Phoenix, Arizona- Mustang versus Camaro, the decades-long battle, staple of car-magazine covers, source of countless beer-fueled arguments, has at last been decided by history. Chevrolet is pulling the Camaro from the fight, leaving the Mustang as the last car standing in the category it created. But, instead of looking like a punch-drunk boxer at the end of an epic match, the Mustang, particularly in top-spec Cobra trim, is stronger than ever. What better than a vanquished foe to put some wind in the sails? Well, there's a supercharger, for starters.
This summer, the 2003 version of the SVT Mustang Cobra arrives with the Mustang's first-ever factory-supercharged V-8. The blown engine's 390 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque buries the '01 Cobra's 320 horsepower and 317 pound-feet. (There was no '02 model.)
The Eaton blower--similar to the one used in the SVT F-150 Lightning--is the hero of this story, but this was not a simple bolt-on application. The supercharged Cobra reverts to an iron block, which was deemed necessary to handle the higher power output. Like the previous engine, it has a forged steel crankshaft, but the connecting rods and pistons are now also forged. The flywheel, conversely, switches from iron to aluminum for a sizable reduction in both weight and inertia. SVT claims that change alone shaves 0.2 second off both the 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times, because it allows the engine to rev so much quicker. You can feel the difference the first time you bury the throttle. This engine doesn't chug up the tach the way the previous car's did; it charges to its 6500-rpm redline.
The combination of an iron block and an aluminum flywheel was used previously in the Cobra R. As in that car, the '03 Cobra's engine is mated to a six-speed manual. Unfortunately, the new linkage demands real muscle and concentration to move from gate to gate. As with the previous five-speed, the shifter curves away from the driver, exacerbating its long-reach positioning. SVT does not offer an automatic (not that you were expecting one).
Other driveline changes include a beefed-up clutch, which engages lower in its travel than did the old one. The U-joints and half-shafts have been strengthened as well, and the driveshaft is now aluminum. The final-drive ratio has been lowered from 3.27 to 3.55:1.
With all that heavy-duty hardware, we didn't feel the least bit bad repeatedly launching the Cobra in a cloud of tire smoke. (Traction control is on hand to prevent this from happening inadvertently, but it does allow some wheelspin.) SVT engineers estimate that they've chopped a good half-second off the 0-to-60-mph time; we recorded 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 109 mph. An electronic nanny steps in at 155 mph.
Not only does the supercharger greatly increase the 4.6-liter's outputs, but it also moves the torque curve down lower. The blower's only downside is that its shriek is the dominant engine note, drowning out the V-8 rumble.
The Cobra's brakes are carried over pretty much intact from the 2001 model; only the rear pad material has changed. Still, with 13-inch Brembos up front and 11.7-inch rear discs (both vented), performance is up to par. For those headed to the racetrack, SVT makes hi-po pads--their squealing keeps them from being standard issue. Interestingly, the new front fascia incorporates openings next to the foglamps, where enthusiastic owners could take things a step farther and add cooling ducts to the brakes. Ford's lawyers point out that this does not mean the responsible folks at SVT are encouraging racing, mind you.
We had some track time, however, on a road course at Bob Bondurant's Phoenix complex, where we found the new Cobra to be not only ferociously quick but also more coordinated. With the supercharger and the iron block, the new Cobra carries some 200 extra pounds, most of it on the front wheels. But the chassis engineers have done a commendable job of keeping the car from feeling front-heavy. The mighty Mustang corners with aplomb.
Up front, there are increased spring rates and a fractionally thicker anti-roll bar. The independent rear suspension was fussed over a bit more, with stiffer springs (except for the convertible, which retains the '01 car's softer spring rates, front and rear), new bushings, revised geometry, and a new brace attached to the differential to keep it in place during hard acceleration. Bilstein gas-charged monotube dampers deliver faster response and suffer less deterioration in performance caused by heat.
The net effect of this tweaking is that the Cobra is a decidedly more enthusiastic partner in crime when you want to go screaming around corners. The engine and the chassis are particularly well matched. The wheels are nine inches wide, up from eight inches, but the engine is so much more powerful that the car doesn't feel over-tired. The car turns in well, and there's plenty of torque to bring the back end around. What's really a blast is how controllable it all is. The Goodyear Eagle F1 tires are very benign in the way they relinquish grip, so you can edge the Cobra into oversteer precisely as much or as little as you want to. It doesn't take a tremendous leap of faith or wild stabs at the pedals to unstick the rear end. For increased throttle sensitivity and ready power oversteer, drive it in a lower gear with the revs at the top of the range.
Holding you in place--or, at the touch of a button, clamping you in place--are new suede-and-leather seats that feature power-adjustable side bolsters in both the seat cushion and the seatback. These seats are far better than the Mustang Cobra seats of the recent past, but, unfortunately, even at their most relaxed setting, the cushion's lateral bolsters become a pain in the thigh for long-legged drivers.
Other Cobra special bits inside include a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob and metal appliqus on the shifter and the pedals (the accelerator is also a bit wider to aid heel-and-toe shifting). A boost gauge has been added to the instrument cluster. Outside, the lower front bumper, the rocker panels, and the rear spoiler have been reshaped, but the most noticeable change is the new composite hood. Its center section is raised to clear the tall super-charger, and its reverse scoops extract hot air from the engine compartment.
The 2003 Cobra might not have the looks to put it in the Mustang hall of fame, but it's got the moves. While the scorching straight-line performance gets your attention, this muscle-bound Mustang also displays real finesse in corners. The price of entry surely will rise from the outgoing car's $29,235, but the coupe should come in at less than $35,000, with the convertible costing a few thousand more. Considering the quantum leap in performance, it's still one swift bargain.