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Shelby GT350 vs Boss 302 - The Best Mustangs Compared

Three hundred and fifty feet. That was the distance from Carroll Shelby’s office to the Shelby American race car shop. In 1965 Shelby put that number behind “GT” to name of one of the greatest Mustangs ever built. The GT350 saw wild success in racing before the Boss 302 took over in 1969. Fast forward to the 2000s and Ford started reviving old names for the Mustang. Revivals of the Mach 1, Bullitt, Boss, and Shelby followed, in what appeared to be a marketing scheme. Or maybe they were really on to something. In 2012 Ford created the Boss 302, the ultimate track car Mustang aiming at the BMW M3. We compared the two a few years back and in a rare moment Paul and Todd both agreed, declaring the Boss was the best Mustang in the lineup. Then in 2015, Ford unveiled the 2016 GT350, a Camaro Z/28 fighter gunning for the Porsche 911 GT3. Knowing our love for the Boss, and the hype around the GT350, we flew to San Jose for the chance to put them together.

Owner Justin originally emailed Everyday Driver with a Car Debate, but when Paul realized Justin owned a 2013 Boss 302 and a 2016 GT350 we quickly changed from Podcast discussion to full film shoot. As the resident Mustang geek on the Everyday Driver team, Paul called to ask if I’d like to go along. I packed immediately.

We met Justin in the town of Livermore before seeking out a perfect stretch of canyon road. I am handed a red “Track Key” and climb into the School Bus Yellow Boss 302. The exhaust snarls to life before settling into a low burble. The 444 hp 5.0L V8 responds to every input of the throttle. I promptly chase the Shelby up the canyon. The Boss feels the way Mustangs have for years, only very planted even with the rear end, a live axle configuration, soldiering on in an independent rear suspension world. The car grips well and then occasionally dances when I hit a mid-corner bump. It’s early, but I’m now fully awake.

This road is fantastic! It is tight and winding with surprise open straights allowing these cars to really flex their muscles. Rowing the Boss through its 6 speed transmission is easy. The clutch is heavy by today’s standards but the feedback is great. I love rev-matching this car and hearing the exhaust bark back at me.

Speaking of exhaust, have you heard the GT350? It is one thing hearing it in videos and another hearing it in person. It overwhelms everything around it. This particular car has had the resonators removed so in sport mode the baffles open up and it sounds just like the GT350R. The 5.2L 526hp flat plane V8 screams! Blasting down this road, I reach over to shift and realize there is another 3000rpm to go. There is a race car inspired shift light that reflects onto the base of the windscreen which is a nifty idea but the reflection is so subtle I almost missed it. With a redline of 8250rpm, running through the gears makes your spine tingle. It makes you giggle like a school girl. Todd compared the overrun to the sound of fireworks. ‘Merica! I drove past a group of cyclists, downshifted after getting around them, and took off. A little while later with the Shelby parked quietly, the same cyclists rode past. “Nice sounding Shelby!” they offered with many thumbs up. It seems everyone approves.

In fact, the GT350 has left all of us amazed. Both Todd and Paul’s initial impressions resulted in expletive-filled astonishment. The steering is telepathic. Point and it goes. The independent rear suspension is not only an improvement over the solid axle of old, it is also a big improvement over the IRS found in the regular GT. No axle hop here. The Shelby is sharp and confidence inspiring. The Boss is a great car but the Shelby is exponentially better. When the GT350 leads down the canyon, the Boss 302 steadily falls behind.

The following morning, we met in Walnut Creek and drove the cars back out to the canyons. On the highway and around town the Shelby proved to be very comfortable despite the aggressive Alcantara-wrapped Recaro seats. Put the exhaust in normal mode and the car becomes almost quiet. Almost. It even glides over bumps better than many other sports cars. The ride was so versatile, that we were shocked to discover this car doesn’t have the optional Magneride dampers. It isn’t your grandmother’s Buick but it isn’t bone jarring either.

Back in the canyons, Paul leads the way in the Boss and is pushing it. The Shelby keeps pace with an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better attitude. The clutch is light and rather numb, but once you figure it out the smoothness returns. Justin says he replaced the clutch spring with a heavier one from Steeda but it still feels too light. This is one of the few places where the Boss feels more sorted. The only other downfall to the GT350 car was a weird resonance in the dash at around 5000rpm. Being a base trim car, this doesn’t have the nicer head unit of the Electronics Package, so we wondered if that upgrade might solve the problem. But with the windows down you hardly notice, which is how you’ll want to drive it all of the time anyway just so you can hear that musical chorus coming from the exhaust pipes.

I’m back in the Boss for our trip out of the canyon, and I’m really working to keep up with Todd in the Shelby. The Boss is a fantastic Mustang, but I just can’t do it. The 302 requires much more effort to keep it dancing down the mountain. Paul called it a bit of a drunken brawler. The steering is a little vague and reminds me of the F150 work truck I once had. And after the massive braking power of the Shelby, these spongy brakes have me second-guessing. It is easier to get the rear end to slide out from under you, which is good fun but you must be on your toes. All the while, the Shelby get’s farther and farther away. Thankfully, we all made it down without a problem.

Back on the highway the Boss isn’t as comfortable as the GT350. The ride is harsher and the heavy clutch gets tiresome in rush hour traffic. The cloth Recaro seats are different from those found in the Shelby. I initially think my discomfort is the different seats, but on reflection it may have just been the traffic. Regardless, I do love this car.

I came into this review wondering if the Boss 302 would make a good alternative for Mustang lovers that can’t afford the $50,000 GT350. Now I would say yes. It sounds like a classic Mustang, it handles like a very sorted muscle car and it has the looks to match. But there is no doubt that the GT350 is the best Mustang built to date. It sheds its muscle car demeanor and has become a world-class sports car. We loved it so much we were fighting over who drove it. Never during one of our reviews have I wanted the car in question more than this one. The rush of excitement it gives me, and the way it makes me feel behind the wheel, is indescribable. I’d sell body parts to have one of these in my garage. It echoes Carroll Shelby’s approach to building the best Mustang back in 1965. Ford’s scheme is working.

Photos: Chance Hales

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