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Its blue-collar muscle challenges costly rivals








BY LAWRENCE ULRICH
DETROIT FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC


Go fast. Spend less.

SPECS
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive sports coupe-convertible
Key competitors: Chrysler Sebring, Audi TT, Nissan 350Z

Base price: $37,995

As tested: $37,995

Standard equipment: ABS, front air bags, power driver seat, AM-FM-CD audio, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt steering

Options: none

Specifications (convertible) (Manufacturer's data)

Engine: 4.6-liter V8, 390 horsepower, 390 foot-pounds torque

Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city, 22 m.p.g. highway

Curb weight: 3,780 pounds

Wheelbase: 101.3 inches

Length: 183.5 inches

Width: 73.1 inches

Height: 52.9 inches

Where assembled: Dearborn

2003 FORD MUSTANG COBRA
Rating: THREE STARS out of four
A blast from the past but still plenty explosive

Bragging points: Fast, fast, fast. Adept handling, powerful brakes. Audio system excels at conquering wind noise (convertible model).

Nagging points: Painfully dated interior. Awkward seating position. Clunky, hard-to-reach shifter. Clutch too heavy. Leaky side windows.


Hard to argue with that pitch, from the forked-but-honest tongue of the SVT Mustang Cobra.

This supercharged 'Stang from the Ford Special Vehicle Team is as quick as the Cobra R it hatched for 2001, of which just 300 were built.

But that Cobra R cost about $57,000. The new Cobra coupe tags for $34,750, the convertible $37,995. Yes, math majors, a roughly $20,000 savings. And that pricey Cobra R was essentially a crude race car modified for the street, lacking even a radio, air conditioning or a back seat.

Thirty-five thousand dollars is still a lot of money for a Mustang. But if speed is your middle name, you won't find another car near this price that can run 0-60 m.p.h. in about 4.5 seconds. Or the quarter-mile in under 13 seconds, at about 110 m.p.h.

Now, I doubt hardcore Chevy fans would suddenly pledge allegiance to Ford. But the Mustang does own the pony-car market now that the Camaro and Pontiac Firebird are belly-up in the pasture. So if blue-collar muscle is your ticket, the Mustang is about it.

Best of all, this Cobra doesn't bite the way you might expect from a nose-heavy muscle car. Thanks to SVT suspension know-how, the Cobra's ride is tolerable, its handling benign and manageable from racetrack to street. And with coiled power ready to strike at the twitch of your right foot, the Cobra is an absolute blast to drive.

I tested the Cobras in North Carolina and Virginia, followed by a week-long stint around Detroit. The Mustang proved its mettle at Virginia International Speedway, tearing around the road course and emitting a telltale metallic whine from the supercharger under the hood.

That Eaton supercharger mates to the 5.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam V8 to produce 390 horsepower and an equivalent 390 foot-pounds of torque. That's 70 more horsepower than last year's Cobra. It's also more than a standard Corvette, with 350 horsepower and 375 foot-pounds torque.

But unlike some shade-tree mechanic, Ford didn't just bolt on a supercharger and call it a day. Skip the technical dissertation if you choose, but the engineering and hardware are the reason the Cobra succeeds like no other factory Mustang:

A cast-iron block is used in place of aluminum, as in the SVT F-150 Lightning pickup. The old-school block adds weight but boosts durability. Sturdy H-beam connecting rods by Manley fit with dish-top pistons to reduce the engine's compression ratio to 8.5:1. That's necessary to handle higher internal pressures from the supercharger, which forces compressed gas and air into the cylinder heads to produce a windfall of power.

A water-to-air intercooler reduces intake air temperatures created by the supercharger. This enhances performance and durability. Re-profiled camshafts and aluminum alloy four-valve cylinder heads help maximize power at low engine speeds.

The Cobra engine flies through first and second gear, whipping you past 70 m.p.h. before it's time to nail third. Top speed is manufacturer-limited to 155 mph.

SVT lavished similar attention on the Mustang's ancient chassis, which dates back to the Ford Fairmont of the late '70s. Monotube Bilstein shocks help soften the ride yet maintain requisite firmness for sporty handling. The Cobra's exclusive independent rear suspension (typical Mustangs have a solid rear axle) has been retuned and adds a rear cross brace to better support the limited-slip differential.

For the first time, Cobra convertibles get unique, slightly softer spring tuning to accommodate their more-flexible structures.

Like the Cobra R, the 2003 Cobra offers a six-speed Tremec manual transmission. No automatic, thank you very much.

The clutch doesn't get bigger, as you might expect to handle all the power, but its clamping force has been increased. Brakes are unchanged from last year. But the beefy system, including 13-inch Brembo rotors up front with dual-piston calipers, is up for any performance task.

New five-spoke alloy wheels look especially clean and sharp. They're swaddled in big 275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, an inch wider than last year's 8-inch rims.

The result is one wild Mustang but tame enough to claim a spot in your commuter corral. And the tight-but-usable back seat gives the Mustang a leg up, or four to be precise, on two-seat sports cars.

Subtle changes outside include a new front fascia and a revised hood with working scoops to vent hot air from the engine. The rear decklid spoiler is strictly sore-thumb, but fortunately it's a no-charge option that customers can delete. The convertible adds a more-durable cloth-top material with better sound insulation.

I should mention falling in love with a Mustang color called mineral gray metallic. The rich pewter paint might be too subtle for some, but to me it's the most flattering shade in the Mustang palette.

Less impressive inside
Now, on to the bad stuff.

While SVT poured money into performance and handling, it was stingier with interior appointments. Despite some SVT upgrades, the Mustang's cabin remains as dully familiar as summer reruns. Gray plastic looks faded even when it's brand-new.

Front seats are reasonably supportive, but the seating position never feels just right, no matter how you adjust it. The buckets feature inserts Ford calls preferred suede, but don't expect Gucci to come calling: They look more like a bad velour shirt from the '70s.

None of the controls seems to be where you want it, especially the shifter that's an awkward reach. All Mustang shifters are stiff and balky, but my Detroit test car's six-speed seemed especially stubborn. Adding injury to insult, the shifter liked to mash my thumb against the console when I was forcibly hunting for third gear.

Electroluminescent gauges are an up-level touch, though some passengers took issue with their shade, a kind of mossy underwater green.

And despite the magic SVT has performed with this suspension, there's no way to completely hide the aging rabbit -- actually, a Fox in Ford chassis parlance -- under the hat. Cross railroad tracks, and the Mustang body reveals more shakes than a hula dancer. The side window produced a form of water torture, leaking and dripping on my passenger during a rainstorm.

Enough gripes. You can have performance or pampering; it's hard to expect both for $35,000. Sports-car sophisticates won't be shopping the Cobra anyway, not when machines like the Nissan 350Z, Honda S2000 or Audi TT can be had for less.

But the Cobra will punish those cars if challenged. And on a straight path at least, it has the potential to make Corvette, Porsche, even Ferrari owners mumble excuses: "Yeah, whatever. But it's still a Ford . . . "

Sound good to you? Then forget the forked tongue.

The Cobra is speaking your language.
 

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4.6L 4-V. They went back to a cast iron block from the aluminum block used by earlier Cobras. The supercharger is related to the set-up on the Lightnings (5.4L 2-V).
Power on these cars seems a touch under-rated by Ford. Blue Oval News has a board for Cobra owners, and the dyno postings at the rear wheels suggest that a bit more horsepower is being made.
I'm jealous a bit, but I want to see what the '03 ('04?) Boss 302 looks like. I've seen a couple of articles that said they're not doing it unless they can make the 5.0L displacement work out of the mod-motor. The cars Ford's making may not be perfect, but I LIKE the selection!

Carl
 

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Its a nice looking car...
Wouldn't mind owning one, but way out of my price range though.
 
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