Jim Smart
May 1, 1999
Photos By: Scott Killeen

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What a statement: SVT’s all-new Mustang Cobra for ‘99. Now that’s confidence. Confidence because we believe in what Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) is doing with its product line as we near 2000. Though reaction to the ‘99 Mustang’s New Edge styling has not been as positive as Ford had hoped, there’s unanimous appreciation for the extra power in both the GT and Cobra versions, and even more ballyhoo for some of the technological advancements that Ford is heaping on the Cobra.

In ’97 and ’98, insignificant changes in the Cobra left most of us asking SVT, “What have you done for us lately?” SVT answered with the redesigned and engineered ’99 Cobra. On the surface, it looks a lot like the GT, with its New Edge styling and a mix of soft, yet sharp lines from stem to stern. What makes the ’99 Cobra different is its “Born Free” grille, void of honeycomb and a restrictive corral; amber turn signal taillamps; special hood; five-spoke wheels; eyeball-style driving lamps; Cobra-specific fascia; and subtle Cobra SVT badges and snakes.

Where the Cobra is significantly different is beneath the skin— a redesigned front suspension and stiffer platform, traction control, and at long last, a fully independent rear suspension (IRS). Gone forever is the old reliable 8.8-inch live axle assembly we’ve been dealing with since 1985. In its place, a bolt-on independent rear suspension package known as “SLA”, which stands for “short and long arm”. It’s really a clever answer to a question Team Mustang has been wrestling with for a long time: how to accommodate IRS without costly and involved changes to the platform.

We spoke with Eric Zinkosky, Team Mustang’s chassis engineer, who said, “What we had to do was package a new independent rear suspension in not only the same space as the solid axle design, but we had to employ the same suspension mounting points.” He added, “We had to reverse-engineer the IRS from known suspension hard points, and we had to keep everything inside the same box.” The “box” is an imaginary packaging space Ford chassis engineers had to play with. Those Monroe shocks bolt to the same attachment points they would have with a live axle—ditto for the springs. It’s basically a subframe setup you could bolt onto any ’94-to-’98 Mustang.

The Cobra’s IRS excites the senses when you look at it in a display. It even looks pretty cool underneath the car. Where this new technology does its talking is on the track. SVT shipped a dozen early production ’99 Cobras out to California to allow magazine types to take a crack at them. We drove them around Pasadena, looking for little old ladies to race. Then we took them high into the Angeles National Forest for a high-speed whiz up and down the grades, around the apexes, and down into the high desert for a cruise up to Willow Springs Raceway for pulse-quickening track time.

Out on the track, we learned quickly that the ’99 Cobra’s suspension and tire combo is forgiving. We tackled each radius at high speed with virtually no tire scrub, and recovered from each nicely. Aside from the IRS and an improved front suspension package, Team Mustang cranked something else new into the pony performance equation—electronic traction control—the result of Ford listening to customers who wanted enhanced traction and better stability in rain and snow. Equipping the Cobra with Traction Control took this concept one step further. Bosch, who developed this system, worked hand-in-hand with Team Mustang to refine the approach.

During our Willow Springs driving experience, we decided to push the Cobra’s performance envelope. Entering the first turn at more than 100 mph was revealing. We jumped on the binders, entered the turn, and jumped on the power coming out. Revised suspension geometry was apparent, with a smooth transition into the next straight. Rounding the first bend at speeds approaching 120 mph, we were pleasantly surprised by the car’s stability. Our Cobra held the line and delivered the torque. Acceleration was crisp, thrusting us to nearly 130 mph. The next 90-degree turn was welcomed by the Cobra after a generous application of brakes. A series of twists and turns to follow told us a lot about this car’s road manners.

The ’99 Cobra brings more power to the party as well. Horsepower is now rated at 316 at 6,000 rpm, and torque is also 316 lb-ft (at 4,750 rpm). The power increase comes from new intake port geometry and a new combustion chamber. Instead of the high-swirl design we’ve seen in years past, the new DOHC induction and head design tumbles the fuel/air charge, which improves torque. Another feature is coil-on-plug ignition, which yields a high-energy spark for better burn. A differential linear knock sensor offers exacting spark control. A stainless steel dual exhaust system is standard.

Behind the 4.6 is a Borg-Warner T45 five-speed transmission, which is the only transmission available in the Cobra. Grabbing the engine’s torque is a new, larger 11-inch clutch, which channels the twist with less pedal effort. This is a car that enjoys a good workout. Hard acceleration didn’t tax the 32-valve DOHC V-8. The all-aluminum powerplant revs freely to 6,800 rpm before Father Ford shuts down the ignition and fuel with a hopeless sputtering. Any way you slice or dice the 4.6L Cobra DOHC, it’s an engine designed to rev. And it’s an engine programmed to make power across a broad torque band. Lean on it in traffic and it performs well. Downshift into Second at 50 mph and it screams with authority, propelling you to the higher regions on the tach and speedo.

The SVT Cobra is world-class right off the Dearborn assembly line. Independent rear suspension and revised front suspension tuning have improved not only handling, but ride too. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides a smooth response. Superior handlers don’t often provide a smooth ride. This one does, thanks to variable-rate springs.

Inside, we have to admit some disappointment with the Cobra. Despite the comfortable leather appointments and white instrumentation, the interior lacks appeal for something as distinctive as the Cobra. The base Mustang interior offers classic pony-engraved seat backs. The Cobra’s vanilla seat backs, void of any markings, could be transferred to any Mustang interior and nobody would notice. Engineers have added an inch to the driver’s seat travel, but big deal. There still isn’t enough leg room for those of us who are tall. The awesome Mach 460 sound system is standard in the Cobra.

All in all, the ’99 Cobra is a fine automobile. Almost sexual in nature is the Cobra convertible, which offers top-down, soft-brute performance in a world-class Mustang. As soon as Ford will let us abuse one at the dragstrip, we’ll give you the numbers.