American Exotics Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison (2)
  • Long-Term

2000 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra Coupe

(4.6L V8 5-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Top 10 Features
  • Final Rankings
  • Suspension
  • Scoring Explanation
  • Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Specs and Performance
  • Ford Mustang Cobra R Specs and Performance
  • Dodge Viper ACR Specs and Performance

Every so often, the planets align, the Los Angeles smog clears and somebody on the Edmunds.com editorial staff gets a good fortune cookie at the local Chinese place. The fortune reads, "Your minivans and econoboxes will go away, and you will be rewarded with cars that make big boffo horsepower."

It's a good fortune to have, and it recently came true, providing us with a comparison test between the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the Dodge Viper GTS ACR and the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R. We came up with the idea for this test after driving the Corvette Z06. New for 2001, the latest Corvette incarnation is arguably the best ever, better than any L88-powered Vette or the ZR1. We were impressed by the car in isolation but wondered how it would fare when put head-to-head against the competition.

While its performance allows the Z06 to scrum against stratospheric cars like the Ferrari 360 Modena and the Porsche 911 Turbo, we felt a more realistic test would be against the two vehicles most likely to serve as competitors in the marketplace: the Dodge Viper GTS ACR and the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R. The Viper, despite its age and upcoming redesign, is still one of the fastest production cars ever built. From the Blue Oval comes the Mustang Cobra R, a hot rodder's wet dream if there ever was one. In collection, each vehicle is the fastest production vehicle from each of the Big Three. While not automotive exotics in the truest sense of the word, they are certainly American exotics, vehicles capable of getting a thumbs up and a smile in every big city and township from California to Rhode Island.

Despite the cars' exclusive natures, we compared these vehicles using the same testing regimen that we use for every other Edmunds.com comparison test. This means we evaluated the vehicles in terms of price, performance, feature content, functionality and subjective observations from our editors. In addition to our normal test loops on public roads, we also booked time at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, a road course located about an hour drive north of Los Angeles. Using the smaller and more technical 1.5-mile Streets of Willow track, we were able to further evaluate the performance envelope of each vehicle in a safe, controlled environment.

Of course, this test was a load of fun to perform, and we hope that even if you don't have the financial wherewithal to buy any of these vehicles (Lord knows we don't) you'll enjoy reading the bits of HTML coding we've arranged. This is also the first comparison test to have supplementary video coverage, allowing you to get even closer to the action and see these sickeningly fast cars in action. We encourage you to check it out if you have broadband access. So without further ado, let the big smoky burnouts begin.

First Place - Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Watching The Price is Right, there's always a bit of surprise when a contestant is so confident that she underbids everybody else. One dollar for a Weber gas grill? That's crazy talk! So if that lovable Bob Barker were showcasing the best American exotic, how much do you think it would cost? One dollar, Bob.

Welcome to the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the winner of this test. A cursory check of other recent Edmunds.com comparison tests shows that the cheapest vehicle rarely wins. The Corvette breaks the mold. Not only was the Corvette the least expensive car (almost $40,000 cheaper than the Viper), it also swept every category except one on its way to a dominant 87.1 final score. When asked which car they would recommend to potential buyers, every editor involved in the test said, "Corvette."

The Z06 arrives for the fifth year of production of the fifth-generation Corvette ("C5"). It takes over as the top performance Corvette model, a position previously held by the short-lived '99-'00 hardtop model. Equipped with the Z51 suspension and mandatory six-speed manual transmission, the hardtop was otherwise just like every other Corvette and did little to justify its position as the best Corvette model. The Z06 makes an airtight case by starting with the hardtop's stiffer body and then one-upping it with a more-powerful engine, tuned suspension components and 38 fewer pounds of curb weight.

About a dozen changes can be found on the Z06's engine when compared to the regular Corvette's powerplant. Called the "LS6" (regular Corvette engines are labeled "LS1"), it looks very similar to the regular Vette V8 except for the red engine covers. Looks are deceiving though; this engine delivers almost 12 percent more power than a regular Corvette, totaling 385 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 385 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm.

The Viper had the edge during our instrumented testing thanks to its Texas-sized engine, but the Corvette stayed doggedly on its tail. Our test driver reported that the Z06 was the most difficult car of the three to launch because of the V8's prodigious low-end torque. Apply too much throttle and the rear wheels spin furiously. It looks cool, but the car doesn't move much. The first-to-second gear shift produces additional wheel spin and it's not uncommon to see the Corvette's rear end step out laterally by about 6 inches before the tires regain their grip. Our best zero-to-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds came by setting the Active Handling system to its competition mode which allows just about a perfect amount of wheel spin. Going past 60, the Z06 blasts through the quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 112.9 mph.

The Corvette's run through the slalom was less impressive, posting the slowest time. Despite excellent visibility out the windshield, we found ourselves hampered by the Corvette's relatively slow steering and slippery driver seat. Braking, on the other hand, is simply outstanding. At the time of this writing, the Z06's 60-to-zero braking distance of 109 feet is the shortest distance we have ever recorded. Stops are consistent and fade free; we made three braking runs that were within 0.6 foot of each other. These numbers also mirrored our testing of another Z06 from a few months ago. Every performance vehicle should have brakes this good.

The stout brakes also proved valuable at Willow Springs. While perhaps not as entertaining as the Mustang, the Corvette is an easier drive. The Cobra R's rev-happy engine requires constant shifts to stay within its powerband whereas the Vette's flatter power delivery allows drivers to leave the car in third gear for nearly the entire Streets of Willow circuit. Just like with the acceleration tests, the Dodge was king for a day with the Chevy right behind. The Vette's average lap times were less than half a second slower than the Viper's, reflecting the ease with which the car can be driven hard. The Active Handling is a big bonus as it protects drivers from their own stupidity. As one editor said, "I took the Corvette out for some laps and quickly got in over my head because the tires were cold. If the stability system wasn't there to save my butt, I'm pretty certain I would have pirouetted off into the dirt." The Z06's suspension is definitely softer than the other two cars', allowing more body roll when high cornering loads are applied. The car loses some precision because of this. Additionally, the transverse leaf-spring rear suspension seems to have a hard time keeping the tail planted when mid-corner bumps are encountered.

On urban roads and the highway, the Corvette is the most composed. Its additional suspension compliance is enough to handle occasional potholes and broken pavement. While the Goodyear Eagle F1 tires are rather noisy, the remaining engine and wind noise are less intrusive than what's produced in the Cobra R and Viper. Despite the continued use of the annoying first-to-fourth skip shift feature that all of us wish would just act like a dinosaur and die, the Z06 was the only car of the test that we could see being used as a daily driver or for a long-distance trip. The interior is vastly superior to either the Mustang's or Viper's, containing rubberized surfaces for the dashboard and doors. Controls are easy to operate and are illuminated properly at night. The big tachometer and speedo are easy to read. And while we didn't include luxury features in the scoring of feature content because we felt that they were outside the scope of this test, the Corvette offers real amenities like a power driver's seat, heated outside mirrors, a good sound system, dual-zone climate control and a driver's information center. For storage, there is 13.3 cubic feet of luggage space, an amount equal to what many compact sedans offer.

You know you've got a good car on your hands when the only thing to gripe about is styling and a dainty cupholder. We're not too fond of the hardtop body style, and the Z06 garnered minimal attention from the peanut gallery, most likely because five years of production has put a lot of C5s on the road. But who cares? With the Z06, Chevrolet has a car that edged out the more-powerful Viper and race-prepped Cobra R in our performance scoring, offered a superior experience on public roads and had the lowest price tag. Is it a dream come true? No, it's just America's best sports car.

Second Opinions

Executive editor Karl Brauer says:
Whether making a racecar for the street or a street car that can hold its own at the track, the fact remains that no single vehicle can successfully perform in both of these arenas...until now. The Z06 is like an enigma in that it feels equally at home while carving through Turn 3 at the Streets of Willow Racetrack as it does while gliding down the 5 freeway north of Los Angeles. Items like dual-zone climate control, power seating with two-position memory and one-touch down power windows can easily make you forget the car's dual nature.

Even more enjoyable is the broad torque band and throaty exhaust rumble supplied by the 385-horsepower LS6 engine. Like the rest of the car, the engine can be as docile or as brutal as you want it to be. The shifter, however, was a constant source of frustration for me, particularly its silly first-to-fourth skip-shift electronics and ultra-stiff synchros that seemed to fight me at almost every gear change. Other than the adversarial shifter and some increased road noise at highway speeds, the Z06 is as easy to live with as a regular Corvette. It was also the least expensive car in the test and the easiest to drive fast around a racetrack while being less than a second off the Viper's pace. Amazing car!

Features editor Miles Cook says:
The Viper is an anomaly. The Cobra R has its strengths despite its price. The Corvette Z06 is simply the winner. This is the ultimate thinking man's supercar. Its performance is downright heroic, its day-to-day livability is mighty impressive and its price makes it the world arena's performance bargain. I don't care whom your loyalties run to -- GM, Ford or Chrysler. Nobody in their right mind can deny this car's an absolute screamin' deal when it comes time to pony up the bucks. Add another 10 grand to the sticker (and it'd still be about 10 bills less than the ZR-1 ever was) and the Z06 still remains an amazing buy.

I gained new perspective on this car after the comparison test. After our earlier road test of the Z06, I took this car's performance capabilities for granted and thought, "Yeah it goes fast, looks good, it's not too expensive and you can drive it every day." But after being in the Viper and Cobra R, I realized that Chevrolet has done a phenomenal job. For less than 50 grand you won't find a car anywhere in the world with the enormous performance envelope of the Z06. Period. Someone I know who has been writing about cars for 25 years sums it up. He says, "Corvette is king." With the introduction of the Z06, I couldn't agree more.

Second Place - Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R

Can somebody tell Ford that it is not supposed to be competing in this class? How is it that a Mustang — a general-interest car that sold 173,676 times over in 2000 — is able to out-duel Dodge's dedicated sports car? Three letters, my friend: S-V-T.

If you have ever played Sony's Gran Turismo game for the PlayStation, you should know about the fun you can have adding high-performance parts to an average car. This is what Ford's tuning division, SVT, has done with the Mustang to create the Mustang Cobra R. Similar to the regular SVT Cobra but modified to an even further degree, this car's ultimate purpose is to be a race-ready Mustang capable of taking on the world's best sports cars.

Like our Viper, our Cobra R test vehicle was a 2000 model. Don't expect to get an '01; there's no such thing. SVT built only 300 Cobra Rs for 2000, and there has been no announcement to make any more. Ford seems to think this is a good way of ensuring exclusivity. Pardon our ignorance, but isn't a 385-horsepower Mustang with an over 50-grand price tag exclusive enough?

That 385 horsepower comes from the Cobra R's 5.4-liter, 32-valve DOHC V8 engine. While the cylinder bore is the same as the 4.6-liter V8 found in the "regular" Mustang Cobra, the deck height and stroke are longer. Special pistons and connecting rods join up with a stronger crankshaft to improve durability, and high-flow cylinder heads, a larger throttle body, different camshafts and a low-restriction intake manifold are used to increase the amount of power the engine can make. Fuel is drawn from a race-type fuel cell and the result is 385 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 385 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Take your position in the supportive Recaro driver seat. The Cobra R is notable not in what it offers but in what it doesn't. No air conditioning. No radio. No backseat. The interior design is the same as other Mustangs, which is to say rather bland with budget-oriented plastics. Entry and exit is the easiest of the three cars thanks to the long doors and relatively high seat. Ironically, the Cobra R has the best cupholders despite being the car most focused on ultimate performance. Does this mean you can drive around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 150 mph without spilling your Starbucks' latte?

Twist the ignition key and the Mustang's V8 explodes to life. You know right away that this isn't your father's Mustang GT engine. The Borla exhaust and side-exit pipes produce a soundtrack easily mistaken for the one in Days of Thunder. (Actually, it's better than the movie's since there is no annoying Tom Cruise overlay.) Even the Tremec T56 six-speed transmission makes you think you're in a racecar, though not all people will like it. The reach to the manual transmission shifter is uncomfortably long, the clutch is the heaviest out of the three cars and there's an audible metallic clunk every time first gear is selected.

While both the Cobra R and the Corvette Z06 make equal amounts of horsepower and torque, their methods of delivery are noticeably different. The specs show the Cobra R making its maximum horsepower and torque at lower rpms than the Corvette, but we found it to have the more peaky power delivery of the two. Though there is certainly plenty of grunt down low, most of the frenzied excitement from the engine happens between 3,500 and 6,500 rpm.

In terms of hard performance numbers, the Cobra R couldn't quite match up to either the Corvette or the Viper according to our instrumented testing. Compared to the Z06, it was two-tenths of a second and 5 mph slower in the quarter-mile and took 12 more feet to stop from 60-to-zero mph. Our test driver reported that the Mustang felt like it was the fastest car during the 600-foot slalom test, but the results show all three cars' slalom speeds are within 1 mph of each other. A logical culprit to the Cobra R's slower acceleration numbers is its high curb weight. Despite SVT's weight-saving measures, the Cobra R still weighs a rather portly 3,590 pounds, 350 pounds more than the Corvette.

Even more discouraging were the lackluster lap times at the Streets of Willow. Before the test started, we expected great things from the Cobra R. This was the Speed Racer of the test, the one SVT built for optimized performance on a road course. But with an average lap time of 1:23.95, it was 2 seconds slower a lap than the Z06 and 2.5 seconds slower than the more-difficult-to-drive Viper. Understeer was more prevalent in the Cobra R than the other two cars, most likely because of the Mustang's 56.5/43.5 front-to-rear weight distribution.

In the Cobra's defense, it was not in top form the day we were at Willow. The vehicle was delivered to us with heavily worn rear tires, and cords were visible on them by late morning. We actually had to stop testing the Cobra midway through the day at Willow in order to drive it back down to Los Angeles for a new set of rear tires. If a fresh set of tires had been provided at the beginning, the lap times would have almost certainly been better. Additional help could have come from testing at a faster track. The increased downforce benefits from the Cobra R's rear wing and front air splitter were underutilized on the Street's relatively slow corners.

That said, a majority of our editors said that the Cobra R was the most fun car to drive. It is in a racetrack environment that you get to experience all of the Cobra R's modifications working together in a sort of UAW pact. The suspension is similar to the regular Cobra's but features stiffer Eibach springs, Bilstein shock absorbers and stiffer suspension and subframe bushings. The race-compound BFGoodrich g-Force KD tires (when not worn down to the cords) provide plenty of grip and work well with the suspension to inform the driver as to the levels of traction available. Even without stability control, we felt we could trust the car when driving it on the tight turns of Streets of Willow. Repeatedly reducing speed via the Brembo brakes is easy thanks to an excellent pedal feel, though the long vertical separation between the brake and throttle pedals make heel-and-toe downshifts difficult.

Out in the real world, the car's uncompromising nature is apparent. The suspension, as you would expect, likes rough pavement as much as environmentalists like oil spills. And due to the extreme amounts of negative tire camber SVT dialed in to improve high-speed cornering traction, the Cobra R has the automotive equivalent of ADD. Every groove and bump in the pavement is a new friend that must be greeted, and the over-boosted and non-communicative steering doesn't help matters. If you are stuck in thick traffic you don't have to worry about these problems, but then you're left cursing the heavy clutch and the lack of a radio and air conditioning.

As an exercise in creating the ultimate factory-backed street Mustang, SVT has succeeded brilliantly. The Cobra R is about as rare and fast as Mustangs get. But in the end, that's all it is, and the car can't fully unshackle itself from its humble mass-production beginnings. This allows another car — a dedicated sports car — to take first place.

Second Opinions

Executive editor Karl Brauer says:
Looking for the closest thing to a street legal racecar? The SVT Mustang Cobra R is like a Mustang GT on steroids. The 385-horsepower V8 sounds like an escapee from Daytona's high-banked oval, and the heavy clutch, stiff suspension and minimalist interior only serve to increase this Ford's single-minded demeanor. Don't look for a radio, rear seat, or air conditioning controls; SVT has deemed such amenities as counter to the Cobra R's mission.

And just what is that mission? SVT says the Cobra R represents what a no-holds-barred Mustang is capable of. At the racetrack, I found the Ford capable of delivering a confident ride in terms of braking and suspension tuning, while also making excellent power and seductive sounds from its 5.4-liter V8. Throw in the super sticky tires that allowed for plenty of tail-out cornering while offering superb feedback, and the Cobra R was more entertaining than the Corvette Z06 as well as more user-friendly than the Viper. Unfortunately, it also pulled the slowest lap times and was the most abusive on public roads.

Features editor Miles Cook says:
OK, I'll admit I'm biased right up front. Mustangs and Corvettes are my two favorite cars of all time. And since the Cobra R is the quickest and fastest production Mustang ever, it was the sentimental favorite for me among these three.

And even though it's overpriced compared to the Z06, the R is as much fun to drive as the other two, if not more so. When you factor in the soundtrack of this thing, to some extent it's game over. If you want nothing but mechanical music every time you make a run through the gears, here's your instrument. The rest isn't too bad, either. The 5.4-liter DOHC engine, even though it's by far the most sophisticated engine of the three, provides a raw and visceral thrill unmatched by the other two cars. In fact, that's the way of this whole car.

Having spent more than a full year working exclusively on a Mustang magazine, I had been itching to drive a Cobra R ever since word of the car leaked out. So much so, that the night we got the car, I sneaked out of my hotel room at around 11 p.m. and took the R for a little ride. Slowly and gently going through the gears while all systems warmed up, I eased the R onto a deserted slab of highway and cruised 75-80 mph for a few minutes. Then I jumped off the freeway at a desolate exit, went up a two-lane for a mile or two and turned around. On the way back to the freeway, I experienced pure automotive bliss running up through fourth gear and listening to that 5.4 cammer at full song cranking out its near 400 horsepower. Cruising back on the highway, I had a smile on my face that didn't go away for the entire 15-mile jaunt back to the hotel. Now isn't that what these cars are all about?

Third Place - Dodge Viper GTS ACR

Oof! The Viper GTS ACR crumples to the mat first, taking a hard blow to the solar plexus. It stumbles about, confused eyes searching the crowd for an explanation. How could this happen? In a test biased for performance, how could the car with otherworldly strength finish third?

We were a bit surprised, too. Going into this test, a few of us thought the Viper would dominate. After all, this is the car that has pummeled Porsche 911s and Corvettes on the world stage of GT racing, handily winning top-shelf races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. It's also a premier player on the spec chart, sporting the biggest engine, the most torque and the widest tires of any production sports car sold in America.

Our test vehicle was a 2000 Viper GTS ACR. Little has changed on the GTS since its introduction in 1996, with the exception of the ACR package becoming available in 1999. The ACR package is designed for owners who plan on using their cars for club racing, and it includes a race-tuned suspension, a free-flowing K&N air intake, 18-inch BBS wheels and five-point safety harnesses. Dodge also removes the air conditioning, fog lights and sound system on ACRs for reduced weight, though our car had a $910 comfort group package that reinstalled the air conditioning and "premium" Alpine sound system. We would have preferred to have a 2001 Viper, as these cars finally get ABS, but one was not available at the time of the test.

Before all the Viper lovers start firing off nastygrams, allow us to make the following statement: If you want to own the car that comes closest to an SCCA Trans-Am racecar or NHRA drag car, then the Viper should be your pick. The Mustang Cobra R is one of the fastest cars out there and the Viper absolutely shellacked it as far as pure numbers go. Let your mind pulse joyously over these results: Zero-to-60 mph in 4.2 seconds. A quarter-mile time of 12.3 seconds at 115.9 mph. Of our five instrumented performance tests, the Viper took first place in four. On the road course, its fastest lap time was over 3 seconds faster than the Cobra's. How big is this margin? Racers have been known to kill their mothers in order to shave a mere tenth of a second per lap.

Want to make the jump to hyperspace? Bring the revs up to about 2,000 rpm and release the clutch as you feed in throttle. Thanks to the huge rear tires, it's relatively easy to get the correct amount of wheel spin and maximum grip. Done properly, the 460-horsepower 8.0-liter V10 fires the car toward the horizon like a howitzer shell. Shifting effort is minimal, but the six-speed's throws are long and imprecise. The Viper's engine and exhaust note aren't as bombastic as the other two cars, and saying it sounds like an angry UPS truck isn't too far off the mark. But the syncopated V10 din is unique, and that certainly counts for something.

Acceleration is truly stunning, but since the Viper doesn't have traction control or stability control, care must be taken to avoid overly exuberant use of the throttle. This is especially true when the Viper is asked to corner. There is simply so much power that it is very easy to overwhelm the rear 335/30ZR18 tires. We found that we had to take extreme care at Willow in order to avoid spinning the Viper into the dirt. It is simply not a user-friendly vehicle, as demonstrated by the almost 3-second margin between its fastest lap time and average lap time. But get some seat time and learn how to adapt to the car's nature and it will reward you with a very quick pace. The ACR suspension was well suited for the smooth pavement of the road course, and the properly weighted steering allowed for surprisingly quick turn in. Through our 600-foot slalom, the Viper adopted a virtually flat cornering attitude and posted the quickest time despite its unwieldy girth and wide tires.

Much of the above paragraph also applies to Viper when driving it on canyon roads. The difference is that the rewards don't come as easily because you get scared about what might happen if you exceed the car's limits. On the street, any sane person will end up driving the Viper at perhaps seven-tenths of its ability, whereas the Cobra R and Corvette can be driven more comfortably closer to their limits. Another contributing factor is the lack of ABS. The Viper's huge disc brakes effortlessly slough off high velocities when the driver has plenty of time to prepare (such as when the car is on the road course), but panic stops on the street can easily lead to locking up all four wheels. Our best 60-to-zero mph stopping effort using threshold braking was a dismal 155 feet, a number 14 feet worse than an ABS-equipped Chevrolet S-10 Crew Cab 4WD pickup we recently tested.

On the flip side, can an S-10 cause a commotion equal to Drew Barrymore and Denise Richards going to an all-boys school to pass out prophylactics? The Viper can. The coupe might be 6 years old but our staff still ranked it the best in this group in terms of exterior styling. People everywhere stopped to stare. The Corvette garnered less attention, most likely because it still looks too similar to other C5 Corvettes.

Used for mundane transportation on the freeway and urban streets, the ACR's uncompromising suspension as well as cramped cockpit makes long-distance travel unpleasant. There is no dead pedal and entry and exit is by far the most difficult of the three because of the wide sill and small door opening. If you look at our editor's evaluations, you will see that the Viper earned the lowest scores for those criteria relating to the interior. Other than the stainless steel shifter and hand brake, interior materials are low-grade. Switchgear is placed haphazardly and options for storage are few and far between. The optional Alpine sound system is anything but premium; you'll want to replace it with a better aftermarket system if you order the comfort group for the air conditioning.

These interior design gaffes would probably be excusable if it weren't for the Corvette, which shows that performance and functionality aren't mutually exclusive. The Vette also showed up the Viper on price. At $86,860, the Viper was almost $40,000 more. Yikes. There is no question that the Viper speaks loudly and carries a big stick, two elements essential to this type of car. But its price and impish cockpit kept it from attaining anything better than third place.

Second Opinions

Executive editor Karl Brauer says:
As the official "Mopar Man" on this test, I'm bound by powers greater than Florida politics to rave about the Viper, so here it goes. At 460 horsepower, the Viper GTS ACR bests its Yankee cohorts by 75 horsepower (not to mention two cylinders) and produces quarter-mile times in the low 12s. It rides on 18-inch aluminum wheels all-around, with 275/35 tires in front and 335/30 tires in back. The $10,000 ACR package also includes an even stiffer suspension than in the "lowly" GTS model, plus a low-restriction air cleaner and five-point racing harnesses for both seats.

What does all this hardware mean in the real world? It means the most capable car at the racetrack, beating the Corvette by almost a second and the Cobra R by over two seconds. It means brain-sloshing acceleration and blackout-inducing G-forces when navigating the Streets of Willow's tight circuit. Without ABS or stability control (ABS is standard starting in 2001), the Viper was the most demanding to drive by a wide margin. But Momma always said the best things in life don't come easy, and my lap times, along with my giddy laughter while balancing the Viper on its razor-sharp edge between maximum cornering traction and spinning out, are proof that she was right. Yes, it's expensive. And yes, its ergonomics are about as well sorted as my 1970 Plymouth GTX's. But it also won the popularity contest, drawing more attention and praise from bystanders than either the Ford or Chevy. Now tell me that's not a key element in vehicles of this nature.

Features editor Miles Cook says:
The Viper does kick tail like no other car on the road. Porsche 911? Blows his doors off. Ferrari 360 Modena? See ya. And the list goes on. If you've got the cash and really do want the baddest, meanest and brutally fastest American car ever produced, then your choice is down to one. You feel every last bit of the 500 foot-pounds of torque each time you stand on it. Even going to half throttle puts you back in the seat like no other "sporty" coupe ever will. And the styling is as wonderfully audacious as you'll probably ever see.

But for me, it still comes in third place — albeit a close third — among these knuckle-dragging, American-made bruisers. Why? Because it really isn't a car in the true sense of the word. It's more like a rolling cartoon, a circus wagon or a traveling sideshow — take your pick. For me it's so over the top that it's a bit ridiculous. Then there's the price. For well over 80 grand, you're still getting a Dodge. And $2,500 for stripes? C'mon, get real

Conclusion

There's no question that the Corvette is the winner of this test. Of the six categories we use to rank cars in comparison tests, the Corvette won five out of the six. A slim margin of 10 percent dictated the drop to second place in the Feature Content category.

Not depicted in the Final Rankings chart is an interesting tidbit contained in the Personal Rating score. The three main Edmunds.com editors participating in this test each picked a different car as the one they would personally buy. This represents the emotional side of sports car ownership, a key determination in owning cars of this type.

For pure speed and power, Dodge's Viper simply destroys the other players here. It is brutality in excess. Switching into the GTS after driving the Corvette is like going from a polite conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to a barroom brawl with the Hell's Angels. A deft hand is required to keep the Viper shiny side up. Jump on the throttle without the front wheels pointed straight and you'll spin faster than a political campaign manager. But learn when and where to apply those 460 horses, and you can run up the Ford or Chevy's tailpipe in short order. Obviously, at $86,000, it ought to be the fastest car in the test. And even with ABS in 2001, don't expect the Viper to be completely de-fanged. Those looking for a pleasant, but potent, weekend cruiser will want to look elsewhere.

The Cobra R is all over the fun aspect of driving a high-strung performance car. It's got the best exhaust note and the most forgiving tires. Goose the throttle coming out of a corner and the Cobra R will slide the tail out in a progressive, predictable fashion. You can leave it out there for a few seconds, or a few minutes, depending on your mood at the time. This car was meant for the track in terms of suspension tuning, exhaust noise and clutch pressure; but these same items proved an annoyance on the street, rattling our fillings, ringing in our ears and cramping our left legs. Had it pulled the best lap times, perhaps it would have earned some slack. Of course, this might all be a moot point with only 300 built. The Cobra R is already an instant collectible with half of them now probably stored in hermetically sealed garages. Good luck even seeing one, let alone getting the chance to actually buy one.

Which brings us to the Corvette, a car whose history, pedigree and price completely overwhelm the competition. As America's Sports Car, the Corvette is approaching its 50th birthday. And like Sean Connery, we'd have to say that the old man never looked better. As one editor commented, "Kick-ass power. The best brakes. Near flawless handling. Real-world practicality. Plenty of room for stuff. Great stereo. Substantial additional content over a regular C5. All for under $50,000. How could this car not win?" The Corvette Z06 is the best mix of exoticness, livability and staggering performance ever produced by an American manufacturer. Bravo Chevy. You've done your country proud.

Deciding what were the most important features on these cars wasn't easy. Are they common vehicular features like power seats and automatic climate control, or are they high-performance features? Since each of these cars is built specifically for speed and improved capabilities at a racetrack, we went with the latter.

Features

Features
  Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Dodge Viper ACR Ford Mustang Cobra R
Aerodynamic aids NA NA S
Competition suspension S S S
Fuel cell NA NA S
Performance tire/wheel package S NA S
Reduced weight S S S
Safety harnesses NA S NA
Stability control S NA NA
Upgraded brakes S NA S
Upgraded exhaust S NA S
Upgraded seats S NA S

Aerodynamic Aids: Aerodynamic aids such as the Mustang Cobra R's front air splitter and rear wing help to improve a vehicle's stability at high speeds. There is limited value to these when you drive the car on the street (other than making the car look cool), but they are important at a racetrack. If you're thinking that the body shapes of the Vette and Viper don't require aerodynamic aid, think again; the C5-R and GTS-R race cars both feature huge rear wings and front splitters.

Competition Suspension: Cars that claim to be built for both the road and the track need to have a modified suspension. The usual changes include a lowered ride height and stiffer springs, shocks and bushings. All three cars have stiffer suspensions. The Cobra R's changes are the most extensive, though that's expected given the big jump needed to go from a regular Mustang to one that can compete against a Viper.

Fuel Cell: Many club-level race series require a fuel cell. Fuel cells are much sturdier than regular gas tanks. The Cobra R was the only car in the test to have one.

Performance Tire/Wheel Package: Lighter wheels and stickier tires go a long way toward improving a vehicle's handling. While the Viper's ACR package includes lighter 18-inch BBS wheels, the tires included are no different than the ones fitted to regular GTS cars. The Corvette Z06 and Cobra R have wider wheels and stickier tires compared to the regular versions of these cars.

Reduced Weight: Less weight improves acceleration, braking and handling. Dodge achieves this on the Viper GTS ACR by removing the air conditioning, radio and fog lights. These are also removed on the Cobra R, as is sound-deadening material and the backseat. The Corvette Z06 features a lightweight titanium exhaust, lighter wheels and tires, and thinner glass for the windshield and rear window.

Safety Harnesses: Five-point belts are a must for club-level racing. While they aren't expensive to purchase via the aftermarket, it's nice to see Dodge including them with the ACR package.

Stability Control: This technology, while not really a performance feature, is still critical. We found that we could drive the Corvette more comfortably knowing that its Active Handling system was there to limit the chances of a spin while driving hard on the racetrack or on public roads. Neither the Cobra R nor the Viper GTS had such a system.

Upgraded Brakes: Stopping quickly is just as important as accelerating quickly. The Cobra R features Brembo front rotors and calipers, front air inlets and heat shields for better cooling and thicker rear brake pads. While the Z06's brake rotors and calipers are the same as other C5 Corvettes, it does feature air scoops on the rear rocker panels that funnel air to the rear brakes for better cooling. The ACR's brakes are lamentably the same as those found on regular Vipers.

Upgraded Exhaust: Both the Corvette Z06 and Mustang Cobra R feature special exhaust systems that reduce back pressure and provide less restriction for exhaust gasses flowing through the system.

Upgraded Seats: Seats with additional bolstering help to keep the driver from sliding around during hard cornering. While the Z06 has different seats, they could still use additional side bolstering. The Cobra R features racer-style Recaro seats. The ACR package doesn't include different seats, though an argument could be made that the stock seats don't require an upgrade.

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Dodge Viper ACR Ford Mustang Cobra R
Personal Rating (10% of score) 78 66 56
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 100 56 44
20-pt Evaluation (20% of score) 78 67 75
Performance Testing (30% of score) 89 87 62
Feature Content (10% of score) 70 30 80
Price (20% of score) 100 20 86
Total Score 87.1 58.7 68.8
Final Ranking 1 3 2
Suspension
  Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Dodge Viper ACR Ford Mustang Cobra R
Suspension, front ind., unequal-length control arms, transverse leaf spring, antiroll bar ind., unequal-length control arms, coil springs, antiroll bar ind., strut located by a control arm, coil springs, antiroll bar
Suspension, rear ind., unequal-length control arms with a toe-control link, transverse leaf spring, antiroll bar ind., unequal-length control arms with a toe-control link, coil springs, antiroll bar ind., unequal-length control arms with a toe-control link, coil springs, antiroll bar
Front brakes vented 12.6-inch discs vented 13.0-inch discs vented 13.0-inch discs
Rear brakes vented 12.6-inch discs vented 13.0-inch discs vented 11.7-inch discs
Wheel size, inches 18x10.5 (rear), 17x9.5 (front) 18x13 (rear), 18x10 (front) 18x9.5
Tire Brand Goodyear Eagle F1 SC Michelin Pilot Sport BFGodrich g-Force KD
Tire Size 295/35ZR18 (r), 265/40ZR17 (f) 335/30ZR18 (r), 275/35ZR18 (f) 265/40ZR18
Steering ratio 10.1:1 16.7:1 15.0:1

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars he would personally buy if given the chance. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are an accumulation of the entire editorial staff's opinion.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the entire editorial staff's opinion.

20-Point Evaluation: Each editor ranks every car based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covers everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the entire editorial staff's evaluations.

Performance Testing: Each car is put through a battery of instrumented testing. For the American Exotic Comparison Test, we evaluated the vehicles via zero-to-60 mph acceleration, quarter-mile acceleration, 60-to-zero mph braking, speed through a 600-foot slalom, and average and fastest lap times on a road course. We were not able to test maximum road-handling grip on a skidpad because it was not available at the time we tested the vehicles. For each test, the car that obtains the best result receives a maximum score. The remaining cars receive scores based on how closely their results matched the top car. The final number shown is an accumulation of results from each test.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors pick the top 10 features they think would be most significant to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each car, the score is based on the amount of actual features the car had versus the total possible (10). Standard and optional equipment are taken into consideration.

Price: The numbers listed are the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive car in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive car receives a score of 100, with the remaining cars receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.

Vehicle
MakeChevrolet
ModelCorvette Z06
Drivetrain
Engine type16-valve OHV V8
Displacement (cc/cu-in)5,665
Redline (rpm)6,500
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)385 @ 6,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)385 @ 4,800
Transmission type6-spd manual
Transmission and axle ratios (x:1)2.97, 2.07, 1.43, 1.00, 0.84, 0.56
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)4.5
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)12.8@112.9
60-0 mph (ft.)109
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)67
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)19/28 mpg
Edmunds observed (mpg)16 mpg
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)3133
Weight distribution, as tested, f/r (%)53/47
Length (in.)179.7
Width (in.)73.6
Height (in.)47.7
Wheelbase (in.)104.5
Track, front (in.)62.4
Track, rear (in.)62.6
Legroom, front (in.)42.7
Headroom, front (in.)37.8
Shoulder room, front (in.)55.3
Cargo volume (cu-ft)13.3
Vehicle
MakeFord
ModelMustang Cobra R
Drivetrain
Transmission type6-spd manual
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)3590
Weight distribution, as tested, f/r (%)56.5/43.5
Length (in.)183.5
Track, front (in.)59.7
Track, rear (in.)59.7
Vehicle
MakeDodge
ModelViper ACR
Drivetrain
Engine type20-valve OHV V10
Displacement (cc/cu-in)7,990
Redline (rpm)6,000
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)460 @ 5,200
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)500 @ 3,700
Transmission type6-spd manual
Transmission and axle ratios (x:1)2.66, 1.78, 1.30, 1.00, 0.74, 0.50
Track Test Results
0-60 mph (sec.)4.2
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)12.3@ 115.9
60-0 mph (ft.)155
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)67.8
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)12/21 mpg
Edmunds observed (mpg)11 mpg
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)3460
Weight distribution, as tested, f/r (%)48/52
Length (in.)176.7
Width (in.)75.7
Height (in.)47
Wheelbase (in.)96.2
Track, front (in.)59.6
Track, rear (in.)60.6
Legroom, front (in.)42.6
Headroom, front (in.)36.8
Shoulder room, front (in.)53.8
Cargo volume (cu-ft)9.2
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