Wild Mustangs: 1999-2004 SVT Cobra, 1999-2004 Saleen S281-SC, and 1999-2004 Roush Stage 3

Scott Dahlquist
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Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

Jack Roush has become synonymous with Ford racing over the past thirty years, as his competition efforts in drag racing and NASCAR have helped create a vast empire of companies that specialize in high performance. Roush entered the Mustang business by building cars for the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving, and Roush Performance Products began building turnkey specialty Mustangs in 1999.

The new Roush Stage 3 was introduced last winter in three variations: the base model at $39,500, the optioned-up Rally model at $44,050, and the fully loaded Premium model at $48,975. There's an Eaton-built Roots-type supercharger on top of its SOHC 4.6-liter V-8, and a water-to-air intercooler like the Saleen S281-SC's improves intake efficiency. Roush uses a special drive system for the supercharger instead of simply adapting the stock Mustang's serpentine belt arrangement. Six psi of boost produces 360 horsepower at 5250 rpm. Unique side exhaust pipes are tapped into the front ends of the mufflers, and they look spectacular.

Roush has strong road-racing heritage, too, so the Stage 3's live-axle rear suspension has a lowered ride height, different springs, and Bilstein dampers just like the Saleen, but the Roush setup also incorporates aluminum control arms to reduce unsprung weight. The Premium-spec Stage 3's front brakes have slotted, 14.0-inch-diameter rotors and four-piston Alcon calipers.

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Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

There's no trick to getting the Cobra SVT off the starting line. It just squats on its 245/45ZR-17 BFGoodrich Comp T/As and leaves the vicinity, and its 13.5-second quarter-mile times are easily repeatable. Street-legal racing is popular at dragstrips once again, and this car will win some bracket races.

The Saleen S281-SC is a far trickier proposition. Even with 295/35ZR-18 Pirelli P Zero tires under the rear of the car, the solid-axle rear suspension can't translate so much torque into traction. Time-wasting tire smoke is the consequence. The SC will turn 13.5 seconds at 107 mph in the quarter-mile, if you get it right. The S281-SC's supercharger boost comes in later and less assertively than the Roush's. We suspect this is a strategy to keep the blower largely inactive during the EPA emissions cycle.

The Roush Stage 3 Mustang is simply a brute from a standing start. You're either a hero as the 295/35ZR-18 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A rear tires hook up and the car rockets into the middle distance at 13.0 seconds at 110 mph, or you're a dope spinning your tires. More often, you're a dope. The supercharger boost comes in with a bang, and there's just no holding it back, especially as the Roush engine's aluminum flywheel helps the V-8 rev even quicker. This is a wickedly fast car, but it's wise to have a plan when you drop the clutch.

Thirty years after the glory days of street racing on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, it's also important to make good things happen in the corners, and each of these Mustangs measures up. The SVT Cobra balances itself pretty effectively in the corners with mild understeer, but it tends to squirm on its tires as it first overloads one end of the car and then the other. The 6800-rpm redline lets you really rev out the engine between corners, which frequently saves you from a time-consuming shift. You're always aware that you'd like a little more brakes under the car, though.

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