Steve Turner
Former Editor, 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
July 1, 2002
Photos By: Dale Amy

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Horse Sense: Believe it or not, the ’03 model year marks the 10th anniversary for SVT vehicles. Ford’s performance branch got its start in 1993 with the Cobra, the Cobra R, and the Lightning. During those years, SVT’s cars have come a long way. Take, for example, the ’93 Cobra. It produced 235 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, while the new ’03 Cobra cranks out 390 of each. Looking at it another way, the horsepower per liter has improved from 47 to 85 since 1993. Now that’s progress.
Though minor, there are a number of exterior tweaks on the ’03 Cobra. Most noticeable is the optional rear spoiler with the LED third brake light. SVT opted for the LED as it offers a slightly quicker response time versus traditional bulbs. Other changes include color-keyed foldaway side mirrors, smooth rocker panels, and Bullitt-style sidescoops with inserts to match the new heat-extracting scoops in the hood. Up front, the new rounded fascia is said to improve airflow to the cooling and braking systems. Meanwhile, convertibles receive a new cloth top comparable to those found on the Cobra’s Jaguar cousins.
Quit drooling on your magazine. Here is SVT’s 390hp/390–lb-ft work of art in the form of a Roots-blown Four-Valve 4.6. Apparently SVT knows how popular super-chargers are on 4.6 Cobras. According to John Coletti, “Enthusiasts have figured out that if you really want to increase power output from a Ford modular engine, you install a blower. So now people can get one right from the factory with our engineering know-how and warranty behind it.”
Where the power meets the pavement, the Cobra sports unique Goodyear F1 rubber in 275/40ZR-17. The tires proved grippy on-track and quiet on the street, though Phoenix offered no opportunity to sample wet traction. The wheels are attractive 17x9 five-spokes available in aluminum or chrome finishes. And, the brakes are what we’ve come to expect on Cobras—13-inch fronts and 11.65-inch rears with PBR calipers.
Though overshadowed by the engine, drivetrain, and suspension changes, the interior on the ’03 Cobra is improved in its own right. First, the seats feature all leather surfaces, with a suede insert, and the driver seat offers six-way power with power-adjustable thigh and side bolsters. Other tweaks are Bullitt-style pedals, a unique six-speed gear knob, and titanium gauge faces with a boost gauge.
Considerable effort went into improving the readability of the Cobra’s instrument cluster. Not only does it feature electroluminescent lighting, which drastically improves readability at dusk versus traditional back-lit gauges, but also the numbers and lines—particularly on the tach—were enlarged. After all, when the car is moving this fast, it’s important to get the details in a hurry. Also, the steering wheel features larger-diameter padding, which is more comfortable to grip but not quite as plush as the FR500 wheel available via the Ford Racing Performance Parts catalog.

There are times in life when you just know things have changed—graduation, marriage, parenthood, and so on. The world is much the same as it has been, but your feelings and perceptions of it have been altered forever. Well, in case you’ve been hiding under your Mustang in the garage, you should have felt a change coming over Ford and, in particular, its Special Vehicle Team. Ford has long produced prototypes that had no hope of production. Often these are drool-worthy performance animals. Back in 1989, Roush developed a prototype Mustang designed to become a 25th anniversary Mustang. Dubbed the Performance Leader Mustang, this car produced 350 hp from a twin-turbocharged 351. At that time, the corporate types thought producing such a vehicle was “irresponsible,” and we went without a proper anniversary model. Not that Ford should produce every show car it builds, but some cars just beg for building.

Some years later, in 1992, Ford produced the Mach III prototype to presage the upcoming SN-95 Mustang. This car was wild, and certainly there was no way Ford would produce such a vehicle. Let’s face it—it featured a Four-Valve 4.6, an Eaton supercharger, a wild air-to-water intercooler attached to the air-conditioning system, a six-speed transmission, and it produced 450 hp. If all that is starting to sound oddly familiar, it should, but keep in mind this was 1992.

Rumor had it the Mach III might have been the ’96 Cobra—and we didn’t believe it back then any more than we believed the rumors regarding the ’03 Mustang Cobra you see here. It wasn’t until SVT’s Tom Scarpello took us for a ride in the car that reality began to set in. Something has changed at Ford. It is building a new GT40, and you can responsibly buy a 390hp Mustang Cobra. Change, it seems, must be a good thing.

On the Cobra, the big change is the addition of a supercharger. The Eaton blower produced such positive results in the ’99 and ’01 Lightnings that it seemed a natural addition was looking to table all arguments in the recently ended ponycar war. Unlike the Lightning, the Cobra’s supercharger and air-to-water intercooler sit atop a Four-Valve engine wearing cylinder heads redesigned for more flow. This car does share the same 90mm mass air meter as the Lightning, and it feeds the standard dual-57mm throttle body seen on all 4.6 Cobras.

Adding eight or so pounds of intercooled boost to a Four-Valve 4.6 doesn’t sound like such a big deal, as there are thousands of blown Cobras roaming the streets right now. Those Cobras, however, don’t have to pass rigorous Ford durability tests and live up to a three-year/36,000-mile warranty period. The result is the stoutest factory modular short-block this side of the 2000 Cobra R. SVT switched over to an iron block for increased strength. It fit the block with the familiar forged-steel Cobra crank, then added a shot of aftermarket strength in the form of Manley H-beam rods with ARP fasteners. The pistons are forged, dished pieces similar to those in the Lightning.

That’s some engine combination, but you are left with little time to take a breath when reading the ’03 Cobra’s specs. For the first time outside of an R-model, an SVT vehicle sports a T56 six-speed transmission. It’s fronted by an 11.2-pound aluminum flywheel and an 11-inch clutch with suitably increased clamping force. Behind the tranny is a new aluminum driveshaft with upgraded U-joints. All that leads to another familiar aftermarket upgrade now stock on the Cobra—3.55 gears, which reside in an upgraded IRS 8.8 fitted with rugged 31-spline halfshafts.

You might begin thinking this car is all about power, but it is, after all, an SVT product. As such, all-around performance is the goal, and SVT upgraded the car’s other facets in balance with the powertrain. Due to the extra weight of the supercharged, iron-block engine, such changes were critical to creating a complete car. Major upgrades focused on the independent rear suspension, where revised bushings, spring mounts, and 600-lb/in springs (470 lb/in in the convertible) joined the mix to improve handling. The IRS also received a new tubular crossbrace to bolster it when 5.0&SF readers add slicks and drop the hammer at 6,000 rpm. In front, the coupe wears 600-lb/in springs as well, while the convertible sports 500-lb/in springs in deference to its unique chassis dynamics. All ’03 Cobras are fitted with Bilstein monotube struts and shocks.

The stats are impressive, but what do they mean in the real world? Fortunately, SVT was kind enough to let us experience the ’03 on the real world of the streets around Phoenix, Arizona, and the supernatural, adrenaline-charged world of the road course at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. Not to jump ahead, but the car was so comfortable in both places it was tough to comprehend both venues were enjoyed in the same vehicle.

Back to the driving, the absolute first thing 5.0&SF readers will notice after jumping behind the wheel and turning the key is the sound, or more appro- priately, the lack thereof. This car is quiet—quieter than the ’01, and quieter than any 390hp (read 400hp) car has a right to be. For older, more genteel, magazine-publisher types, this quiet demeanor will be just right, but most others will be making their first stop after the dealer at the X-pipe store, and we know there’s a bunch of power locked up inside that stealthy exhaust.

Starting the car in motion, the clutch and shifter immediately connote a more muscular demeanor than the ’01, and once you become used to the gear arrangement on the six-speed—Fifth seems a long reach—it’s all good. The clutch effort is what you’d expect from a mild aftermarket unit. Pulling out and babying it around town, the Cobra is as docile as a stock GT, with spot-on driveability. However the Roots-blown Four-Valve offers torque on demand, so simple passing maneuvers require nothing more than a nudge of the accelerator.

Once on the desert roads outside Phoenix, we were able to open things up a bit. Laying into the throttle, the blower makes a happy but understated whirring sound reminiscent of the later Lightnings, and the power just keeps coming. We matted the throttle and just kept grabbing gears. The power is the first party guest to arrive and the last to leave, making the most of every close-ratio shift. This thing just feels good and offers none of the complaints of some ill-tuned aftermarket gear we’ve experienced. Once into the triple digits, the car is just as smooth and driveable as it was around town.

Back on the road course, you might have expected the 3,666-pound Cobra to feel a bit heavy navigating the turns, but between the increased power and new suspension tuning, the car exhibited a balance we are unaccustomed to in a Mustang. Though you can definitely steer with the throttle if you want to, the car takes direction well and doesn’t understeer like a cruise ship. In fact, that extra weight and the new suspension translate into a car that feels solid and capable in most any situation.

Of course, no car is absolutely perfect, and one area for griping would be the brakes. Don’t misunderstand us, they work well. But the ’03 Cobra is heavier and faster than the prior car, and the two share the same brakes, albeit with differing pad compounds. Though the standard brakes will be fine for most normal drivers, those who want to push the car to its potential may eventually find the brakes as the limit. In fact, this is the only time we can recall driving a new car at a Ford program where the track vehicles sported aftermarket pads to stave off brake fade. Following the exhaust, the brakes might just be the next aftermarket upgrade for the all-out performance crowd.

Perhaps the only other complaint might be the price. Sure, a mid-$30,000 Mustang sounds like an expensive proposition, but consider taking your $28,000 ’01 Cobra and adding a built short-block, a supercharger, an intercooler, and a six-speed transmission. You’d easily make up the cost difference and leave your factory warranty in shreds. When you look at it that way, this car is an absolute bargain. Think about it. A 400hp Mustang with perfect driveability, competent road-course performance, 12-second quarter-mile capability, and a factory warranty. The only question now that SVT has raised the bar so high is, what will the engineers do for an encore?