Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsCar Reviews
2003 Cobra Vs. 2002 Camaro SS - Ponycar Death Match
It's bye, bye Bowtie in what could be the last-ever Mustang/Camaro shootout.
We had enough firepower present to make the Gunfight at the OK Corral look like a game of checkers at a nursing home. Combined, our two factory ponycars were rated at 715 horsepower by the factory and independent testing revealed the actual number to be considerably higher.
Six-speed transmissions have replaced six guns in the modern era and instead of bullets the only things flying were the cars themselves. Both combatants wore massive brakes at all four corners, giant Goodyear F1 tires and gorgeous alloy wheels. Unique hoods and rear spoilers let the world know these were not ordinary automobiles.
What we had on our hands was the latest (and possibly last) battle in the Mustang/Camaro war, and for the first time in years, the odds-on favorite was the Ford. This conflagration dates back to the days when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the Beatles were at the top of the charts and man had not yet walked on the moon. There have been some memorable skirmishes over the years--SS396 vs. 428 CJ, Boss 302 vs. Z/28; 5.0 LX vs. 5.7 IROC; LT1 vs. 4.6 DOHC--but in the last few years, the Mustang has been the underdog.Today, fuel injection, overhead cams and electronic engine management systems have delivered performance that would have been unimaginable in a small-displacement street car four decades ago. Hell, most big-blocks from the original musclecar era couldn't run the numbers this pair put up.
The spec box alone is staggering: For the Ford, dual overhead cams, a supercharger, IRS, 390-hp and 390 lbs.-ft of torque. For the Chevy, ram air, an all-aluminum small-block, SLA, 325-hp and 350 lb.-ft of torque. And at prices mortals can afford. Not mere mortals. No, our test cars were far from cheap, but in this era of $40-50,000 SUVs and $50,000-up sport sedans (see M3 sidebar), $33-35,000 is practically affordable.
When we tested the new Cobra in the July issue, we knew that like the Camaro, the Mustang had reached its peak. The ride was superb, the power comparable to a booster rocket and the handling world class. There was only one thing to do: G ather one example of each of the breed and match them head-to-head on the road course, drag strip and mean streets and then pick a winner.Now, whenever we venture to do something like this, there is always someone crying "Foul!" We know we're impartial, but when your magazine's name is Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords, there will certainly be those in the audience who will question the fairness of the test. To quell these fears, we did the test in the presence of staffers from sister Primedia magazines GM High Tech Performance and High Performance Pontiac.
There is also a tiny minority that believes the MM&FF staff is composed of Chevy lovers anyway because we've had the audacity to praise that brand of cars in previous comparos. I guess that means you just can't win. But that won't stop us from playing. How could we write that the Cobra is the ultimate ponycar if it hasn't won a tire-frying shootout against the premier Camaro or Firebird?Are you ready to bang some gears?
What a shame. After 35 years of refinement and development, General Motors has produced its finest Camaro ever. And then it killed it. Typical GM, right? The 2002 models mark the end of the line (at least temporarily) of the F-body twins, Camaro and Firebird. Realistically, the General had no choice. The Firebird was getting outsold by the Corvette and the Canadian assembly plant where the cars are built can churn out over 250,000 cars annually. When you're moving barely a third of that, you have no choice but to call it a day.
Having driven each iteration of the fourth-gen Camaro since its 1993 introduction, the SS was quite familiar. Every good point and bad point was accounted for. On the plus side of the ledger was the jet-fighter styling and the SS package (which gives you the higher output, 325-horse LS1 with ram induction, 17-inch wheels, an upgraded suspension and a low restriction, dual outlet exhaust, among other items). On the downside was the godawful switchgear, the boy-racer 35th anniversary stripes, the enormous doors and dash, and the lump on the passenger side floor.
The regular Z/28 comes with a ridiculously high level of performance hardware for its base price of $22,295, including a 346-inch (5.7L) LS1 with 310 horsepower and 340 lbs.-ft. of torque, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, T56 6-speed tranny and De Carbon monotube shocks. A 10-bolt solid axle with 3.42:1 cogs puts the power to the pavement.
Every comfort and convenience item, including the 500-watt Monsoon stereo with CD, eight speakers and an amplifier is also standard. Opting for the SS Performance/Appearance package will set you back another $3,625. The 35th anniversary option, which gives you T-tops, a Hurst shifter, 12-disc changer and rear window defogger, ups the ante by $2,500. When all was said and done, the sticker read $32,780 (including destination). Convertibles top the $36,000 level.Supposedly, this is the last Camaro, though we've heard there will be a new car with 350-hp out in 2004. What is certain is that there won't be a new Firebird. The Australian-built Pontiac GTO will return next year to take its place.As for the Cobra, we covered this car at length last month. It comes as a coupe or convertible and everything is standard. The only choices you get are color and whether or not to delete the rear spoiler. That means the 6-speed, leather interior, Eaton-supercharged dual overhead cam 4.6, high-zoot suspension and 6-disc in-dash CD changer is included in the (estimated) $35,000 price ($38,000 for the ragtop).
If you missed last month's MM&FF (shame on you!), all new Cobras are badged as 2003 models and go on sale in June '02. Officially, there will be no '02s. The long-block has been completely revamped--an iron block replaces the aluminum version, there are special rings, pistons and rods (only the forged crank carries over), new heads, cams and intake, all designed to work with the intercooled M-112 blower.
A lightweight aluminum flywheel and heavy duty clutch transfer the prodigious might of the 4.6 to a T56 gearbox (very similar to the one in the SS), which in turn sends it south to the 3.55-geared independent rear. Bilstein monotube shocks and struts handle the damping chores on the Cobra. The hardtop and droptop get their own unique coils, with our tester getting 600 lb.-in. springs fore and aft, along with 29mm and 26mm stabilizer bars (front/rear).
Ford went to great lengths to improve the Fox-4 Mustang's notoriously poor steering feel. It is much better thanks to a new, low-lash intermediate shaft and a higher rate steering gear bushing. The fat-wrap steering wheel does its part to communicate what's happening with the tires to the driver as well.Unhappy with the performance of the IRS on the '99/'01 Cobras, engineers revised this subsystem. It has revised bushing, mount and spring rates. A tubular crossbrace has been added, attached to the differential, which helps stabilize the diff assembly under hard acceleration. Ford also revised the rear suspension geometry to improve roll steer. What we have now is an IRS that works as it was intended to. On the strip, the street tires bite on launch and instead of spinning on the 1-2 powershift (or hopping as they had in the past), you can feel the back end squat as the tires dig in without spinning.
Living In The Real World
Given their other-worldly capabilities, we'd forgive our test cars if they were a little punishing in day-to-day driving, but that was simply not the case. Both vehicles offered an excellent balance of ride and handling. The Cobra's ride was firmer than that of the Camaro, but it was still compliant. And when you consider the size of the tires on these two (P275/40ZR17), you've got to tip your hat to the chassis engineers from both camps. Anyone could swallow hundreds of miles in these cars, arrive fresh at their destination, and be ready to go hundreds of miles more.
Shocking to some is how quiet the Cobra is. Because of the supercharger noise, Ford had to choke off the intake and exhaust to get it to pass federal drive-by noise standards. Under full throttle acceleration, the Cobra sounds more like a jet on takeoff than a musclecar. According to SVT Engineering chief O. John Coletti, "The thing is breathing through a straw." Maybe, but it still produced 381 horsepower at the rear wheels, an indication that actual output is well over 400 at the flywheel. At cruising velocities, the Cobra was nearly luxury car quiet, which was a little disconcerting. Someone is going to sell a lot of cat-back exhaust systems.
It was the Camaro that made the traditional musclecar noises. Some thought it was a bit droning on the highway, but we liked it. The SS has a raspy growl that is just perfect when you shove the throttle to the floorboard. And boy does this pushrod engine like to rev. When GM made the decision to stick with pushrods, it sure went out of its way to prove it is not antiquated technology.
For our staff, the Cobra offered few surprises. The power window buttons, cruise control, and HVAC controls haven't changed since the introduction of the SN95 Mustang in 1994. They still work nicely and are logically laid out, although only the Mustang could get away with that push-pull headlight switch on the dash in 2002. The placement of the shifter in the Cobra leaves a lot to be desired as well. Third gear is somewhere northeast of Albany.
Compare this to the Camaro. The Chevy's got a rotating knob for the headlights and the material covering the doors is richer-feeling than the hard plastic on the Mustang. The SS comes with a Hurst shifter located perfectly for the driver and works like a million bucks--something we can't say for the low-brow OE unit in the Ford.
But the basic stuff still eludes GM. The power window switches feel like they're out of a '48 Cadillac. You have to use force to work them. Same for the turn signal/cruise control stalk, which you have to take your hand off the steering wheel to reach. It ought to say Fisher Price on it.
Speaking of the steering wheel, the new Cobra has a nice fat leather wrap on the traditional Mustang 4-spoke design, which gave it the edge over the one in the Camaro--though we do love the redundant radio controls located on the SS tiller. On the road course and in daily driving, the Mustang's wheel was more user- friendly, and it offered better feedback as well.
The gauges were another close battle. The SS dials, shared by the regular Z/28, were clearly marked and quite legible, but the titanium faced gauges and electroluminescent lighting in the Mustang were more exciting to look at, lending a touch of class to the cabin.
The seats were quite a bit different, the Camaro having thin-shell leather buckets, the Mustang overstuffed leather/preferred suede chairs. Both offered a myriad of adjustments, with the Cobra offering the advantage of adjustable side bolsters. Everyone fit nicely in the Camaro's seats, while some MM&FF staffers felt pinched in the Cobra's. In the twisties, it was a different story, with the Cobra seats doing a remarkable job of holding the driver in place.
The oddest thing on the Camaro continues to be that huge lump on the floor directly where the front seat passenger would like to put his or her feet. Whoever designed this or allowed it to happen should be punished by being forced to sit there for eternity. Conversely, as a whole, the Camaro cabin has an airier feel to it. It is wider and this feeling is compounded by the T-roofs.Winning no popularity contests with the MM&FF staff were the doors on the Camaro. They are enormous and though they offer better access to the rear seats than those on the Mustang, that's a bad tradeoff because who actually sits back there?
In the end, we felt the Mustang offered a better view of the road and a superior driving position. We had a difficult time getting used to the steeply raked windshield and the extraordinarily large dashboard in the SS.
It's remarkable how two cars with the same mission in life can be so different. The Camaro is a full 10-inches longer than the Mustang, but it weighs 220 lbs. less. The Bowtie has an SLA front suspension and a stick axle, the Mustang a modified MacPherson strut arrangement and an IRS. On the road course at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey, these differences showed themselves, but the cars were remarkably close when measured against the clock.
The Cobra was remarkably neutral on the track. We say remarkably because manufacturers tend to dial tons of understeer in for safety. And with all the weight now on the nose of the Ford (thanks to the intercooler, blower, iron block, etc.), you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be an extreme pusher. That has been dialed out almost entirely.
"There has been some internet chatter that the extra nose weight from the iron block would cause handing problems, however, if there is a problem I didn't notice it," noted test driver Evan Smith. "In fact, the Mustang is dead neutral in terms of balance. The Cobra felt light, not like the 3800-lb. tank it is."One big advantage of the Mustang is the IRS. The setup kept the rear of the Mustang flat and allowed me to apply power quickly and without much wheelspin while exiting the turns."
This last item is of major importance because that Eaton blower delivers instant power, the kind that wants to incinerate the tires.Smith also praised the front suspension, especially the steering, which is quick and accurate. "The nose remained very flat in all cornering situations. Because of the balance, I was able to get really aggressive lap after lap."The Camaro was no slouch on the road course, either. In fact, from past experience we expected it to perform like a champion and we were not disappointed. As expected, it had a tendency to push through the turns. Knowing this, a driver must get it slowed down more than the Cobra before cutting in. There was more body roll than the Mustang, but hey, this is a street car and not a race car. Nevertheless, the Camaro was easy to drive and you could take it right to its extremely high limit and keep it there.
"Handling was predictable and the LS1 gets you out of the turns quickly, thanks to gobs of low-rpm torque," said Smith. "Getting through the tight Raceway Park course meant I had to use the power on the straights and get slowed quickly for the infield turns, but that wasn't a problem with the SS brakes. Pedal feel was accurate and fade was never a problem. I was actually surprised at how well the brakes held up because I used them quite hard.
"If there was one thing I didn't like about the Camaro it was the torque arm setup that caused the rear to hop under extreme braking. The torque arm worked great under acceleration, but should be upgraded or strengthened for track use. Otherwise, the car was predictable and fast."
What surprised us was how close their lap times were, despite the mechanical differences. The lap times were nearly identical and Smith circuited the track repeatedly, showing no mercy. Ultimately, the Mustang had the fastest time of the day, a 1:26.25 around the 1.35-mile course, with the SS clocking in at 1:26.57. The fact that the Bowtie was giving up 60 rear wheel horsepower means three-tenths is nothing.
Oh, yeah, our favorite part of the test. The Armco Gauntlet, which in the case of Raceway Park is the Concrete Barrier Gauntlet. The finer points of both cars will be debated by their various detractors and supporters for hours, but the ET clocks don't leave room for discussion. You either finish first or last.We knew both cars made enough horsepower to run 12s, especially in early April when the test was done. Working against us, however, was one of the meanest headwinds we've ever encountered at R.P., consistently in the 20-25 mph range. The first shakedown pass in the Camaro netted a disappointing 13.604 at 105.10; in the Cobra an equally disappointing but far quicker 13.128 at 109.97.
Confident that he had a feel for both cars, Smith buckled himself into the SS. After cleaning and heating the Goodyears, he staged as shallow as possible to extract maximum ET. With a hint of wheelspin, he was off on the green. The result was a 13.386 at 106.18. Returning to the pits, he hopped into the Cobra and repeated the ritual he'd just performed in the Camaro. He took off on the last yellow and with barely a chirp from the tires cleared the 60-ft. clocks in 1.98-seconds. Second and third gear came cleanly, but he missed fourth. Still, he got it in gear in time to stop the clocks at a mind-bending 12.79 at 106.39. This should have been a 12.60-something pass, which is what the car ran last month with a lesser headwind.
But shoulda, woulda, coulda. It ran what it ran. Next time in the Camaro it spun badly (2.40 60-ft.) and slowed to a 13.47 at 106.37. A better launch on a backup pass brought the ET back down to a 13.33, but mph fell to 105.84. The SS was hot and needed a rest.
Cobra time again. Smith got too aggressive on the launch and the 60-ft. time climbed to 2.219, with the ET rising to 13.188 at 107.33. After a brief cooldown, Revvin' Evan composed himself, climbed back in the Blue Oval and duplicated his 1.98 60-ft. This time he found all the gears and went 12.841 at 108.66.Then it was SS time again. Smith got the hang of the launch (2.15 60-ft.) and blazed the track in 13.252 at 106.42. Last pass for the Cobra was a 12.835 at 107.44.
As you can tell by the mph, the headwind wreaked havoc with our elapsed times. We expected the Cobra to run at least 111 (last month it ran 12.67 at 110.11), while we've gone 109 in other Z/28s. The M3 in our sidebar ran nearly a half-second and 3 mph slower on our test day than its previous best. The conditions were the same for both cars so this can't be considered a factor. Bottom line, best run vs. best run? The Cobra was .46-second quicker in the quarter-mile. That, dear reader, is no comparison.
Finally, after taking a backseat in performance to the LS1 F-cars since their 1998 introduction, the Cobra is now the clear champion. Which brings us to the old saw, "It doesn't matter if you lose a few battles as long as you win the war."