Miles Cook, Contributor
Mustang fanatics are a finicky bunch. When the redesigned '94s came out, they wondered for two years if and when the 4.6-liter modular V8 would become available in their beloved Pony. Not only did the smooth and silky SOHC 4.6 become the standard bearer in the mainstream GT model for 1996, the DOHC 32-valve motor swiped from the now-departed Lincoln Mark VIII was comprehensively updated and made available in the highbrow SVT Cobra model as well.
Through 1998, SVT's Mustang Cobra carried on as Ford's most exclusive performance vehicle, and it did a good job doing so. For 1999, rumblings and rumors had turned to fact when an independent rear suspension debuted for the first time ever in an American pony car. Along with that IRS came a bump in power for the cammer motor from 305 to 320 horsepower. In theory, at least.
Something else tagged along with that supposed jump in power that Ford didn't bargain for. Controversy ensued about the amount of power '99 Cobras were really making and the result was Ford's pulling the car out of the lineup for the 2000 model year. The 5.4-liter-powered, 385-horsepower Cobra R was the only Mustang sold by SVT last year.
To make a long story short, '99 Cobra owners began wondering about their cars after many realized they didn't run as hard as a 320-horsepower car should. Many ran their cars on the dragstrip and others strapped their Cobras to a chassis dynamometer to see exactly how much power was getting to the wheels. When stories started circulating that '96-'98 Cobras were making more power at the wheels than the '99s in some instances -- even though they were only rated at 305 horsepower -- people began realizing that something was rotten in Denmark...make that Dearborn.
In general, earlier Cobras were making as much as 270 to 280 horsepower at the rear wheels, easily 305 horsepower at the engine's flywheel. We had seen firsthand one '99 Cobra that was being tested before some aftermarket modifications, and it only made 250 horsepower at the drive wheels -- or about 300 horsepower at the flywheel.
Once word got out, Ford issued a recall on '99 Cobras and came up with a retrofit kit that brought the 4.6-liter V8 up to the 320-horsepower level. The problem was that the advent of this package which included a redesigned exhaust system from the catalytic converters back, an ExtrudeHoned intake manifold and a recalibrated EEC-V computer processor didn't come on the scene soon enough for it to be incorporated into 2000 model year Cobras.
Therefore, the car was put on a one-year hiatus, which allowed SVT to put all its eggs in one basket and make the 2001 Cobra as good as they knew enthusiasts would expect it to be.
We're happy to report the largely unchanged Mustang Cobra is back and although we didn't get a chance to track-test it on this First Drive, we certainly look forward to seeing if the '01 will run as good as we hope it will.
Our brief spin in the Cobra made one thing quite clear. SVT didn't change anything on the car that didn't need it. This is still the most advanced and smoothest-driving Mustang ever in the car's four decade history and the hardware that makes it so always merits a quick look at the details.
As one of the most technically advanced engines built by an American automaker, the Cobra's 32-valve, 281-cube V8 is loaded with the good stuff. Making its newfound (we hope) 320-horsepower at 6,000 rpm, there's 317 foot-pounds of torque on tap at 4,750 rpm. Contained within the aluminum block (lesser 4.6-liter engines use an iron block) is a forged-steel crank, which is held in place with six bolts on each main cap. Features such as this are one reason this engine can easily sustain the rigors of making upwards of 500 horsepower with supercharging and other forms of aftermarket tweaking. The engine's aluminum alloy pistons have shallow skirts and a special friction-reducing coating on their surfaces, which also improves durability. Compression is 9.85:1.
Recapping the Cobra's intake system, it begins with a throttle body that's made up of twin 57 mm bores to provide quick throttle response. Next in line is a hefty 80 mm mass air sensor, which feeds into eight tuned runners in the intake manifold. Their design imparts a tumbling motion of the air/fuel charge as it enters the combustion chamber, which increases the mixture's volatility. The "tumble port" cylinder head valve sizes are 37 mm on intake and 30 mm on exhaust. Much the norm these days, Cobra's engine also employs a distributorless, coil-on-plug ignition system that's precise and gives a high-energy spark.
Finally, as has been the case with all Mustang Cobras, each engine is hand-assembled at Ford's Romeo, Michigan engine plant by two-person teams on a separate and dedicated line. Each team's final task is fastening a signature plate, inscribed with their names, onto the passenger-side valvecover.
Standard on the '01 Cobra is an all-speed traction control system (TCS) that allows the driver to spin the drive wheels under acceleration as long as the car is going straight. If TCS senses the car slipping sideways, it will engage. There's also a driver-selectable on/off switch. With TCS activated and either of the two rear ABS/TCS sensors detecting a wheel spinning at a rate higher than its counterpart, the engine's computer processor retards ignition timing and modulates the air/fuel ratio to reduce power to that wheel. The system can detect the difference between wheel spin due to acceleration and from cornering slippage, based on differences in slip rates at the wheels. TCS engine management strategies work at all speeds and the system can apply braking to either rear wheel at speeds up to 62 mph.
To brush up on Cobra's IRS, we'll note it's carried on a tubular steel subframe, which, in turn, bolts to the car as a single unit on the same assembly line as all other Mustangs. The only modification to the car is the addition of two bolt holes and weld nuts near the former Quad Shock mounting holes.
The IRS includes steel upper control arms, aluminum alloy lower control arms, 470 pound/inch coil springs, aluminum spindles, a 26 mm antisway bar and fixed tie rods behind the center of each wheel to control toe alignment during cornering. The aluminum lower control arms are made with a "permanent mold" casting process, which produces precise and lighter weight parts. Cobra's IRS results in a 125-pound reduction in unsprung weight, a 1.2-inch-wider rear track and a quarter-inch-lower ride height.
The benefits of IRS have been known for eons and Cobra drivers enjoy them while behind the wheel, including better steering response and on-center feel, reduced lift and dive characteristics under hard acceleration and braking, and drive wheels that stay better planted during cornering. More suspension travel also reduces the potential for rear suspension bottoming.
Up front, the Cobra is comparable to the GT in design, with 500 pound/inch springs, a 28 mm antisway bar and rack-and-pinion steering with special tuning. Ride height is also a quarter-inch lower than a standard GT's.
Sure the '01 Cobra isn't much different from the '99s other than the supposed infusion of more power. Time will tell on that front. For now, know that this is still the best overall-performing Mustang ever made, and it's loaded with all sorts of features that understandably keep its options list -- a rear spoiler, polished wheels and floor mats -- very short. Power everything, remote keyless entry and a new six-disc CD changer are among the standard features.
With an MSRP of $29,235, the Cobra is by no means dirt cheap. But it stacks up well price- and content-wise against such cars as the BMW 330i coupe, Camaro SS and C5 Corvette. Since it's one of the more desirable American cars being made today, we wouldn't mind having one in our garage.
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