There ain’t nothing Shakespearean about it. The ponycar wars are no longer a Tempest in a teapot. Gone are the days when Camaros and Mustangs were straight-line beasts (at least in the eyes of their owners) and lacked any sort of handling or finesse.
But what is past is prologue. These days, even the entry-level iterations offer up actual sporty good times. And the midgrade versions—Camaro SS and Mustang GT—can bloody the lip of Europe’s finest. For not a ton of coin, either. Then you have the even more potent and more track-focused stuff, the battle that has raged for 50 years. You need your biggest guns; you want to go into battle with your heaviest weapons. For team Camaro, that’s the ZL1. For the Ford Performance folks, it’s none other than the Shelby GT350R. These are extreme machines, in both monstrous function and opulent excrescence.
Is this the perfect comparison test? No. The naturally aspirated Shelby makes a healthy 526 horsepower from its lovably cacophonous 5.2-liter flat-plane crank V-8. Whereas the Camaro’s relatively subdued 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 produces a mighty 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque—which is over 200 more lb-ft of twisting force than the naturally aspirated Voodoo motor can manage (429 lb-ft). Comparing forced induction to natural aspiration is always a sticky wicket. Not quite apples to oranges—more like apples to pears. You can make cider from both, but there is a difference. At least both feature six-speed manual transmissions—the ZL1 is also available with a 10-speed automatic. Further complicating this test is that Chevy has announced the 1LE version of the ZL1—the nearly palindromic ZL1 1LE. One could argue that the Shelby GT350 is to the ZL1 as the GT350R is to the ZL1 1LE. But as Donald Rumsfeld so sagely said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.”
Also, I’d counter that this is a pretty damn good comparison test. At this moment in time, the GT350R is the highest-performing ponycar Ford makes, and the same is true in regard to the Chevy. They are the beasts atop the food chain, so to speak. Also, in terms of price, they’re right on top of each other. The white ZL1 pictured here stickers for $65,230. The much more limited-production blue and black striped Shelby R: $68,020.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you’re going to have a difficult time picking up a GT350R for the sticker price. Two years after it first went on sale, the ultimate Mustang is still selling for $25,000 or thereabouts over sticker. I’ll never forget the first time I drove an R because although I was conscious of the greedy dealer markup, after one corner, “totally worth it” went through my head. Likewise with the mightiest-ever Camaro, I remember watching my colleague Scott Evans detonate a mushroom-cloud burnout and thinking $65K is a bargain.
The Shelby remains a mystery to me, and here’s why: The GT350 is a Mustang with a brilliant engine. The GT350R—which ostensibly only adds a bit of aero, carbon-fiber wheels, and R compound tires, removes the back seat, and slightly reworks the suspension—is as good to drive as a Porsche GT3. It is a pure and totally wonderful driver’s car. In fact, last year at our 2016 Best Driver’s Car, a Shelby R finished in second place behind the winning McLaren 570S. More impressively, we judged the GT350R better to drive than the Porsche 911 Carrera S, Camaro SS 1LE, Dodge Viper ACR, AMG GT S, Audi R8 V10 Plus, and Acura NSX, among others. Those are serious cars, some of which are outright supercars, yet our judges determined the bright yellow Mustang with the loud exhaust superior. It’s that great.
The ZL1 hasn’t run the Best Driver’s Car gantlet yet, but it stacks up to other cars that we’ve lapped on the big track at Willow Springs International Raceway. The supercharged Chevy (with the six-speed manual) beat the Corvette Grand Sport, AMG GT S, 911 Carrera S (991.2), 911 Turbo S, 991 GT3, and McLaren 570S. To be fair, the 570S was a prototype. But still, damn! Not bad for a Camaro.
In the interest of high-quality reportage, we of course relapped the ZL1 (as fate would have it, our white car is the same car in which Randy Pobst set the 1:26.12 mark in last January) and the Shelby. The first takeaway is that despite being way down on power and torque, the Shelby was only 0.39 second slower around Big Willow than the ZL1. That’s impressive but not surprising. Why not? At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the GT350R laid down a quicker lap than cars such as the Ferrari 458 Italia, various Nissan GT-Rs, AcuraNSX, and Lexus LFA. I claim magic, though as Randy mentioned this time out, “I think that wing is doing something.”
The second thing you should note is that the Camaro ZL1 was 1.74 seconds slower this time out than it was the last time (1:27.90 versus 1:26.16; the GT350R ran a 1:28.29). Same car, same track, same driver. This bothered us, too. So much so that we had Randy write a sidebar explaining why. Regardless, the point is that the ZL1—at least on paper—should be much quicker than the R. But it wasn’t.
What about on the test track? In a straight line, the ZL1’s power advantage was apparent, though not at first. The Shelby hit 60 mph in 4.0 seconds compared to 3.8 for the ZL1. Now, 0–60 times are as much about launch technique as anything else, and road test editor Chris Walton didn’t have an easy time with either car. “I tried five launch control settings, varying the rpm and slip,” he noted for the ZL1. “In the end, I ended up beating the best of those—surface set to general, launch rpm at 3,800, and a slip target of 12 percent—though not by much. I had to make several attempts, but it was about a 0.06-second advantage with my organic-based launch control.” As for the Shelby, he noted: “This car was a whole lot trickier to launch than I remember. Having worn tires didn’t help, either. Because the torque peaks at 4,750, it’s fairly easy to bog it on the launch. The best technique was a 3,200-rpm, clutch-slipping launch to maintain the rpm. Once the tires hook up at about 20 mph, there is an ever so slight dip in acceleration.”
The quarter mile is where the power of the ZL1 overwhelms the R. The Shelby gets down the strip in 12.2 seconds with a trap speed of 119.0 mph. The Chevy rips down 1,320 feet in 11.8 seconds at 123.9 mph. Half a second and nearly 5 mph is pretty significant in drag racing circles.
When it comes to stopping, the two cars are much more even. From 60 mph, the Camaro stops in 97 feet to the Shelby’s 99. Anything less than 100 feet should be thought of as world class. However, take a look at Walton’s comments. “The ZL1’s brakes are so much more effective than they feel,” he said. “I don’t like the long-travel squishy pedal. I prefer a hard pedal and modulating the brake with pressure rather than the distance the pedal travels, as in the ZL1. This pedal is kind of squishy, but the distances are ridiculously short and consistent.” Four separate stops varied in length by just over a foot.
Walton was a much bigger fan of the GT350R’s brakes. “These are absolutely stupendous brakes,” he said. “Very firm pedal, straight as an arrow, no dive, and the distance kept getting shorter as the brakes and tires grew hotter. There were eight stops total: 107, 104, 103, 102, 102, 105, 99, 101 feet.” That last bit helps explain—in my mind at least—the lap times. The Shelby starts working better the harder you beat on it. Still, the checkered flag goes to the Camaro.
The two ponycars are tied in terms of lateral grip. Both show off a peak force of 1.08 g. Just a few short years ago, grip numbers like those would be headlines. Today, they’re merely excellent. In terms of our figure-eight test, you might think that the more powerful car with better braking ability and an equal amount of grip would be the quicker car. You’d be mistaken. The Shelby actually pipped the ZL1—23.1 versus 23.2. (The 10-speed auto version of the ZL1 ran a 23.1-second lap.) The one thing we haven’t talked about is weight, and the GT350R is nearly 200 pounds lighter than the ZL1—3,713 pounds versus 3,912. That big lump of a supercharged V-8—while potent—puts way too much weight in exactly the wrong spot. For reference, the SS 1LE weighs in at 3,735 pounds. I will also go on record stating that I preferred the way the SS 1LE handled compared to the ZL1—and also to the GT350R.