Greg Jarem
February 24, 2004

Eleven model years. It's almost inconceivable, but that's how long the Fox-4 Mustangs have been around. It seems like only yesterday Ford was taking the wraps off this "new" Mustang and it is pulling the curtain down on the model as you read this.

The current Mustang has had some sensational years, sales-wise, and some of the versions--Cobra and Cobra Rs, the Mach 1s and Bullitts for starters--will take their place in history alongside the classic Boss and Shelby models of the '60s. Not bad considering it was the product of a tiny skunkworks inside Ford and done on a shoestring budget.

(That "shoestring," by the way, was around $700 million; if that sounds like a lot, consider that the Contour/Mystique/Mondeo developed at the same time came in at around $6 billion.)

When the first GTs were hitting the streets around Christmas of 1993 with a whopping 215 hp, who would have envisioned that a decade later you'd be able to stroll into your local SVT dealer and buy a new Cobra (with a supercharger, no less) and run 12.40s at 113 right off the showroom floor without so much as a tire-pressure adjustment?

Forget the swinging supercar '60s. These are the good old days.

So here we are in 2004. The Camaro and Firebird are taking a dirt nap and the Mustang brand is stronger than ever. Performance enthusiasts can take their ponycar in three distinctly different flavors: GT, Mach 1 and Cobra. We wanted to give our uniquely American automobile a proper sendoff so we made a few phone calls to Ford. Next thing you know, staffers John Hedenburg, Steve Baur and Michael Galimi were jetting off to Detroit to pick up a trio of outrageous Mustangs.

The plan was to not only do a three-way comparison test for this issue, but to capture the action for posterity in an exciting 55-minute video (DVD or VHS, thank you very much). You can find the order form for that elsewhere in this issue. We know after reading this story you'll want to purchase one for yourself and all your friends.

The Lineup
Leading off was the 40th Anniversary Crimson Red GT. Loaded to the gills with Mach 1000 sound, automatic transmission, stripes and leather, it represents the cushiest route to high performance. The test log showed it had a grand total of 60.8 miles on it when we picked it up from Ford. Believe it or not, this didn't qualify it for the Low Mileage Test Car Award. Apparently, MM&FF is the only magazine that cares about the outgoing Stang. Despite its newness, it averaged almost 25 mpg on the way from the Motor City to our headquarters in New Jersey. Not bad since its EPA rating only calls for 23.

Ford wasn't bashful when it came to pricing this thing out, either. The base GT now clocks in at $24,415. Add automatic tranny ($815), the 40th package ($895), ABS/Traction Control ($730) and the high-end audio system ($1,295) and your looking down the barrel of $28,150. Add $625 for destination and delivery and the total comes to a not-so-grand $28,775. Good thing we didn't get a convertible.

Checking off the 40th Anniversary package on the option sheet nets you the beautiful paint color, plus Arizona Beige tape stripes, 40th Anniversary floor mats, the interior upgrade package and Bullitt-style wheels with the spokes sprayed Arizona Beige. It also deletes the rear spoiler, which we filed under "Addition by Subtraction." We would not have shed a tear if the hood and deck stripes were deleted as well. To us, they ruined an otherwise beautiful package.

Ford's definitely been doing its homework under the bonnet of the GT, though. Even with the automatic sucking up a good 23 percent of its power, the 4.6 two-valve engine spun the rollers at D&D Performance (Wixom, Michigan) to 214.7 hp and 265.5 lb-ft of torque. While that might seem weak compared to the other two thoroughbreds in this duel, the GT acquitted itself beautifully, both on the dragstrip and road course. More on this later.

Up next was the Mach 1, a five-speed model drenched in gorgeous Competition Orange paint. Talk about newbies--this one had all of 53 miles on the odo when liberated from Ford. The MSRP on this pony was a robust $28,820, but you get an awful lot for your money. As Galimi wrote in the log book, "The Shaker hood is worth the price alone. Then add in the striping and retro style wheels and you have a winner."

To say nothing of the powerful 310-horse, four-valve 4.6 the functional scoop is attached to (automatic versions are rated at 308 hp). To reiterate for the final time: This is absolutely, positively NOT the '96-98 Cobra motor, nor is it a detuned version of the '99-01 Cobra engine. It has a different block (though made of aluminum), different heads and different cams from both of those mills. And the dyno proved it. It kicked out a nasty 283 rwhp on the DynoJet at D&D. For comparison's sake, this author's stock (save for a K&N filter) '97 Cobra made only 253 rwhp as tested when brand new.

Torque? Oh, the Mach 1 made lots of that. How does 311 lb-ft sound? (Again, for comparison's sake, my Cobra made 255 when new. We've come a long way, baby.) Torque is also higher for 2004 than last year. It's now rated at 335 lb-ft with the manual gearbox and 323 with the slushbox). Coupled with the stock 3.55 gears, the Mach 1 had no trouble in the giddyup department. In fact, it was an absolute missile.

Of course, when you're talking about missiles you have to mention the SVT Cobra. Coupe or convertible, these things are monsters. We would have preferred a hardtop for this confrontation, but all Ford could deliver was the yellow ragtop beauty you see here. Without a doubt, this is the most retina-rattling shade of yellow Ford has ever offered. It positively glowed.

Now, no one will ever accuse us of being Mustang convertible lovers. To us, you sacrifice too much structural integrity while welcoming far too many rattles and squeaks. There's also the weight penalty and the fact they are so quick from the factory that you need to put a cage in them if you hope to run legally at the dragstrip. Hopefully, the bending and shaking will be cured with the all-new 2005 model. In the plus column, this gave us three diverse Mustang to compare--two coupes, one convertible, and one of each available transmission (AOD-E, five- and six-speed).

Still, there was no denying this Cobra was a pretty car. And powerful, too. At D&D Performance, it shamed its brethren--386 rwhp and 387 lb-ft of torque. Ooo-fa. The scary thing is this isn't uncommon. We can't remember testing any 2003-up serpent that didn't make at least 370 to the tires.

Road Rage
Our intrepid road warriors--Galimi, Baur and Hedenburg--flew into Detroit to pick up our test fleet and under a cloak of darkness piled up the miles on the trip back to Jersey. Only one ticket was procured, courtesy of an Ohio mountie shooting laser, ironically enough by the anonymous charge who has the reputation for being the most mild-mannered behind the wheel.

What was readily apparent as the staff switched cars was how different they really were. The GT was the luxo cruiser, all cushy seats, automatic tranny and a ride that was firm but not harsh. The Mach 1 had the best seats of the lot. They held you in place during all-out craziness, but offered more room than those of the Cobra. The leather/faux suede combo in the Cobra was wonderful on the race track, offering the ultimate grip, but they were deemed too tight by many who tried them.

The GT's seats? The best thing we can say about them is they keep you from having to sit on the carpeting. They offer no support on track, hurt your back after a couple of hours of use, and frankly, don't belong in a Mustang.

The basic controls in all three cars were the same, but the Cobra gets extra high grades for its steering wheel. Everyone on staff loved the Mach 1's shift ball, save for me. Too small for my tastes and while I love the overall retro theme of the Mach 1, this was one area where I'd have preferred a modern part. The Cobra knob did it for me. This is the last hurrah for the Mustang's automatic T-handle, to which we wish it good riddance.

Going from one Mustang to another, like we did numerous times each day over the course of two weeks, gave us the opportunity to become intimately aware of each car's nuances. When it came to a road car, most of the staff chose the Mach 1's blend of comfort and sportiness. The steering, clutch and shift efforts are all lighter than that of the Cobra. In heavy traffic, the SVT model can wear on the driver. Not so the Mach 1, which endeared itself to every person who came in contact with it.

This is not to say the GT didn't have its fans. Newest Associate Editor Mike Galimi, in fact, was quite fond of it. "Being a diehard 5-liter guy, I was impressed with the Moduar engine's performance, even with an automatic transmission sitting behind it," he wrote in the test log. "It makes for a great daily commuter and could make your drive to work a lot of fun. The GT just loved to hit the turns on the curvy highways I take to the office."

Of the styling, Galimi commented, "The 40th Anniversary appearance package and no wing makes this Mustang stand out. The tough, simple look is reminiscent of the Mustang LX from the '87-93 era."

Still, even he flipped for the Mach 1: "I went from the GT to the Mach 1 and from the moment you sat down in the car you knew the difference. It was like they were two different beasts. This was not a model that Ford threw an old name on to try and boost sales. It is a Mustang that upholds the honor of the Mach 1 tradition."

Hedenburg was enamored with the Cobra--its power, its poise and it's hard to argue with him. While it is more business-like than its lesser siblings, this is a car anyone would be thrilled to own. The jet-like propulsion from the supercharged four-cam 4.6 has to be experienced to be believed. Not only doesn't it quit, it doesn't even take a cigarette break. It's a freight train.

"The overall ride is perfect," claimed Hedenburg when writing about the Cobra, "and the road feel is second to none. The styling is perfect. There is not much to improve on here. I would not change a thing."

In the end, the Mach 1 was our favorite for the street. The Mach 1's appearance, its ride, handling, brakes and magnificent Shaker hood were just too much for the others. Every time I drove it, I couldn't help but look over that functional scoop and smile. It was everything I dreamed of in a musclecar before I got my driver's license and the reality is you can by one in the year 2004. That blew us all away.

"And it's not just an appearance package," noted Evan J. Smith, tech editor. "Ford could have easily just made it one. It has no competitors anymore. But Ford backed it up with outstanding power and performance."

Track Attack
Here, the odds were definitely in the Cobra's favor. It had the most tire (and the best tire), the most power and the finest pedigree. Could any of the challengers pull an upset?

Hell no. Strictly by the numbers it was no contest. The Cobra was victorious on the dragstrip and the road course. On the road course, the Cobra set the pace with a smoldering 1:26.98 best lap (and an average of 1:27.14). It thundered down the straights, and had more than enough torque to power you out of the multiple tight turns of Raceway Park's tight road course. You couldn't wear the brakes out--and this is one track that is very hard on the binders.

That same steering that can be a little thick on the street made all the difference in open track duty. It's still a little too numb for our tastes and we're certain it'll be much improved on the next-gen pony, but the Cobra steering stood out amongst its peers. The SVT, the most neutral of the trio, and the driver could easily control its attitude with the throttle. Need the backside to rotate? Just feed in more throttle.

The biggest pusher on the twisty track was the Mach 1. It could be a real plow horse at times, but it still turned in decent lap times. Its best was a 1:29.19--2.05 second slower than the Cobra--but it was also very consistent, averaging 1:29.63. The larger-than-base GT brakes came in handy here, as well. You could build up plenty of speed in the Mach 1 and the good stoppers worked beautifully on the street and the track.

Most surprising was the 40th Anniversary GT, which understeered less than the Mach 1. It was by far the slowest of our trio around the track, but it was also the easiest to pilot. Just leave the shifter in "2" and have at it. At the end of Englishtown's long back straight you could upshift into third, but this meant a quick downshift shortly thereafter. It scurried around the course in a best time of 1:30.19, while averaging 1:31.72.

So, there were no real surprises on the road course. We weren't expecting any. What about the dragstrip? None to report here, either. At first, we tried to sneak this part of our test regimen in the same day we shot most of the video. Unfortunately, by the time we were done on the road course, the cars were blazing hot and the track officials were itching to open the gates to the public. We got a couple of runs in with the GT and one with the Mach 1, but we decided it was more prudent to return the following week.

We always like surprises, so you can imagine our delight when the corpulent GT ran a 14.183 at 96.92 right off the bat. We knew it felt strong, but we figured the extra weight of the Mach 1000 sound system, coupled with the slow-shifting automatic, would hinder its performance. Not too bad, we'd say. When its second pass was an even better 14.095 at 96.64, we immediately went to work pulling the spare and jack. Surely, there must be 13 here somewhere, no?

No. We backed up the 0.9 with another 14.18, then a 14.144 at 97.25, but our quest for the 13s went unfulfilled.

The first Stang to run after the GT's 14.183 was the Cobra. Now, we heard that a famous West Coast magazine tested a Cobra coupe and went an altitude corrected 13.30 at 109. Surely, with a convertible we had our work cut out for us.

Which made test driver Evan Smith's 12.778 at 111-flat quite rewarding. He tried a quick backup pass, but missed a shift. Imagine our surprise when the ragtop Cobra still ran a 13.07 at 107.44. There must have been something wrong with that other magazine's test car. We finished the convertible's day with a 12.966 at 109.17. It wasn't the 12.50 we were hoping for, but we decided to call it a day after that.

As much fun as the Mach 1 was on the road course, it was even more thrilling in the quarter-mile. Successfully juggle the combination of fabulous torque, 3.55 gears and fat Goodyears and you will get a nifty timeslip. Smith did and picked up a 13.156 at 105.35 (2.03 60-foot). We tried bettering that, but couldn't. Still, it ran a 13.256, and a 13.334 (spinning badly), both at over 105 mph (best of 105.98).

Conclusions
We can't remember having so much fun with test cars. We spent hour upon hour, day upon day, week after week with them and when it was time to return them we were genuinely sorry to see them go. The Fox-4 Mustangs aren't without their faults--far from it. From the Cobra's ill-fitting boot to the uncommunicative steering in the Mach and GT and hard interior materials, there is certainly plenty that can be improved upon.

But there is also a heck of a lot of automobile here for the money. The Cobra is the most powerful car in the world with a base price under $40,000. The Mach 1 is so absolutely wonderful we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it now, even with the all-new Mustang only six months away. The 40th Anniversary GT offers plenty of performance and luxury, albeit at a price. We can't see why anyone would choose this model over the Mach 1.

At the end of the day, we chose the orange Mach 1 as our favorite. It was a lot more pleasant in day to day commuting and even though it trailed the Cobra in hard numbers, it was just too cool. Plus it was tough to beat on the street. In an impromptu stoplight acceleration contest versus the Cobra, the Mach nearly beat the more powerful Snake. The SVT's independent rear wheel hopped badly on launch, giving the Mach 1 a big lead. Once the axle windup stopped and you could feed the Cobra full steam, it caught up and went ahead by a fender. But it sure took a while. SVT needs to get this fixed if the '05 or '06 Cobra is to get an IRS.

We can't wait to try this test again with the next generation of ponycars. While it has played it coy when speaking of future models, hopefully Ford will see fit to bless us with another Mach 1. It's too great to kill and it's a perfect fit price--and performance--wise between the GT and the Cobra. Plus the functional Shaker hood is just the finest thing.

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GT
Base Price $24, 415
OPTIONS
Automatic Overdrive Transmission$815
40th Anniversary Package$895
ABS/Traction Control$730
Mach 1000 Audio System$1,295
Destination and Delivery$625
Total$28,775
Engine 4.6-liter, single overhead cams, cast-iron block, aluminum heads, two valves per cylinder
Horsepower 260 @ 5,250
Torque302 @ 4,000
TransmissionAutomatic four-speed overdrive
Gear Ratios1st 2.84:1
2nd 1.55:1
3rd 1.00:1
4th 0.70:1
Final Drive 3.55:1
Wheels/Tires17x8-inch cast-aluminum/Goodyear Eagle 245/45ZR17
Brakes, Front/Rear10.8-inch, twin piston, aluminum caliper w/vented rotors/10.0x 0.4-inch solid disc
Weight w/Driver3,590
PERFORMANCE
Quarter-mile14.095 @ 96.64 mph (best)
Road Course1:30.19 (best)


Mach 1
Base Price
(Includes ABS/Traction Control)
$28,820
Options
Interior Upgrade Package$345
Destination and Delivery$625
Total$29,790
Engine 4.6-liter, dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, aluminum block and heads
Horsepower310 @ 6,000
Torque335 lb-ft @ 4,200
Transmission Tremec 3650 manual
Gear Ratios1st 3.35:1
2nd 1.99:1
3rd 1.33:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.68:1
Final Drive 3.55:1
Wheels/Tires17x8-inch/Goodyear Eagle 245/45ZR17
Brakes, Front/Rear13-inch vented Brembo discs, twin piston calipers/11.7-inch vented Brembo discs, single piston calipers
Weight w/Driver3,660
Performance
Quarter-mile13.156 @ 105.35 (best)
Road Course 1:29.19 (best)


SVT Cobra Convertible
Base Price
(Includes ABS/Traction Control)
$38,950
Options
Chrome Wheels$695
Destination and Delivery$625
Total$40,270
Engine 4.6-liter, dual overhead cams, cast iron block, aluminum heads
Horsepower 390 @ 6,000
Torque390 @ 3,500
Transmission Tremec T56 manual
Gear Ratios1st 2.66:1
2nd 1.78:1
3rd 1.30:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.80:1
6th 0.63:1
Final Drive 3.55:1
Wheels/Tires 17x9 cast aluminum/Goodyear Eagle F1 275/40ZR17
Brakes, Front/Rear13x1.1-inch vented Brembo disc/11.65x0.708-inch vented disc, single piston calipers
Weight w/Driver3,930
Performance
Quarter-mile12.778 at 111.00 (best)
Road Course1:26.98 (best)