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Car Report

2012 Shelby GT350

It has often been said that you should never meet your heroes because you’ll likely be disappointed. For better or worse, one of mine is a car.

Born five years before me, the 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 was already a classic by the time I reached the age of automotive awareness. The first real thoroughbred Mustang, its Guardsman Blue stripes over white livery remains iconic today, and pristine originals command prices well into the six-digit range.

That being the case, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never get the chance to drive one in anger on a racetrack. That opportunity certainly passed a couple of decades ago.

So, it was with childlike glee that I welcomed the news that Shelby American was resurrecting the name on an all-new Mustang in celebration of the 45th anniversary of the original. Yes, I see you are good at math. The year 2012 marks the passage of 47 years. Well, the new car -- based on the 2011 Mustang, actually -- was unveiled in January 2010, 45 years after the first one was. And even though we’re just in 2011 now, the Mustangs currently on sale are 2012 models, and not technically anniversary models. To be honest, for all I care they could call it the Centennial Edition, just let me drive the car.

Changes to the stock Mustang start on the outside and work their way in. There’s a custom body kit that includes a deep front fascia, twin nostril hood, rocker panel extensions, fully blanked out rear quarter windows and some work on the rear end that fills in the concave trunk lid and adds 1967-68 Mustang-type back up lights to the bumper skirt, to further upset the time-space continuum. Six-piston Baer front brake calipers peek out from behind a unique set of Cragar rims. Red, white or blue paint schemes are all available, but if you choose anything other than white with blue stripes I want nothing to do with you.

Underneath, the GT350 gets an upgraded suspension that uses a mix of parts from the Ford Racing catalog and some of Shelby’s own pieces. A caster and camber kit tips the top of the front wheels in so far that the car looks bow-legged. This is fitting on a ride that wears the name of a real Texas cowboy like racing legend Carroll Shelby.

All of the above and a few bits more will cost you $26,995 on top of the price of a new Mustang GT, which runs about $30,000, or $35,000 if you opt for the convertible. Of course, if you’re going to drive around in a car that looks like the GT350, you’re going to want to be able to kick butt no matter what it’s up against. An extra $7,000 will let you do that.

That outlay buys you an intercooled Ford Racing supercharger running at 8 pounds of boost and a custom Borla exhaust system that combines to increase horsepower from a stock 412 hp to 525 hp. The thunder emitted by it under full throttle is like velvet-wrapped brimstone, and nearly worth the price on its own. Imagine the voice of a stock car character from the world of the movie “Cars” named Barry Whitewalls, and you get the idea.

Keep the wallet opened a little longer and you can add plenty of track day performance goodies including the Baer 6-piston rear brakes, high performance cooling package, watts link rear suspension and aluminum driveshaft that the car waiting for me in the paddock of Pocono Raceway was outfitted with.

It also had a full interior upgrade that mostly consisted of a lot of silver plaques with serial numbers and Shelby’s name, but also a three-pack of gauges on the A-pillar for fuel pressure, oil pressure and supercharger boost, as well as nifty red, white and blue leather boots for the six-speed manual transmission gearshift knob and handbrake lever.

With all of this in mind, I fired up the GT350, slipped it into first gear and set off for a leisurely drive out of the speedway exit to the nearest gas station to fill up. As you’d expect, outside of its natural habitat the thoroughbred is a little unhappy, but its tight suspension isn’t anywhere near punishing enough that you’ll need to trailer it to the track. Shelby American says it’ll even get 25 mpg on the highway if you take it easy, but as a post-title package, don’t expect to find the proof on the EPA fuel economy website.

With a belly full of premium, I headed back to the speedway, where I joined a bevy of Mustangs in attendance for the annual Ponies in the Poconos event. Spotting a break in traffic, I dropped the clutch and hit the banking of Turn 3 going in the opposite direction that the NASCAR cars do. It did not take long to get through it. The GT350 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in under four seconds, and feels every bit that fast. Power is there from the moment you step on the gas all the way up to its 7,000 rpm redline, where your only thought is “Can I have more, please?”

But after the rev limiter answers “no,” you reach the braking zone and something even more wonderful happens. Despite a longish amount of pedal travel -- at least in the well-worn example with 4,000 miles on the odometer that I drove -- the nearly 2-ton beast slows down like it’s got chutes attached. Rotate the steering wheel to put the Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 tires to work, and the GT350 turns in with the alacrity of a much smaller and lighter vehicle as it glides through the turn in a perfectly neutral stance.

The GT350 is the first Mustang I’ve ever written about that I won’t reflexively describe as “prone to understeer.” Even if the front starts to wash out in a curve, you just have to press on the gas pedal a little harder to let loose the rear tires and bring the tail around. All the while the body remains perfectly controlled, just rolling back to center with no rebound as you set up for the next corner.

For a while I considered that I might be experiencing the haze of driving a great car unfettered by the fear of the long arm of the law, but then I noticed something: A Nissan GT-R in front of me that managed to infiltrate the event. It shouldn’t have, because I – a third-rate driver, at best – made quick work of it. Soon afterward, I found myself looking at the Boeing 737-size rear wing of a Mustang FR500S from the SCCA World Challenge racing series.

On the straight sections, he couldn’t shake me if he tried, and I know that he did. After taking advantage of his extra downforce and near slick rubber to put some space between us in the twisty section, I watched him lock up the tires and sail through the cones as he missed the chicane at the end of the fastest part of the track.

The only bad thing that comes to mind about the Shelby is that the seats – reupholstered buckets from the stock Mustang GT – don’t offer nearly enough support to keep up with what the rest of the car can do. It’s a sentiment seconded by a GT350 owner at the event who swapped them out for a set of racing seats, something you’ll definitely want to do if this is your sort of thing. If not, please don’t buy this car. Only 350 will be made for 2012, and I’d hate to see them go to waste.

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Boyhood dreams rarely come true, but this one certainly lived up to a few decades of buildup. Sure, it wasn’t the real deal, but I’ll take it. I’ve driven a lot of Mustangs over the years, even owned a couple, and the GT350 is easily the best of the bunch. It’s everything I hoped that my hero would be. Unfortunately, I have another.

In 1969, Ford introduced the black and orange Mustang Boss 302, a race car for the road that is very much in the same vein as the Shelby. This year, they started making a new one to celebrate that car’s, what, 42nd anniversary? I just hope that I don’t have to wait another five years to get my hands on one. Until I do, the GT350 is my boss.