth gear, the supercharger whooshing like the ghost of Mor’du breathing down your neck, the whole driving experience is that of a manic video game. Except it’s not a video game, and on the roads, the heavy-footed may find it apocalyptically crazy. No matter how long you spend at the wheel of the CTS-V, you never acclimatize to the savagery in which it takes off.
Then there’s the Lexus RC-F. While its appearance tends to polarize, there’s no denying it makes a statement. It’s not nearly as nuts as the CTS-V, but it too can be perilous in low gears, looping those with lead toes. Unlike the CTS-V, though, what it gains in bone structure it loses in character; it feels fast, fun, but perhaps not overly special.
Which brings us back to the irrepressible GT350. Unlike our $73,760 Lexus, it has personality in abundance. It’s a Camaro SS and an ATS-V turned up to 11, and a CTS-V minus the beige four-door body panels. While the Mustang’s power is intense, its speed remains usable day-to-day. And the noise it makes and the fact that it revs to 8,250 rpm and its precise manual shifter and its Recaro seats that hug you tighter than a mythological serpent. It’s so engaging, so evocative, so American, and, well, so epic. It’s everything a Mustang should be. It’s everything the fabled GT350 nomenclature deserves.
And that engine.
Flat-plane-cranks are typically reserved for racecars (or Ferraris). They’re a little rough, based on the uneven way the pistons fire, but in GT350 application, you barely notice it. Which means you’re gifted the full delight of a burly V-8 spinning to over 8,000 rpm. During our five days of intensive testing in Michigan, it didn’t scream through the range like a Ferrari; it retains that muscular pull that ensures by 5,500 rpm you’re twitching to shift gears. And yet you don’t shift, not for a very long time. This is when the GT350 comes alive—unleashing an entirely new character that all our judges found both refreshing and intensely engaging.
Then you arrive at a corner. That’s when the GT350 proves itself as the best Mustang ever made, one where we finally feel the new independent suspension working in a performance environment, and the optional magnetic ride suspension—the first application ever on a Ford—ensuring it cruises subtly enough to retain daily usability. For $63,495, the GT350R variant is best performance bargain on the market—genuinely delivering Porsche 911 GT3 levels of capability. As for the $47,795 base GT350 ($56,790 as tested with the optional $6,000 Track Pack), you’re still provided a driving experience so uniquely distinct and exciting. While value is not perhaps the overriding factor in determining the Yahoo Autos Epic Ride of the Year, in this department, the GT350 wins hands down.
The Shelby isn’t perfect; its clutch feels sticky when fully depressed and the cabin features more plastic that its rivals (it’s also not fuel efficient, but then this isn’t an environmental contest). Compared to the Camaro, though, the Mustang feels more special (unsurprising, given it is a more focused model). The same applies for the ATS-V, and while the CTS-V left all our testers weak at the knees, its unassuming bodywork hardly screams to be featured on the bedroom wall (and at over $90,000, it was the most expensive car we tested). As for the Lexus, well, we applaud its bold design, but as a driver’s car, it can’t quite compete with the Shelby.
In a world filled with vehicles that are both fast and potent, the Shelby GT350 Mustang does what its competition mostly does not—it makes you feel alive. It’s a future classic, one whose value will surely soar. And it’s a machine that remains attainable with some diligent saving. Above all, the GT350 reminds us why we fell in love with cars in the first place, and why we love to drive them. For 2016, there was much debate, but zero doubt among our judges: The Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang is epic.