Tom Wilson
April 1, 2001

Step By Step

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Photo: E. John Thawley III
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Don’t you wish your dad brought home an R-model every now and then?
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If you want to know what Hugh Hefner thinks of your girlfriend, have Steve Ridout of Powertrain Dynamics drive your Cobra R. Steve has dyno’d and sampled a lifetime of hot V-8s, so we got the jaded expert’s opinion from him. “Kinda neat,” Steve opined, as he whipped around the mile-square block in a series of two- and three-gear blasts. “My car is faster...,” and we agree! Most sort-of-legal, blown-351-Windsor strokers tuned by a pro with his own chassis dyno and chip-writing software are faster. Still, even Steve could feel the R-model’s limited-edition pull. It simply drips factory race car mystique, something one-off hot rods will never have.
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Besides holding the steering wheel upside down, the SHO Shop’s Vadim Fedorovsky made the R-model shine in his around-the-block lap. As you’d guess from a guy who makes a living souping up 8,000-rpm 3.0L V-6s, Vadim was happiest with the 5.4’s abundant torque. He also loved the exhaust sound—and you’ll note that he’s smiling.
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Rumbling up to the back entrance at Saleen produced the now-expected work stoppage, as the crew that dared ogle the R in front of their boss came scurrying out the back to see the sight. “Yeah, baby!” was the tone from the underhood view. Back by the trunk, majordomos Jimmy Moore and Michael Cullen wait for a report on the differential cooler.
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“Figures,” Jimmy Moore muttered when his cell phone rang, just as he went to crank the R. The Saleen production head has lived daily with Mustangs since before fuel injection, and he spots what’s up with a new model with offhand ease. He immediately noted the rubber onion heads atop the front struts, “Huh, I wonder why? That’s a major flex point.” Other remarks concerned what had been done to the steering, as it is heavier than other big-tired Mustangs, and, “nice seats... lousy shifter,” and, “I need more time in the car.” Don’t we all!
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A true racer, once back at the shop Billy Tally broke out some tools and started taking the R-model apart. A week later he had one of the R’s trick, unobtanium, magnesium throttle body castings on his desk—the better to prototype on one of his current projects. These guys are nothing if not resourceful.
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Having a spot of business at the Saleen-Allen Speedlab, we motored by and found crew chief Billy Tally ready for the around-the-block, wide-open throttle examination. “Wow, I can’t believe the amount of intake noise this thing has. How did they ever get by with that much noise? Incredible!”
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Yep, we’re in California. Leaving the Speedlab, we ended up sharing the road—and traffic—with this F355 Ferrari. He wasn’t interested in showing the blonde just how fast a Ford could be.
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Stopping by Autosport Performance, a regional speedshop in Escondido, California, allowed friend and Mustang road racer John Pallitz behind the wheel. He took it out of town and gave it the “what for” on his favorite test loop. “Definitely the best Mustang I’ve ever driven through there... very controlled ride... great steering... confidence-inspiring brakes.”
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To heck with the experts. John Fedak’s longing looks and “Oh, gee!” enthusiasm earned him the chance to show us what the Cobra R is really all about. A lucky Autosport Performance customer who happened to be there when we showed up, John simply ravaged the R-model like he had only 15 minutes left to live. Unfortunately, when it came to living with R-models, that was literally about it for John, and not much longer for us. As you can see, it was fun while it lasted.
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Spent but happy, John Fedak replenishes his precious bodily fluids while recounting his daring-do to a bemused John Pallitz and a happy-for-you Jan Wilson. Any more driving excitement and we would have had John breathing off the shop’s oxygen bottle.
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Someone with a law degree placed this cheery reminder on the driver’s doorjamb.
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Important players in the real-world Cobra R experience include the stiff chassis, the supple rear suspension, the taut steering, the race-like firm brakes, and the elemental interior comforts. But make no mistake, the main man is the positively hammering, naturally aspirated 5.4 modular V-8. Gorgeous to admire, listen to, and exhilarating to run, we’re not sure Ford V-8s get any better than this. Its smooth manners make the Cobra R an ultimate street car for the those with an uncompromising appetite for the essence of performance driving.

It's first thing Monday morning, and the phone rings. It's Ford Public Affairs saying the 2000 Mustang Cobra R we requested has unexpectedly popped into town for a quick visit. When will we come to pick it up?

The timing is not good--just an afternoon, one full day, a second night, and then drop it off at the airport--as we head out of town. Deadlines loom and an overseas trip firmly closes off the end of the window. Still, it's enough to put the R on the street and see how all that work the Special Vehicle Team [1-800-FORD-SVT] went through to civilize their race car paid off. Will those lucky 300 enjoy their Cobra Rs between stoplights, or is the experience just too much?

We resolved to find out.

We met up with the red rocket at the SHO Shop in Huntington Beach, California, traded in our own Taurus for service, and immediately took the R two doors down to Powertrain Dynamics and its in-ground Dynojet chassis dyno. We saw 366 hp after a cooldown--plenty enough to make us eager to hit the street.

So we did. From Huntington, we worked our way south for home and the word processor. But we took the time to drop in on some shops to get some reactions and to try out the big R in city traffic.

First, we noticed the other Mustangs. It took a couple of glances, but then we could see the gears going 'round. "Hmm, looks hot--sort of familiar. What is that thing... Oh, man! That's the new Cobra R!" Plenty of thumbs-ups and "Cool car!" from them, but there was no admiration from the masses. To them, we were just punks with a funny-looking wing.

Looking back from our perspective, the typical So Cal freeway slog was doubly frustrating, if only because we couldn't get the right pedal down any farther. Restlessly, 30 times we leaned forward for sound-system controls that weren't there. You'd think the first several attempts would stop this, but it took us nearly the entire time we had the car to drop the habit. With no sound system, the R keeps your mind more on the car and the road than a typical GT, and with the big power and tall gears, this leads to some rapid cruising.

Of course, there was symphonic music playing from underhood. Quietly behind the tire noise at cruise and awesomely dynamic when pushed, the combination of exhaust, intake, piston, and valvetrain voices became our steady companion and speed-eager coach. We knew the new Cobra R was aurally stimulating from our track time at the press introduction, but the street is a different place. There the engine and exhaust choir had us reaching for the volume pedal at the slightest chance. As to the perfectly muf-fled Trans Am car, the R exhaust is exciting.

With no radio tunes, your thoughts are also on the suspension, not to mention your bottom end. The R is definitely firm on the street but not jarring. The steamroller meats seemingly nibble at shadows, the steering is wonderfully precise and alive, and the springs and shocks are tuned right to the far edge of firm. Luckily, the big engine gives the front end enough mass to iron out some of the bumps, while the IRS soaks up the rougher stuff at its end-- still offering high spring rates for exciting, flat cornering. Call the ride busy, sometimes bouncy, and almost always buzzy from the noisy tires, but don't call it harsh.

Some of the comfort we enjoyed came from the excellent Recaro seats. We're always amazed at how a proper racing-inspired seat with minimal adjustments can be so supportive. They take just a little extra to get into but are extremely supportive and confidence building. These seats become a bit warm on longer trips because there is no real airflow to your backside, but in a car with no A/C, it seemed a small point.

Capable of stop after stop at the racetrack, the R brake pedal is high and firm as a 15-year-old gymnast and squeals about as often on the street. The clutch has some weight but is hardly a workout, which can also be said of the steering. The only disappointment was the sloppy shifter, which needs metal or hard plastic bushings installed. We missed too many gears and found the shifter too far away, even for our longer-armed staffers. If we were to keep the R in our garage permanently, we'd simply add an aftermarket shifter handle.

Speaking of warm, in the summer you'll definitely notice the lack of air conditioning. The big engine oozes heat right through the floorboards like an old musclecar, and that means you'll have the windows down most of the time. Get used to wind roar on the freeway.

Other oddities and mentionables are fuzzy dashlights at night, which is somewhat compensated for by the rear wing-blocking headlights from the rear. Unfortunately, the wing can't completely hide those annoying flashing blue-and-red lights from behind. During the day, the wing is right where you don't want it--in the rearview mirror--but it's thin enough to work around. The same holds true for the hood bulge. It blocks the right fender for short drivers, but it's not a real factor unless you look up to Danny Devito. The other body panel concern is the front splitter. Ford wisely left it off for our street drive, since it wouldn't last past the first driveway anyway. You'd want it for car-show or open-track duty, but for real-world driving, forget it.

Our second day with the car brought out a few nuances. The IRS will step out from midcorner bumps on occasion, but nothing like a live-axle car. The ride continued to impress, considering the tenacious grip. The brakes are positively death defying; and the power--well, it's why we kept inventing little errands to run. For around-town work, the 5.4 has enough displacement to offer good tractability, but revving it to 3,800 rpm gets the big-block modular smoothly singing at full song. There is simply nothing better for fun driving than a strong, naturally aspirated V-8. The 5.4 idles with a 200-rpm rhythmic rise and fall that feels like a tiger purring in your lap, pulls without any hiccups, sounds like angels singing when revved, and runs hard enough to put any sane passenger whimpering under the dash--we needn't belabor the point.

Our final shop stop was at Autosport Performance, where lucky customer John Fedak nabbed a quick drive from us. His payment was a torrent of gratefulness and amusing remarks at the suffocating urban traffic. John did get the R out on the freeway, living a lottery-car fantasy, while we had fun collecting photographic evidence for the state. His read on it? "If I get a $100 ticket, it's worth it!"

We can't recount all the bikini-string untying in our short time with SVT's centerfold model, but internal combustion combat with a youthfully piloted, willing-but-garden-variety Camaro was narrowly thwarted by the traffic--the other half of this huge mismatch being excitedly identified as "one of those ignorant Chevy kids." Meanwhile, the preening beauty in the Lexus next door engendered a "Sorry, that just won't do--he's busy with a new toy" remark from a third person-talking Fedak.

Powerful influences this car has. Someone revved an 8.0:1 compres-sion engine in semi-mock challenge, which brought on "He ain't messing with this action. This is a Cobra R." And finally, when it was all over, John allowed, "I'll have to go ride around for a half hour on my bicycle, even in the dark, to calm down."

As always with great cars, our turn to say good-bye to the R came all too soon. Our final fling was around a descending 270-degree, left-hand offramp, then directly into the drop-off parking lot. Getting out, we couldn't help but notice that the left-side tires were hot and soft enough to coat themselves in eucalyptus leaves and bits of paper from the gutter. Street car? You bet!