2001 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra Road Test

2001 Ford Mustang Coupe

(4.6L V8 5-speed Manual)

Jockeying for Position

Bear with us, Ford fans, as we talk briefly about a Chevrolet.

Remember the Corvette ZR-1? Introduced in 1990, its big attraction was the "LT5", a DOHC 32-valve 5.7-liter V8 that put out 375 horsepower (compared to the standard Corvette's 250 horses). This world-class powerplant gave American car buffs great joy, as "their" sports car could now run with European exotics. But it also had a big price tag (around $60,000); nearly double that of the more common 'Vette.

In 1991, Chevrolet gave the standard Corvette the ZR-1's previously unique tail styling --thus making it hard for all but diehard enthusiasts to tell a $30,000 Corvette from a $60,000 one. For 1992, Chevrolet dropped a much-improved 5.7-liter V8 into the base Corvette's engine bay. With 300 horsepower, the "LT1" gave Corvette buyers little reason to spend twice the money for a car that was only a bit quicker and faster.

The ZR-1 market died down as quickly as it had heated up at the car's debut. And though the ZR-1's power climbed to 405 horsepower before the car's demise in 1995, it was never fully embraced by the buying public. It was a great car, to be sure, but the "base" Corvette was so much closer to the ZR-1 at half the price that it didn't make much sense to "step up" to a ZR-1.

To a lesser degree, it seems that Ford may have a similar dilemma with the Mustang Cobra, which shares a stable with two other speedy mounts, the Mustang GT and the Mustang GT Bullitt. The latter, a special edition GT that pays homage to the 1968 Mustang GT used in the movie Bullitt, has a slightly tweaked engine (with five more horsepower and a broader power band than the standard GT's), upgraded brakes, premium shocks, lowered suspension and unique interior and exterior treatments.

Although the price for the Cobra isn't nearly as big a jump from a base GT as the ZR-1 was from a standard Corvette, it's still substantial at $5,975. So, whaddayah get for your six grand? The major stuff is a 4.6-liter aluminum alloy DOHC 32-valve 320-horsepower V8 and an independent rear suspension. Other standard features are leather sport seats, a six-disc in-dash CD changer and a power driver seat. All of this comes courtesy of Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT), the company's in-house tuning division.

On paper, these upgrades sound great, and the increase in price is actually reasonable considering the serious hardware upgrades. But in the real world, is it worth it? Let's take a closer look, so that we can answer that question better.

Checking out an SVT Cobra and a GT side-by-side, one may be fooled into thinking that the GT is the thoroughbred in the stable. The GT is more extroverted, sporting (non-functional) hood and side scoops and a rear spoiler. The Cobra looks tamer in comparison, more like a regular Mustang with its flatter hood and similar side "scoop" design. There are, however, a couple of visual cues to separate the Cobra: round foglights in a more aggressive lower front fascia, different wheels, snake emblems on the front fenders, and, from astern, orange turn signals and the "Cobra" name on the lower rear fascia.

In the cockpit are typical Mustang virtues and vices. Clear gauges, simple ergonomics and the abundance of hard plastic will be familiar to anyone who's driven a post-1993 Mustang. Although most staffers liked the Mustang's upright seating position, one 5-foot-5-inch editor griped that the steering wheel was too close when he had the seat up far enough to work the pedals. He suggested that Ford offer power-adjustable pedals (as in their Taurus and trucks) as an option for the Mustang.

The Cobra's seats are aggressively bolstered on the sides to provide lateral support when carving up twisty roads, and a monogrammed Cobra symbol adorns the backrest. Ford's Mach 460 sound system is standard on the Cobra. We thought the six-disc in-dash CD changer was great in terms of ease of use and the sound it provided. The stereo's readout, however, is too cluttered and hard to read at a glance.

So what about what's under the Cobra's hood? Although this generation of the Cobra debuted as a 1999 model, Ford didn't produce a 2000 model. The reason for the one-year hiatus was the discovery by '99 Cobra owners that their cars' 4.6-liter V8s weren't kicking out the 320 horses that Ford was claiming. Quarter-mile times and dynamometer readings didn't seem to correspond to 320 horsepower.

SVT recalled the '99 Cobras and retrofitted their engines with a kit that included a new exhaust system, intake manifold and engine computer. These changes brought the power up to the advertised 320-horse figure. Unfortunately, all this was discovered too late for the 2000 model year, hence the one-year layoff. The 2001 Cobra has incorporated these changes.

The GT and Bullitt both have less exciting engines for the automotive technocrat to drool over: simple SOHC two-valve-per-cylinder iron-block 4.6s that still manage to belt out a stout 260 horsepower. In spite of the relatively unimpressive hardware, the GTs get down the road in a hurry. Either of those two 'stangs will do the 0-to-60 mph sprint in less than 6 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in fewer than 15 ticks.

Our test Cobra ran these events in best times of 5.5 and 14.0 seconds, respectively. We expected slightly quicker times, but our test driver noted that our test car was wearing Goodyear Eagles (which are fitted to the GT models), not the stickier BFGoodrich Comp T/As the Cobra is supposed to come with. Our acceleration figures were, however, close to Ford's claims of 5.4 seconds for the 0-to-60-mph run and 13.8 seconds for the quarter-mile blast.

Like all V8 Mustangs, the Cobra sounds sweet. Whether you're idling or tearing up through the gears, the rumble that issues forth from those dual pipes is one of the simple pleasures of the automotive world. And when the tach needle sweeps past four grand, the four-cam V8's note changes to an urgent, frenetic howl that puts silly grins on auto journalists' mugs.

Another, less desirable trait the Cobra shares with the GTs is a heavy clutch pedal. A lengthy stint in stop-and-go traffic will give your left leg a workout that'll rival any machine at your gym. The clutch's action is linear, and the meaty gearshift had a solid, slightly notchy quality that adds to the Cobra's testosterone-rich driving experience.

Traction control is standard and allows wheelspin in a straight line, but once the car starts to slip sideways, the system kicks in. If you want to engage in fishtailing smokeshows, you'll have to shut the TCS off.

Apart from the power, the other Cobra question that looms large is how effective the rear end is. Does the Cobra handle better than a GT? Yes, it does. Winging it around a sweeper that has bumps in mid-corner won't upset a Cobra, where its less sophisticated, solid rear-axle brethren will be doing the jitterbug at the apex. Though we had no complaints about the steering's action -- its linear response won favor -- we felt it could have more road feel.

Another advantage the independent rear end has is the ability to soak up bumps more effectively, providing the Cobra's occupants with an agreeable ride.

When it's time to haul it down, beefy, vented four-wheel discs (measuring 13 inches in front and 11.65 inches out back) with ABS bring the Cobra to rest quickly. Our test car posted an average of 128 feet in stops from 60 mph.

After our seat time in the Cobra, we considered its place in the Mustang stable. We concluded that, although we certainly enjoyed the Cobra, most folks looking at performance Mustangs would probably be just as happy with a $23,000 Mustang GT.

Typically, consumers in this segment care more about straight-line performance than pushing the envelope in the twisties, and under most conditions, a GT is going to be more than enough car. Plus, for that price, you can forgive most of the Mustang's shortcomings, such as the interior's lack of warmth. Those who are thinking of spending nearly 30 large may expect more refinement in terms of interior fit and finish and not care if another car is a second or so slower than the Cobra in the quarter-mile.

It all depends on where your automotive priorities lie.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

Components: Much like the high-revving 32-valve V8 under the hood of the Cobra, the stereo system is built for power. Three amps combine to produce a massive 460 watts at peak output, with an impressive 230 watts showing up on a regular basis.

Open the trunk and look up to find twin amplifiers that are each capable of pumping a constant 85 watts to four 5.5-inch by 7.5-inch subwoofers. The final 60 continuous watts come from an amp dedicated to the upper end of the sonic spectrum, which is represented by four 2.5-inch midrange tweeters.

Controlling this array is a low-mounted six-CD in-dash changer in front of the burly shift knob. There is no cassette player, but there are five different soundscapes to choose from, logical button placement and Ford's familiar bright green display. Disc loading takes quite a while, and the mute button is on the wrong side of the head unit (shouldn't it be near the volume knob?). But most controls pass the touch test, helping keep the driver's eyes, and the Cobra, on the road. Unfortunately, the buttons found on the steering wheel are for cruise control.

Performance: The first things you notice about the Mach 460 stereo are the midrange-tweeter pods staring you down from the side mirror patches. The upper range blast from the 2.5-inch drivers can bring electric guitars to life, but are built for power, not finesse. The sound of high-hat cymbals can crackle like cellophane instead of sparkling, and voices don't have quite enough depth to convince you of a live performance.

The large 5.5-inch by 7.5-inch subwoofers mounted in the doors combine with their peers in the rear deck to provide large amounts of sloppy bass. That does not mean it sounds bad, but the reverberations stuck to the end of each note from a cello or acoustic bass guitar are often lost in the thump.

That will probably go unnoticed because, like the accelerator pedal, the volume knob can easily silence the nitpickers. While the sound never has the same quality of a home theater, the amps and speakers do not start to degrade until the output is at levels Pete Townshend now frowns upon.

Along with that capability, there are five soundscapes to choose from: "News" for the National Public Radio crowd, "Stadium" for the Beatles at Shea, "Hall" for those who enjoy echo, "Church" for those who love echo and "Jazz." The last is my favorite because it gives music faux warmth by providing moderate echo and taking the edge off sounds from the treble clef. These settings can be specialized for the driver, front passenger or those you trick into sitting in the rear seats.

Best Feature: Five sound effects available.

Worst Feature: Head unit mounted low in dash.

Conclusion: The SVT Cobra and its stereo are built to rock and roll. Want to lay two black patches for a full city block and blast pedestrians with Pearl Jam? This is your car. Want to take your Mammaw to the beauty parlor and study Stravinsky? Buy a Lexus.

-- Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
For 2001, the SVT Cobra returns, and its 320 horsepower rating is accurate. The rear of the vehicle was also quite accurate as I traversed various canyon roads outside Los Angeles. It was somewhat surreal to drive what I consider an American pony car on a dated platform while the rear wheels carefully picked their way over mid-corner bumps and pavement heaves. The engine note has a high-tech reverberation that isn't exactly meaty (like the Mustang Bullitt's) but is pleasant to hear all the same. The chassis itself is quite stiff, with a lack of clunks and groans that immediately distances the car from its floppy F-body competitors.

My issue with the Cobra has to do with power delivery. It simply takes too long to get into the engine's sweet zone. Unlike a Camaro or Firebird, both of which lunge forward at any rpm, the four-valve Cobra engine has to be revved for maximum thrust. Even the Mustang Bullitt offers a more useable torque band, despite being down on both peak horsepower and torque compared to the Cobra.

Then there's the Mustang's body. With its curved roof and blocky side panels, the car looks stuck between Ford's old "jellybean" days and emerging "New Edge" philosophy. The bright yellow color on our test car only emphasized this point.

I should probably admit to owning a 2001 Mustang Bullitt before making the following statement, but my choice for a new Ford sport coupe would be a Bullitt GT with an independent rear suspension swiped from the SVT. I've even heard that the IRS will bolt right in. "Hello, SVT parts department ... "

Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
Ah yes, the joys of pony car ownership. Let me tell you a little story. I took our yellow SVT Mustang Cobra test car out on a few twisty roads northwest of Los Angeles. It was during a particular stretch that I came upon a California Highway Patrol car traveling in the same direction I was. Since I came up behind the officer, he probably assumed this bright yellow Mustang was speeding with reckless abandon (which was not the case).

After I followed him for a short period, the officer pulled off to the side of the road, which I was thankful for. But then he pulled right back out as soon as I had passed him. Hey! What gives? He didn't pull me over, but the officer did decide to follow me. So for the next 10 miles on this scenic and unpopulated ribbon of asphalt, Mr. CHP and I drove at 20 to 25 mph. The injustice! The profiling! Surely, there must have been more important things for him to attend to!

Besides this little incident, I was happy to be driving a Mustang Cobra again. This is certainly a fun car, though most of that praise is due to the engine. Very few cars sound as cool as this one. I just wish there were a better car to wrap around it. The Mustang is certainly showing its age. The interior, in particular, is an embarrassing blot of charcoal-colored plastic and below-average ergonomics.

I certainly fit into the Mustang Cobra's buyer demographic group. Single male, late 20s/early 30s, likes to go fast and all that. But if I were dropping about $30,000 on a sport coupe, I don't think it would be this one. If I wanted a burly V8-powered car, I'd likely end up with a less expensive Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. And if I wanted something with more sophistication, I'd spend a bit more, accept less horsepower and buy an Audi TT or an upcoming 2003 Nissan 350Z.

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