2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra First Drive

2003 Ford Mustang Coupe

(4.6L V8 Supercharger 6-speed Manual)

F-Body Dies; Mustang Dances on Grave

Automotive irony comes in many forms. Take the ongoing Mustang versus F-body (that's Camaro and Firebird to non-car geeks) war that's been raging since 1967. Back then, the Mustang was into its fourth production year before General Motors finally launched a counter strike and delivered a dynamic duo with styling cues and performance capabilities that met (some might even argue exceeded) the Mustang's offerings.

Thus began one of the greatest rivalries in the history of internal combustion. Whether at the track on the street or in the showroom, the Mustang versus Camaro (or Firebird) battle often headlined the larger Ford versus GM war. Regardless of how that battle has swung over the last 35 years, the Blue Oval boys finally have the satisfaction of knowing they've won the ponycar war.

For 2003, the Camaro and Firebird are officially dead, while the Mustang continues to be a hot seller among enthusiasts, empty nesters and, well, let's face it, rental car agencies. And that irony mentioned earlier? It relates to the fact that this year's top Mustang, the SVT Cobra, now packs enough punch under its bulging hood to easily dust off those pesky 5.7-liter V8 Camaros and Firebirds. Normally, this escalation in hostilities would be met by a similar bump in performance from the Chevy and Pontiac guys. Instead, the only response you're likely to see is another press release about how well the Suburban is selling.

But enough history. The future of ultimate pony car performance rides on the original pony car, along with some help from Ford's Special Vehicle Team. SVT has taken a page from the aftermarket and mounted an Eaton Roots-type blower on top of the Cobra's 4.6-liter V8. To cope with the extra stress created by 390 prancing ponies (up from the 320 horsepower produced by last year's normally aspirated engine) the new cast-iron block received several upgrades. These include Manley forged "H-beam" connecting rods, forged pistons and an aluminum flywheel that connects to a Tremec T-56 six-speed transmission. Ford fans familiar with previous SVT products might wonder if those last two items were pulled from the 2000 Cobra R parts bin. They were.

Other drivetrain modifications include a lower compression ratio of 8.5:1 (to offset the higher combustion chamber pressures delivered via the supercharger), new camshafts designed to provide greater low-end torque, an aluminum driveshaft with upgraded universal joints, stronger half-shafts and a 3.55:1 gearset in the differential. And, of course, every SVT Mustang Cobra engine is still hand-built and signed by a two-person assembly team.

The Eaton supercharger is designed to give between 7.5 and 8 pounds per square inch maximum boost. From there, the compressed air passes through a water-to-air intercooler to reduce its temperature and create a denser air charge. As you might expect, this engine demands only the highest-quality pump fuel available, and although official EPA numbers haven't yet been released, our limited drive time suggests that the 2003 Cobra is not going to threaten Honda's Insight for top mpg figures.

While the SVT Mustang Cobra's appetite for high octane comes as no surprise, its ability to comport itself on both a low-speed autocross circuit and high-speed racecourse did raise a few eyebrows among the gathered automotive press at Virginia International Raceway. Whether we were hauling it down from 120 mph on VIR's front straight or rotating it through the tricky elevation changes on the backside of the course, it was abundantly clear to us that SVT wanted more than just a stoplight racer for 2003.

Starting with the 2002 SVT Cobra's independent rear suspension, the 2003 version gets revised bushings and springs, along with a new tubular crossbrace that reinforces the rear differential under hard acceleration. Spring rates are specific to body type, with the coupe getting 600 ppi springs and the convertible getting 500 ppi units in front and 470 ppi springs in back. Bilstein shocks and a slightly larger front antiroll bar, now at 29 mm, round out the suspension mods for 2003 while a higher-rate steering-gear bushing provides superior on-center feel.

Further performance benefits are gained from 13-inch Brembo front brake rotors with PBR dual-piston calipers. Rear binders feature 11.65-inch rotors with single-piston calipers and upgraded rear brake pad material. Affixing the Cobra to mother earth are 17-by-9 inch cast aluminum wheels wearing 275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. With a curb weight of approximately 3,700 pounds, the 2003 Cobra is clearly no lightweight. However, the 390 lb-ft of peak torque hits at 3,500 rpm and is relatively flat from off-idle to the 6,500-rpm redline. And don't forget that combines with a healthy 390 peak hp at 6,000 rpm.

If you're thinking this pony is capable of supercar acceleration figures, you're right. Chief SVT engineer John Coletti (who could accurately be described as the Tony Soprano of motorsports, except that when he talks about "whacking the competition" he's referring to cars, not people) told us that the 2003 SVT Mustang Cobra "will do 12s in the quarter-mile." A short drive through the hills of North Carolina supported Mr. Coletti's comments. Off-the-line pulling power is strong and remains so right up to the 6,500 rpm redline. The supercharger's whine is barely audible under most conditions, largely drowned out by the low, throaty exhaust rumble.

During both our public road and private racetrack seat time, we found the Cobra, in either coupe or convertible form, to be the most capable Mustang-badged vehicle we've driven with the possible exception of the 2000 Cobra R version. We should specify that, in terms of pure acceleration numbers and lap times, the two are likely within a couple tenths of a second of one another. And because this one comes with a full warranty, a rear seat, air conditioning and an audio system (all for $20,000 less), it is ostensibly a superior vehicle. However, the Cobra R had a normally aspirated 5.4-liter V8 while this version uses a blown 4.6-liter engine. The phrase "no replacement for displacement" may be cliché, but it's also an undeniable fact. If you don't think so, drive a 2003 Cobra and a 2000 Cobra R back-to-back. We suspect the older model will feel stronger in the midrange and when rolling on the throttle, and we know it had a superior exhaust howl.

But these are subtle advantages from a vehicle that was too hardcore and expensive for most buyers (ergo its limited run of 300 units). Regardless, the 2003 Cobra essentially equals the Cobra R's performance while also maintaining a standard Mustang GT's everyday functionality. Ride quality, seat comfort and interior noise levels are all well within tolerable limits for the mainstream enthusiast. And with standard features like Nudo leather seats (complete with a power lumbar adjustment), air conditioning and a Mach 460 audio system, even your non-enthusiast friends (or spouse) won't mind tagging along.

And perhaps the most exciting aspect of the new Cobra's performance relates to what it signifies in the automotive marketplace. You can now buy a 390-horsepower Mustang for less than $35,000 when just one year ago that would have been more horsepower than the top Corvette (a $47,000 Z06 with 385 horses). Now, of course, the Z06 offers 405 horsepower and the new Viper is touting 500. The last time we put the top Viper, 'Vette and Mustang up against each other, the Chevy won because it had the best combination of price and performance. Now the Mustang is right there at Z06 performance levels for more than $10,000 less. Sounds like another American Exotics comparo is in order. As Mr. Coletti puts it, "We've done this, and now the competition will have to respond." Sounds like a certain famous "family war to clean out the bad blood."

In the meantime, it's unfortunate there's no direct competition left for the Mustang to beat up on. It clearly has the goods to put cement shoes on last year's top F-bodies. But regardless of whether you want to score this victory on a basis of attrition or acceleration, Mr. Coletti can officially consider the F-body competition "whacked."

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