There's a debate around the Edmunds.com offices as to what constitutes the ideal sports car. If you check our Most Wanted list, you'll see that we named the Viper GTS as the best sports car, but only by a whisker, and only after some serious "discussion" between various members of the editorial staff. Basically, you've got two schools of thought at work here. In one corner are the drivers who demand a level of refinement and quality that, in their opinion, the Viper just doesn't possess. These guys like C5 Corvettes, Mazda Miatas and Acura NSXs. In the opposite corner are the self-dubbed "true sports car lovers." They want raw horsepower and the kind of raw driving atmosphere that goes with it. Their ultimate vehicles include Ferraris from the early '60s, DeTomaso Panteras from the early '70s, and the aforementioned Viper GTS.
Into this debate can be thrown a new player, the 2000 SVT Mustang Cobra R. Now your first response might be, "How can a Mustang compete for a sports car title? Don't they have rear seats?" Not this one. Its rear seat, along with its audio system, air-conditioning components and every last ounce of sound-deadening material has been yanked in pursuit of performance. So much for NSX levels of refinement, right? You'd think so, but despite the car's potentially brutal persona, it's got one of the most well-mannered and precise drivetrains ever fitted to a (admittedly limited) production vehicle. Add in the car's magically tuned chassis and eminently capable braking abilities and what you're left with is a powerful, yet civilized, race car in street trim.
The same basic ingredients have been used before; first with the '93 SVT Cobra R and then with the '95 model. Both editions had increased horsepower and improved suspension components in comparison to the standard Mustang Cobra (already a specialized version of the Mustang GT). his time around, however, SVT instituted a no-holds-barred philosophy when creating the "ultimate Mustang." The engine, for instance, is not the standard 4.6-liter V8 found in "regular" Cobras, but a Triton 5.4-liter DOHC V8 that usually finds residence in Ford's full-sized trucks and SUVs.
Does this mean that the goon in the Camaro SS next to you can point and laugh at your "Navigator-powered Mustang?" Not likely. Most Navigator mills don't have billet-steel connecting rods, forged-aluminum flat top pistons and resized intake/exhaust ports for improved airflow. Final measurements put the Cobra R's heads about 25 percent ahead of the standard Cobra's units in terms of peak airflow. There's also a Canton Racing Products oil pan and windage tray combination used in the low end. These lubrication parts feature special internal baffles to maintain a consistent oil supply under high g-force (i.e. racing) conditions while simultaneously reducing oil aeration for increased horsepower.
Other unique items, like a new, larger throttle body, a two-piece, low-restriction intake manifold, and dual camshafts with aggressive profiles further contribute to the Cobra R's peak horsepower and torque rating of 385 (for both measurements). Exhaust gasses travel from the combustion chamber through tubular steel, short-tube headers and into a Bassani X-pipe with production-Cobra catalytic converters. Aft of the converters are not one, not two, but three Borla low-restriction mufflers, along with some elaborate piping that eventually dumps out below the rocker panels--just ahead of the rear tires. If all this metalwork isn't enough to impress the tire store guys when they put your Cobra R up on a lift, try pointing out the aluminum driveshaft, the 20-gallon fuel cell, and the independent rear suspension (IRS).
The Cobra R's IRS first made an appearance in the 1999 Cobra, but for the 2000 R model SVT bumped up the spring rate and added gas-charged twin-tube shocks. The front springs are also stiffer and the entire vehicle has been lowered for improved handling dynamics under race conditions. All suspension control arm and rear subframe bushings use a stiffer material, and the outer pivot of the upper control arms has been relocated to provide increased camber. The results are impressive; over 1.0g of acceleration on the 100-foot skidpad compared to the '99 Cobra's .89g.
With a modified power-boost curve and stiffer T-bar in the steering system, the Cobra R has no detectable on-center dead spot and a steering feel that can be described only as spot-on-almost sports car-like you might say. This precision comes through in the braking system as well, where the standard Cobra's 13-inch Brembo rotors have been fitted with high-performance Brembo four-piston calipers on the Cobra R. Special air ducts in the front bodywork channel cool air onto unique carbon-fiber heat shields next to the front rotors. SVT's engineers also specified the brake pads, which are designed to provide increased temperature stability and longer life.
For rolling stock the Cobra R comes fitted with 18x9.5-inch five-spoke, cast aluminum wheels. A Cobra R center cap accents the painted surface, and the entire package is wrapped in 265/40-ZR18 BFGoodrich tires.
How does all of this technological wizardry play out when the Cobra R is driven as it was designed to be? We had the benefit of hot laps at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix, to find out. Even before completing our warm-up laps it was obvious that the deep Recaro bucket seats, included with every Cobra R, serve a very real purpose in terms of lateral support. We also found the B&M Ripper shifter to be as positive and precise (there's that word again) as the rest of the car. The heavy clutch pedal and steering feel never let you forget that this is a performance car, and if you do forget, a simple run through the gears with those Borlas pounding through the sound deadening-free carpet will serve as a healthy reminder.
But through the roar of its V8 engine and weighty feel of the clutch and steering comes an immediate appreciation of the Cobra R's more sublime traits. The "snick-snick" of the B&M shifter, the progressive and powerful braking characteristics, the smooth, high-rpm behavior of that all-powerful and torquey 5.4-liter engine; these traits would challenge an NSX (and send a Viper packing) in terms of refinement. When charging down the back straight at Firebird Raceway the Cobra R zipped right past 100 mph while remaining smooth and stable. SVT claims that the carefully designed front air splitter and rear wing create substantial downforce at speeds above 100 mph, yet cost the Cobra R a mere 5 mph in top speed (about 170 mph). But not every body panel has an exotic background story. The rear valence, for instance, comes directly from the six-cylinder Mustang's body shell.
Slowing down from triple-digit speeds was never an issue. Just stab the pedal and let those ABS-enhanced Brembo calipers do their thing (don't try that in a Viper). We never did get the entry speed right for the hairpin coming off of Firebird's back straight. Invariably our courage gave out long before the Cobra R's maximum braking ability, leaving us at a near stop before rounding the corner. At least we could always get on the gas early.
Slinging through the tight, low-speed turns that make up the majority of Firebird Raceway further illustrated the R's handling and power characteristics. The 18-inch (see above comment) g-force tires lived up to their namesake by providing blackout-inducing grip and excellent breakaway response. Dipping into the 5.4-liter's immense torque would produce a predictable increase in yaw rate, but whenever things got too crazy a simple throttle lift would bring the tail end back in line--no stability control required. It was this level of user-friendliness that gave the Cobra R its refined feel and painted images of Corvette-slaying in our heads.
With only 300 Cobra Rs planned for production, and at a price approaching $55,000, we don't expect anyone to drive these Mustangs on public roads, despite their fully street-legal status. That's a shame not only from an image-enhancing point of view, but because the car is truly compatible with real-world driving conditions. We piloted our test model from the track to the hotel and back; about 90 miles round trip. Except for the increased exhaust roar at highway speeds, the Cobra R felt as comfortable as any of today's high-end performance cars. Suspension tuning is spot-on if you prefer feedback to a fluffy ride. Still, there's only room for two and no climate control or tunes (unless you supply the Walkman and roll down the windows).
John Coletti, Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering manager, describes the 2000 SVT Cobra R as "the fastest, the best-handling Mustang ever." He might need to add the word "production" to that description because all indications are that the Mustang FR500 (see our SEMA show coverage for more details) is truly the ultimate Mustang...but you can't buy one so does it still count?
Even as a limited-production vehicle, the new Cobra R has elevated the status of SVT Mustangs and given us a car that might split the difference ideally between a hard-edged Viper and a soft-core Corvette. When seen in that light, the Cobra R's price makes perfect sense.