Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsCar Reviews
The 2003 Cobra is ready to take its rightful place as the ultimate American musclecar.
We've accepted the role as the Special Forces inside Ford," proclaimed O. John Coletti, chief engineer for that elite group known as Special Vehicle Team Engineering. "Having a performance crisis? You call us. We're on the way."Big talk, sure. But when you've just delivered a 390 horsepower supercharged Mustang for the masses, it's hard not to puff out your chest a little. Every Cobra to this point has been a fairly amazing vehicle, but every one has also had compromises here or there that enthusiasts balked at. Not any more. Ford's Special Vehicle Team has pulled out all the stops on the 2003 Cobra. Everything it has learned since 1993 about horsepower, vehicle dynamics and ergonomics has been put to use. Every criticism that's been levied at the Cobra in the past has been addressed. Want a supercharger? You've got one, and it comes with a factory warranty. How about a 6-speed? Standard. Custom gauges with electro-luminescent lighting? Bam.
The end result is the ultimate factory Mustang. Known internally as "The Terminator," it'll blow the doors off a Boss 429, out-handle a Cobra R and scare the stripes off a 35th anniversary SS Camaro. And it will do all this while retaining the Mach 460 stereo, air conditioning and rear seat. It won't be inexpensive, but it's a relative bargain when you consider the end product. "Every once in a while, a car comes along that really shakes up the status quo," said Tom Scarpello, marketing and sales manager for Ford SVT. "Since the 19641/2 Mustang was launched, there have been a number of Mustangs that set the standard for performance when they were introduced. The 2003 SVT Cobra is the new benchmark, and proudly carries on the tradition of Mustang performance leadership."
"We've had some pretty successful Mustangs, and specifically SVT Mustang Cobras," Coletti noted, "but the whole idea is to improve. That's what we're committed to, and the number-one thing our customers want is enhanced performance. The supercharged engine allowed us to go where we needed to go--to give our customers a whole lot more car than ever before."According to SVT Cobra program manager Tom Bochenek, originally Special Vehicle Team Engineering was working on bringing the power up in naturally aspirated trim. The results were not what they were looking for. It was OK, but let's just say nobody was dancing in the hallways.
It was Coletti, Bochenek said, who decided to scrap what they had done, switch gears entirely, and go the blower route. They had learned so much from doing the Lightning, and it was so successful, why not draw from it?Now, we at MM&FF are huge fans of the SVT Lightning so when the rumors first came out of Dearborn that the new Cobra would have an Eaton-supercharged 4.6 4-valve engine, we couldn't wait to experience it. For months, SVT denied the rumors. "Terminator? Isn't that a Schwarzenegger movie?", they'd say with utmost insincerity. But no one was fooled.
The first cars are scheduled to be built in May, which forced Ford to decide if the car should be tagged as a 2002 or 2003 model. Ultimately, it was decided that all would be 2003 models, even if that meant technically that no 2002 Cobras would be built.
We were able to wring the cars out on the roads outside Phoenix and on the track at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Ariz. Our first impression was that this is one helluva fast automobile, very much the equal of the fabled 2000 Cobra R--maybe faster. Boost is instantaneous and despite its 3665-lb. curbweight, the Terminator will thrust you into speeds that will make you public enemy number one with the local constables.Of course, we expected the Cobra to be fast--with 390 lb.-ft. of torque at 3500 rpm, 390 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 3.55:1 gears, you know it's going to be explosive. What shocked us was the fact that with all that extra weight on the nose, about 150 extra lbs. thanks to the supercharger, intercooler, power steering cooler and iron cylinder block (instead of aluminum), we expected the Cobra to be a real pusher on the track. This was not the case. In fact, it was the most neutral factory Mustang we've ever sampled. Unlike the 2000 R, which had a propensity for oversteer, the new Cobra never got its tail out of shape unless you wanted to do something dramatic for the cameras. It was so amazingly predictable. You could put it in a four-wheel drift and keep it right on the edge and never lose control. We tip our collective hat to Tom Chapman, the chassis supervisor for SVT, and his team. As they did with the SVT Focus, they've turned out a world-class handler.
The Cobra is equipped with the same basic supercharger that's in the Lightning, the M-112, but there are differences. For hood clearance reasons, the Cobra's unit is a back breather (it feeds the supercharger from the rear) rather than the top. That's not a bad thing as it makes it more efficient. The Cobra blower is also stalled differently to compensate for the manual transmission and the engine power band.
As we reported last month, the Cobra's aluminum block was a casualty of the program. Officially, the move to a cast-iron block was to provide the strength necessary for the substantially increased torque output. We're sure it didn't hurt that the iron block is cheaper than aluminum. Gone with the lighter block are the 6-bolt mains, though the iron one is a 4-bolt main piece. To make the block work with the larger counterweights of the crank, the block receives some additional machining.
The forged steel crank is carried over before and swings new Manley forged H-beam connecting rods. Rod bolts are from ARP. The dished pistons are forged as well and are similar to those used in the Lightning. They lower the compression ratio to a blower-friendly 8.5:1 and have a different pin offset and a revised ring package to withstand the boost.
Up top are new 4-valve cylinder heads. The intake and exhaust valves are the same size as before (37mm and 30mm respectively), but the heads offer improved flow and help give increased low-end torque. The cams have also been reground (same lift, altered duration) to bolster torque as well. Naturally, the upper and lower intake manifolds were reworked to accommodate the supercharger (and improve airflow). Like the Lightning, the mass air meter is a 90mm piece. A twin bore 57mm throttle body feeds the blower. The engines are still hand assembled by two person teams at the Romeo, Mich., plant.The Eaton blower compresses the air to 8 psi and feeds the engine through a water-to-air intercooler. The end result is a motor that makes insane power from idle to redline. In fact, it makes more torque at 2500 rpm (320) than the 1999-2001 Cobra engine did at peak (317). According to Bill Lane, an SVT powertrain engineer, the horsepower is essentially equivalent of an old 427 Ford from the '60s.
Of course, this doesn't come without a penalty at the pumps. The new Cobra is hit with a federal gas guzzler tax, which is included in the price of the vehicle. Hey, take a 281 cube inch engine, add a 112 cubic inch supercharger and you're talking about big-block displacement. Be proud to get this kind of economy."One of the favorite modifications on Mustangs is putting on a supercharger," Coletti acknowledged. "Enthusiasts have figured out that if you really want to increase power output from a Ford modular engine, you install a blower. So now people can get it right from the factory with our engineering know-how and warranty behind it."
More Good Stuff
There are numerous improvements to the drivetrain as well. An aluminum flywheel, similar to the one used in the '00 R, is employed and weighs 11.2 lbs. The 11-inch clutch is the same one that was used before but its pressure plate has increased clamping capabilities. Finally (rejoice!) the Cobra gets the TTC T56 6-speed transmission. The ratios are tightly spaced (see box for ratios), with sixth being 0.63 overdriven. This offsets the change from 3.27 to 3.55 gears and makes the use of even lower ratio (like 4.10s) that much less intrusive. In all our years of testing (including two MM&FF long-term project cars), we've never been able to break one of these. It's the only Ford gearbox that can make such a claim.
This version of the T56 has, with the exception of the 1.00:1 fourth gear, completely different ratios than the Cobra R's T56. For starters, that box had a 2.97 first and a 2.08 second, while the new Cobra gets a 2.66 first and 1.78 second. With 390 lbs.-ft. of torque, that much multiplication is not necessary. A new aluminum driveshaft with upgraded universals were also required to cope with the extra suds under the hood.
Ford Special Vehicle Team Engineering has gone to great lengths to eliminate the wheel hop and other maladies that have plagued previous IRS-equipped Cobras. Harder durometer bushings, stiffer springs and higher capacity halfshafts were fitted, and the stiffer springs don't hurt either. (There's also an additional tubular cross-brace, necessitated by the increased loading due to the higher power output and larger tires.) We tried a few banzai starts on the street and never encountered any axle windup, which is actually what the Cobra used to experience. On the strip, the axle wind-up is virtually non-existent.
As noted earlier, the suspension guys held up their end of the bargain. Steering feel is vastly improved thanks to a new, low-lash intermediate shaft and a higher rate steering gear bushing. They combine to reduce play in the system. The steering feels heavier on the road than before, but there is no nervousness to it. Gone is the sometimes floaty feel of earlier cars, replaced with precision reactions to every driver input. Springs are heavier at all four corners--600 lb./in. linear rate coils front and rear on the coupe. For the first time, the convertible gets its own suspension tuning, 500 lb./in. springs in the front, 470 lb./in. out back. Gas-charged monotube Bilstein struts and shocks are employed and they are wonderful. Sway bars measure 29mm fore (1mm larger than last year) and 26mm aft. The whole package is firmer than before. Some of the ride quality is gone, but the tradeoff is unquestionably worth it. The entire car feels more substantial. If you were looking for a kinder, gentler Mustang, you're too late. If you're looking for a top-notch driving experience you came to the right place.
"Tom Chapman and his team really outdid themselves tuning the suspension of this car," praised Scarpello. "They have created a car you can drive every day. It's beautifully controlled over smooth surfaces, and won't knock your fillings loose over rough ones. People will be surprised that a car with this kind of power drives so nicely."
Rolling stock consists of Goodyear Eagle F1 tires (P275/40ZR17s) wrapped around new 17x9-inch cast aluminum alloy wheels with a machined surface and exposed lugs. Chrome versions of the wheels are optional, but the machined versions look a thousand times better. The tires--the fattest 17s ever fitted to a Mustang--are sticky, communicative and predictable on the track. No doubt they contribute to the more brutish feel the car delivers. When asked if 18-inch wheels and tires were considered, Scarpello replied that they were but the car handled better with 17s, so they got the nod.
Brakes consist of 13-inch vented Brembo discs and PBR twin-piston calipers up front and 11.65-inch vented discs with single-piston calipers out back. The pads in the back had upgraded pads for enhanced durability and performance. Four-channel, four-sensor ABS is standard. Despite our best efforts on road and race track, we could never get them to fade. They repeatedly hauled us down from triple digit speeds without objection.
Form Follows Function
When the Cobra was only a couple of thousand bucks more than the GT, the body mods were subtle. You knew it was an SVT product thanks to the front fascia and wheels and at varying times by the hood, taillights or rear spoiler. But with the Cobra coupe now coming in a $10,000 more than the most option laden GT coupe, you had better make sure no one ever confuses the two. To this end, SVT endowed the latest snake with its own front and rear fascia (with the word Cobra spelled in large letters on the hind end), lower rocker moldings, wheels, tires, wing, breakaway side mirrors and functional bulging hood (among other details).
A few of the changes were necessary from a mechanical standpoint. The front fascia had a huge opening to feed air to the radiator and heat exchanger. There are also holes that can be used to mount brake cooling ducts if you plan on getting a little cheeky at the track with your '03. The hood not only was necessary to clear the blower, but it has functional vents to rid the engine compartment of heat. Under the bonnet is a hood pad with the word Cobra spelled out vertically.
The side scoops have inserts that match the air scoops in the hood. Since this is the Terminator, the snake emblems that adorn the side have red eyes. The foldaway mirrors are color-keyed to the car and the decklid houses an integrated spoiler with an LED center high-mounted stop lamp. Both the hood and trunklid are made of lightweight composite material and the CMSL actually comes on a nanosecond before the taillamps. The rocker panels are the best yet on an SN95 Mustang, smooth without any mudflaps hanging off them. Even the windshield wipers have wings on them to keem 'em planted on the glass at speeds up to 130 mph.
Ragtops get a new high-end cloth top material that's also used on the Jaguar XK8. It's good stuff; not only does it look and feel better and last longer, but it also provides improved sound insulation.
Changes to the interior are mostly positive. The metal pedal covers from the Bullitt are standard and make heel-and-toe driving a breeze. The gauges have titanium-colored faces and electro-luminescent lighting ala the Lightning and SVT Focus. The shift knob is leather-wrapped with a brushed aluminum insert on the top, inscribed with the 6-speed shift pattern. Everything from power windows to the Mach 460 sound system with a 6-disc CD changer is standard.The front bucket seats are new and come only in Nudo leather with Preferred Suede inserts. The driver's seat comes standard with 6-way power, plus new power-adjustable thigh and side bolsters. Switches for the new controls are located on the front right side of the seat bottom. The seats were the only disappointment. Some we spoke to liked them quite a bit, but others (this author included) didn't fit well into the driver's seat. The seatback bolsters were too tight and we were never able to get against the seat back, even with the bolsters adjusted to their full outward position. We thought we were going crazy until we settled into the passenger seat, which doesn't have the power side bolsters. We plopped right into it without any intrusions. We will say we got used to them after driving the car at home for a couple of days.
On the war-torn, real world streets of New Jersey, we were delighted by how smooth the Cobra was. Firm? Yes. Harsh? Never. Our initial impression is that it's way softer than the last Cobra R, but less forgiving than its '99 and '01 brethren.
No matter. This thing's got such high performance limits you'll never notice a couple cracks in the road. Performance-wise, it is an easy 12-second machine as delivered. We ran 12.67 twice at 110.11 mph into a headwind at Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. Under the right conditions, it might go 12.5s at 111 or more on stock tires. No Camaro can top that in factory trim and nothing short of a new Z06 will beat it. Top-speed is electronically limited to 155--same as most cars in Germany--but it could go at least 170 without the governor. The Mustang simply doesn't have the aerodynamics for more than 155 without it turning into a white-knuckle ride and SVT didn't want to festoon it with the splitter and wing from the R to make it work at that rate. "A 747 is going about 180 when it takes off. As long as we deliver all the power and driving satisfaction before the limiter kicks in, nobody'll miss it," explained Coletti.
We'll say this: it certainly can accelerate to its governor in no time flat. It cruises at 120 all day long, without any drama. We can't say enough about the handling. We want one--sans wing and chrome wheels--perhaps in Mineral Grey or Sonic Blue. Given what we know about supercharged Ford performance based on our experience with our long term-Lightning project truck, we don't see why we couldn't be pushing 500 horsepower with a couple of bolt-ons. A coupe will be in the $35,000 range with the convertible about three grand more. There might be some concern at SVT over giving the Cobra a $5,000 price hike in one year, but we don't see it as being a problem. Yes, $35,000 is serious money, but on a doller-per-horespower basis, there's simply nothing on the planet that can touch it in the new car market. As one of our staffers noted, "this car could cause a lot of sleepless nights for Mustang Tuner car business."
With the Camaro set for a hiatus from the market after 2002 and the Firebird most likely getting an eternal dirt nap, we're happy to report that Ford is not letting the Mustang stagnate. The ballsiest Mustang ever is headed for showrooms now and the Mach 1 will follow on its heels as a 2003 model next year. With a 350-horse Z28 looming in 2004 or 2005, Ford can't rest on its accomplishments.
It's a good time to be a Blue Oval lover.