Matt Hardesty
January 5, 1997
Photos By: Jim Smart

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Ford's association with the Cobra moniker can be likened to Chevrolet's with Super Sport. Whenever Ford wanted to make sure potential buyers were aware of supreme power in a specific model, on went the Cobra nameplates and requisite snake symbol.

Today, the only Ford that gets the Cobra designation is the Mustang, and since its resurrection on the '93 model, the Cobra Mustang has truly come to symbolize a high-performance Mustang. A real improvement in performance is what you get with a Cobra, not just tacked-on Cobra looks. More power, better brakes, and improved handling combine with unique wheels and subtle body and interior touches to set it apart. The result is a Mustang with real sports-car appeal at a price far less than the vehicles it can compete with in the world market.

Since the '93 Cobra Mustang, much has changed. The new body style in 1994 provided for a Cobra Mustang with a more aggressive look than the previous year. Weak power output and only minor improvements overall left the new Cobra slightly underwhelming, compared to the great strides made by the '93 model. Cobra R models in 1995 sported big 351 power and have become a benchmark of sorts for late-model Cobras and how they're measured. While the Cobra R was severely limited in 1995, it hinted at what Ford was capable of and only whetted the appetite of enthusiasts, even if they'd never get their hands on one.

Well, the '96 and subsequent '97 model Cobras have metamorphosed yet again, and the dual overhead-cam modular engine with 305 hp has begun another chapter. Finally, big horsepower, deft handling, and sure stopping have allowed the Cobra to stand out again and not in limited fashion. Available in hardtop and convertible rooflines, the new Cobra moves the Mustang back into the sports/musclecar forefront and does it in a typical Ford price range the heavy hitters can't approach.

We recently spent a solid week in a Cobra convertible and have made several observations and opinions about this latest incarnation. From the semiexotic powerplant to the less-than-taut suspension, we put the Cobra through its paces and came up with varying results to our impromptu tests and evaluations.

We chose the Cobra convertible, because it represents the best of all worlds: power, handling, looks, and all-around fun. The Cobra fulfilled all of these categories quite well. We've broken down these groups with our likes, dislikes, and flat-out, seat-of-the-pants feel.

Power

The dual overhead-cam modular 4.6L engine is a major departure from the 5.0 powerplant. The impressive valve covers with the personal signature of the Ford worker that built it lend to the mystique of the engine. And mysterious it is, compared to the 5 liter of yesterday. While we enjoyed the near-7,000-rpm rev limit, the bottom-end power is simply too little, too late. We can also appreciate the smoothness with which the engine runs, but eventually we lost favor with the sewing-machine feel attached to the accelerator. A Cobra engine should move the car even when it's standing still at idle; more cam lope and definitive exhaust would only add to the Cobra's character.

Handling

We've said it before. The new FOX4 Mustang chassis may not be a world-class handler, but it is such a major improvement to the old chassis that it might as well be, especially in convertible form. On the Cobra, the handling you might expect is probably going to feel quite a bit softer--it did to us. Besides the cavernous gaps between the tires and the upper fender lips, the characteristics of the Cobra's suspension are much more Lincoln Mark VIII-inspired than Cobra Mustang.

Capable of heavy-duty cornering, the Cobra convertible performs the task, but tire rub induced by the soft suspension is a possibility. Once again, it's the aftermarket to the rescue with a set of springs and shocks to lower the car and stiffen the chassis. Ride comfort, on the other hand, is phenomenal. You can drive the Cobra all day long over all types of bad byways and never find yourself cringing over the heavy ruts and ripples.

Heavy-duty four-wheel disc brakes tout the Cobra brake calipers that peak through the spokes of the 17-inch alloy wheels. The antilock feature creates exhilarating stopping, especially for those of us who remember, disdainfully, the sickening feeling of the last-generation Mustang brakes (discs in front, drums rear). We hammered the Cobra brakes and never got any indication that they were ready to surrender.

Looks

Take a good look. It smacks of Cobra personality: twin-hood bulges, projector foglights up front, Cobra-specific wheels, and nomenclature. With the top down, the Cobra speaks reams of what sex appeal is in a convertible. Speaking of convertible, the top itself is tight, quiet, and fairly easy to operate. The plastic boot that covers the folded-back top creates a finished look and does it without much hassle during fitment.

Inside, the interior exudes Cobra Mustang luxury. White gauge faces, black leather, and a Mach 460 sound system lend to that mystique thing we mentioned earlier.

All-Around Fun

Yeah, it's there. The car is definitely fun but definitely not a screamer. Even with the 305hp four-cammer, there is an element of muscle missing. Don't get us wrong--the car is quick. Hooked up to our Vericom VC-2000PC road-test computer, the Cobra ripped off a 14.29 at 103 mph. Surprising? We didn't expect such a fat top-end charge out of the Cobra, but we shouldn't have been so surprised. The Cobra really shines in the higher-rpm ranges, and, as such, the speed at the end of the quarter-mile is indicative of this. Besides, the car has 305 hp, and even though it may not feel like it, it's still there.

Priced at $29,540, our test Cobra is certainly one of the most expensive Mustangs ever, if not the most expensive. However, it has it all: good power, handling, stopping, looks, interior appointments, and ergonomics. On the downside, all of these things are too refined and tend to dull what could have been a very sharp edge.

What would we change? We'd add more power down low, stiffen up the suspension slightly, and get more macho back into the package. When you spend nearly $30,000 on a Cobra Mustang, shouldn't you get to hear and feel it too?