German engineers stared slack-jawed as the jet-black 1997 Ford Mustang Cobra Convertible roared toward them at 5,000 rpm in second gear. We exchanged stares as I passed by; the engineers appreciating the Mustangs symphonic exhaust note and uniquely American styling, while I took in a brief glimpse of the Audi A3 hatchback, Audi A4 Avant, and Volkswagen Passat that the Germans were flogging through high-altitude tests. Checking the rear view mirror while blasting away from their resting spot alongside the road, I watch the engineers note my departure with interest until I disappear around the next bend.
The People and Their Philosophy The Cobra Convertible is the fine product of Fords Special Vehicle Team (SVT). I recently met with key members of the SVT in Denver for a chance to discuss and drive their versions of the Mustang and Contour. The day began over lunch, where Special Vehicles Marketing Manager Tim Boyd explained SVTs philosophy while munching wood-fired oven baked pizza. "SVT is to Ford what M-Division is to BMW," Boyd summarized. It wasnt the only reference to BMW that afternoon. Boyd explained that SVT isnt a performance tuner. His group is better balanced, emphasizing more than just straight-line performance. New technology is also a function of SVT, said Boyd, naming the Contours extrude honing process as an example. Extrude honing forces a gritty putty-like substance through the intake ports and runners of the engine to constantly polish them and improve airflow, thus boosting performance.
SVT has sold nearly 50,000 vehicles since the 1993 F-150 Lightning pickup debuted. That the worlds second largest automaker is willing to devote time and money to such a low-volume niche, namely serious performance enthusiasts, is extraordinary in Boyds opinion. Production of the 1997 Cobra was limited to 7,000 coupes and 3,000 convertibles. Ford wanted to build 5,000 Contour SVTs for 1998, but according to PR dude John Clor, only 3,800 or so will make it down the production line. Exclusivity is important to SVT members and buyers. When 12,000 orders for the Cobra came in from dealers, SVT turned away 2,000 buyers and stuck to the 10,000-unit production ceiling. Why? Clor recounted what happened in 1976 when Cadillac was touting the Eldorado convertible as the last of a species, and planned a limited production run. Buyers lined up, cash in hand, and paid thousands over sticker for one of the last few American droptops. When demand exceeded supply, Cadillac built more, effectively thumbing its corporate nose at those who had already purchased one of the "limited edition" Eldos. "You just cant do that to the customer," Clor emphasized.
Boyd pointed out that the Cobra and Contour SVT are sources of pride for employees at all levels within Ford Motor Company. Car guy executives like the praise and visibility SVT garners and enjoys among fellow enthusiasts. Dealers who qualify to sell SVT products can crow about their ability to meet and exceed stringent SVT sales, service, and customer satisfaction requirements. And line workers take pride in knowing that they are assembling some of the greatest American cars for sale today.
Basically, SVT exists to boost Fords image among auto enthusiasts. The theory goes a little something like this: Every neighborhood and family has a resident car expert. If the car expert knows about SVT, chances are very good a favorable impression will form regarding Ford products. Then, when neighbors, friends, and family arrive to receive the car experts divine wisdom regarding their next automotive purchase, there is a distinct possibility that the car expert will excitedly discuss SVT, which reflects well upon Ford, which will then sell more mainstream Mustangs, Contours, and maybe a Taurus or two. After all, SVT products arent for everybody.
One trip down an on-ramp in a Pacific Green Cobra Coupe proved to me that not everybody needs, or even wants, this much power. The Mustang screamed to extra-legal speeds in seconds, without using the last two forward gears. Under the dual-scooped hood beats a 4.6-liter dual-overhead cam V8 engine that produces 305 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 300 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Obviously, this engine is happiest in the upper rev range, and thats where it spent much of its time in my hands. The route included several tunnels bored through rock in the foothills above Denver, and the sensual exhaust note was so enticing that through each portal I put the windows down, shifted into neutral, and revved the DOHC V8 to enjoy mellifluous reverberations of power. SVT claims that the Cobra will accelerate from zero to 60 in a scant 5.9 seconds, will cover the quarter-mile in 13.99 seconds at 101.6 mph, and tops out at 152 mph.
Not only is the Cobra faster and more delightful to listen to than a stock Mustang GT, but it rides and handles better. Engineers went for a more compliant ride with the Cobra, and their suspension tweaks have worked. The Cobras massive P245/45ZR-17 B.F. Goodrich Comp T/A tires stay planted on all but the most rippled pavement surfaces, and passengers are largely excluded from the severe jolts meted out by the lower-rung GT. This means that the Cobra serves as a great touring car as well as a hard-core performance machine. Power rack-and-pinion steering provides excellent feel, but the turning circle is rather wide for such a small vehicle. Huge 13-inch front vented iron disc brakes with twin-piston calipers combine with 11.65-inch rear vented discs and a three-channel Bosch ABS system to haul the Cobra down from any velocity quickly and safely. However, the Cobra employs a hydraulic actuator to operate the brake system rather than a vacuum-assisted setup like that on the GT, and we felt that brake feel was reduced somewhat, resulting in a slightly dead and mushy pedal.
But it wasnt enough of a problem to dampen the fun. I twisted and turned along Lookout Mountain Road west of Golden, going fast enough to test the Mustangs moves but minding the fact that this is a popular spot for hikers, bikers, and the occasional dope-smoking teen driver. With a weight distribution front/rear of 57/43, the Cobra understeered slightly when I entered a hairpin turn too fast, and controllably oversteered a bit with the power on in second gear. Still, the Cobra can be a handful to hustle through the curves quickly. Seat bolstering is sadly lacking, so the driver slides around a bit on the soft leather through tight corners. Also, and this is a complaint Ive had about the current Mustangs interior all along, when my left leg is braced against the door panel for a hard-charging right hander, the plastic door pull gets jammed into my knee between the joint and the kneecap. Not pleasant, and the pain this situation produces immediately distracts from the task at hand, which is completing the turn. I also noticed a hint of rear axle hop over broken pavement in curves, which threatened to break the rear loose, but SVT member Dan Reid told me that the car would indeed settle quickly and take a set. He was right.
After a run in the coupe, I took a spin in the convertible. This portion of the route took me past Echo Lake and over Squaw Pass to Bergen Park. I tested Reids theory on the nastier sections of road, and the Cobra definitely recovers from sharp bumps with aplomb. The convertible is also the better way to enjoy the Cobra. With the top down, the sonorous exhaust note is even more pleasing. Cowl shake was minimal in the car I drove, and the Cobra droptop felt solid and tight. Despite my increasingly silver-tinted hair, I think a good burnout is always a hoot. I dropped the clutch at 6,000 rpm and left satisfyingly black and smoky twin stripes on Colorado 103s blacktop. Approaching Bergen Park, traffic went from non-existent to thick, so I turned on the Mach 460 sound system. At speed, the Mach 460 provides crisp clear sound. At stoplights, the driver must turn the volume down manually, unless, of course, the desired effect is to look like a complete ass. If any car needed speed-compensated volume control, its the Mustang convertible with the Mach 460 sound system.
Ford SVT hopes buyers will find that the Mustang Cobra blends the power and muscular good looks of the traditional muscle car with the finesse and sophistication of the BMW M3. After my afternoon behind the wheel, it appears that they are very close to hitting the bulls-eye. At a starting cost of $25,860 including destination charge, its easy to forgive the Cobras few shortcomings. What a car.
Mustang Cobra Specifications
(selected from press releases)
Longitudinally mounted, 90-degree V8, cast aluminum block and heads, iron cylinder liners, fully counterweighted forged crankshaft, six-bolt main bearing caps
Bore x Stroke
90.2 mm x 90.0 mm
6,800 (fuel shut-off at 7,000 rpm)
Double overhead cams, chain-drive to exhaust cams, secondary chain from exhaust to intake cams, roller finger followers with hydraulic lash adjustment, ovate-wire beehive valve springs, four valves per cylinder
Rigid axle, upper and lower trailing arms, two leading hydraulic links, variable-rate coil springs, shock absorbers, 27mm stabilizer bar
Steering Gear Ratio
Steering, turns lock to lock
60.0 in./58.7 in.
Curb Weight, coupe
Curb Weight, convertible
EPA City Fuel Economy
EPA Highway Fuel Economy
Acceleration, 0-60 mph
13.99 seconds @ 101.6 mph
Skidpad, 100 ft.
Slalom, 80 ft.
When Ford delivered a 1998 Contour SVT to our office for a test drive earlier this summer, I wrote a Second Opinion to Grant Whitmores review of the car:
"Peer into the binnacle forward of the fat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and simple white-faced gauges stare back, warning This aint no rent-a-car, pal.
Twist the key in the ignition and a deep-throated grumble rumbles from beneath the hood and the twin exhaust pipes, revving to a maniacal shriek when the gas pedal is depressed with vigor.
Drop the clutch and roar off, hitting 60 mph quickly enough to startle the Nissan Maxima SE or BMW 328i driver in the next lane.
Crank the wheel right, and extra-wide Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires bite into the pavement, pulling the car around the turn with ridiculous ease.
Need to stop? Oversize front discs throttle forward motion with expediency when the brake pedal is mashed to the floor.
Then, when the fun has been had, load the kids or even full-sized adult friends into the comfortable, supportive rear seat for a ride to dinner or the lakeside cottage for a weekend getaway.
The Ford Contour, and particularly the SVT version I discuss above, is a fine American automobile. It blends everyday practicality with driving passion, at a price that blows the more pedestrian Honda Accord and Toyota Camry out of the running. Now, if we could just get a more attractive wrapper for this excellent package, something along the lines of the Audi A4, Ford would really be on to something."
Several months later, whizzing along the western boundary of Denvers suburbs through Deer Creek Canyon, I couldnt have put it any better. Getting behind the wheel of the Contour SVT was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. After driving Mustang Cobras for a good portion of the afternoon, however, I came to appreciate the Contour SVT with newfound vigor.
In my opinion, the Contour SVT is the more fun car to drive. Its more comfortable, thanks to a larger cabin and better seats with stiffer lateral support. The driving position is perfect; visibility is outstanding. The Goodyear GS-C tires grip the road ferociously, and the huge brakes stop the Contour swiftly and surely. Perhaps most surprising is the supple ride, which filters out harshness without sacrificing communication. Ive said it before and Ill say it again; the Contour is Americas BMW 3-Series.
Which is just what the SVT guys want me to say. They benchmarked the BMW 328i while developing their version of the Contour. In some ways, the Contour is the superior automobile. Similarly austere, the Contours interior feels more airy and much roomier than that in the BMW. The Contours steering wheel is sized just right, a tad smaller than what the 328i driver must contend with. Ergonomics are better in the Contour (with the exception of the stupid little buttons that control the stereo) because they dont require reference to the owners manual for an explanation. The white-faced gauges, whose numbers glow green under orange needles at night, are flat out cool. All Contour SVTs come with a dark blue leather-lined cabin, and our only complaint is that in sunlight the interior bits and pieces give off an obnoxious purplish hue. Furthermore, the interior color looks really good only on the silver cars. Red and black would be more attractive with a black or tan interior.
But, one glance at the sticker price helps put the Contour SVT back into perspective. This car leaves the showroom floor fully loaded for the cost of an Audi A4 1.8T, a Chevy Lumina LTZ, or a Honda Accord LX V6. Its priced more than $10,000 lower than the vaunted BMW 328i. And, it has the highest specific output of any sedan sold in America today. Hows that for hi-jinks?
Behind the chromed oval grille of the Contour SVT lives a massaged Duratec 2.5-liter V6 making 195 horsepower at 6,625 rpm and 165 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,625 rpm. This equals 76.6 horsepower per liter, and it means that the Contour SVT is most fun when run close to the engines 6,750 rpm redline. Extrude honing technology is responsible for only part of the power boost over the regular Duratec motor. A large capacity conical air cleaner sits in front of a 70mm air mass sensor and special 60mm-bore throttle body. Also unique to the Contour SVT are 34mm butterfly port throttles above each secondary valve, hypereutectic pistons that deliver a 10.0:1 compression ratio, and a lighter nodular iron flywheel. Other SVT goodies include a quasi-dual 2.25-inch stainless steel exhaust system, a 14mm deeper radiator core from Europes Ford Mondeo, and a water-to-oil type oil cooler that bolts directly to the side of the engine block. A short-throw manual transmission and heavy-duty clutch complete the high-performance drivetrain.
Didnt understand a word of that gobbledegook? Doesnt matter. Understand this. If you have a passion for driving but are in a family-type way, this is the car for you. One drive will hypnotize. After dinner I had my choice of SVT models to take back to the hotel; Cobra coupe, Cobra convertible, or Contour SVT. I selected the keys to a silver Contour.
Contour SVT Specifications
(selected from press releases)
Transversely mounted, 60-degree V6, cast aluminum block and heads, iron cylinder liners, fully counterweighted forged crankshaft
Bore x Stroke
82.4 mm x 79.0 mm
6,750 (fuel shut-off at 7,000 rpm)
Dual overhead chain-driven cams, roller finger followers with hydraulic lash adjustment, ovate-wire beehive springs, four valves per cylinder
Sequential electronic fuel injection
MTX-75 five-speed manual
1st Gear Ratio
3.42 with 35 mph max. speed
2nd Gear Ratio
2.14 with 56 mph max. speed
3rd Gear Ratio
1.45 with 82 mph max. speed
4th Gear Ratio
1.03 with 117 mph max. speed
5th Gear Ratio
0.77 with 143 mph max. speed
MacPherson struts, lower A-arms, coil springs, tube shock dampers, stabilizer bar
Independent Quadralink design, coil springs, tube shock dampers, stabilizer bar