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.