Tom Wilson
January 1, 2004
Photos By: E. John Thawley III

Horse Sense: Finding an '00 Cobra R to track test was easy in 2000, but not anymore. Ford has its '00 Cobra Rs locked away, and who do you know who would turn their ultimate collectible-and expensive-Cobra R over to magazine guys for track testing? Well, here's a huge thanks to Jeff Childers for trotting out his personal hobby horse-at 5:30 a.m. no less! It turned out to be the perfect car-broken-in with just 1,900 track miles on the odometer, and even the original tires!

So why do we do these things-putting up a posh street machine such as the '03 Cobra against the Spartan homologation-special '00 Cobra R? Well, because we can-and besides, the '03 Cobra has proven such a bench-mark Mustang, it only seems proper we should test it against the paragon of late-model performance Mustangs, the '00 Cobra R. And, they both have nearly the same factory horsepower rating.

On top of that, it's been three years since the '00 R came to dominate the Mustang world. Just as the then-improved '99 Mustang Cobra made significant inroads on the supremacy of the '95 Mustang Cobra R, could we expect the addition of a supercharger to give the '03 Cobra an edge over the vaunted '00 R? Only testing could tell.

Granted, you really can't choose a winner-or a loser-between an apple and an orange. But you can gauge how close the real street cars are coming to the near race cars, and that's always exciting.

Of course, these Cobras are two completely different Mustangs, but just for a moment, let's recall their similarities. Both cars share a common chassis platform and strut-front/IRS rear-suspension layout yielding the standard Mustang 101.3-inch wheelbase. Both are powered by modular-engine V-8s, and both use T56 six-speed manual transmissions and 8.8-inch differentials. And-for the record-both cars are emissions- and crash-legal in all 50 states. After that, they are two different cars.

The '03 Cobra is optimized for the street with a supple-gaited suspension, leather seats, traction control, air conditioning, a big sound system-the works. As a near-10,000-units-per-year flagship for SVT, the '03 most clearly shoulders the SVT street-car burden of sophistication and refinement. This means it carries plenty of sound deadening and speaker magnets wherever it goes, and subtle things such as the steering system T-bar stiffness must take into account the depth of New York City potholes. In short, the '03 Cobra is a tank of a sports/touring car, naturally blessed with torque-happy, Eaton-supercharged and intercooled 4.6 twin-cam V-8 muscle.

Not so the Cobra R. Designed to make the Mustang competitive in road racing, as well as to halo the entire Mustang line with the press-magnet sex appeal only 300-ever-built, limited-edition, factory race-car specials can muster, the '00 R is the '03 Cobra's hard-core uncle. As a concession to legitimacy, it is street-legal, but it has no sound deadening material, the radio was deleted-and don't even think about air conditioning.

In fact, the more you poke around the '00 Cobra R, the more different you realize it is. You might even conclude that, while it obviously looks like a Mustang, the '00 R is so modified from the street-car Mustang norm that it approaches establishing its own identity.

In support of that thinking, consider the following. The '00 R is still the only Mustang to mount a 5.4 short-block. It boasts Carrillo rods, unique pistons, a Canton oil pan, and a windage tray. It has its own version of the DOHC Four-Valve cylinder heads, its own camshafts, its own intake manifold, and its own magnesium throttle body. It uses custom engine mounts, a lowered crossmember, custom hoses, fluid reservoirs, and numerous other small underhood parts. It was the first Mustang to offer a six-speed manual transmission and thus had to use a reinforced '98 Cobra transmission crossmember, not the '99 version. It's nasty enough to require 31-spline halfshafts, a way-trick limited-slip differential, and 3.55 gears. It needs heavier Brembo brake rotors, four-piston Brembo brake calipers, custom brake ducts in the fog light openings, and a differential cooler. It features Recaro seats, it justi-fiably earned a 180-mph speedometer, it requires a unique hood, and it puts a functional wing and splitter to good use.

There's plenty more custom stuff in the R. How about a Bassani X-pipe and Borla mufflers with side exits? Ford also wrote checks to B&M for the Ripper shifter, to McLeod for an aluminum flywheel, to Bilstein for shocks, to Eibach for 800-lb/in front and 750-lb/in rear springs, to Fuel Safe for a fuel cell-yes, a fuel cell-and to Mobil 1 for oil. Naturally, the 18x9.5-inch wheels are unique-although these get copied faster than a calculus final-and the all-important tires were custom-tuned BFGoodrich super stickies. More than just a stripper Mustang with a big engine, the '00 R was the factory's big shot at putting the Mustang into the big time on a road course.

After reciting that winter-long list of special gear in the Cobra R, we should say the two engines we're dealing with here are the heart of the matter. For as vital as the differences in chassis specification and creature comforts are, the engines are what give these two powerhouses the most distinctive aspects of their personalities.

The '03 Cobra has the 390hp blown 4.6. Its beltdriven, Eaton-manufactured, Roots supercharger and intercooler assembly takes a hint of rpm to get running, then opens a floodgate of torque that ramps up through the mid-range and provides a bellowing top-end charge. Revving the blown Cobra is something of a big-block sensation. That's because it is so gung ho in the low- and midrange, and while revving lustily all the way to its 6,500-rpm redline, it doesn't signal any eagerness to exceed that speed. Well muffled, the signature noise from the '03 Cobra is a muted yet still exciting blower whine. The rest of the aural sensation is sort of a strong industrial presence of high-speed iron and heavily coerced air. Like a steel mill heard from across the street, the latest Cobra engine at full throttle has a real presence.

Pedaling the 385hp '00 Cobra R through a couple of octaves is a different tune. First of all, the side-exit exhaust is loud and clear-with that uniquely two-tone voice sidepipes give. And it's a crisp rip of an exhaust because the R's 5.4 makes power the old-fashioned way, with a happy combination of displacement, free-breathing cylinder heads, aggressive cams, a tuned intake manifold, and 9.6:1 compression. Unlike the whistling oomph of the blown 4.6, the '00 sounds like a Trans Am car letting loose in your living room.

The R engine also seems to pull harder. Some of it is a lack of torque right at the bottom. The larger but naturally aspirated R engine can't match the '03's boosted output at the slumbering end of the tach, so it necessarily feels as though it pulls harder once it gets running. And, sometimes all that torque combined with street tires turns more into wheelspin than thrust. The R could be more energetic at the rpm typically seen when running hard.

The point is, the power ratings are practically identical, yet the blown Cobra makes more torque, especially at lower rpm. It's even ahead in horsepower, and yet at the dragstrip, that didn't get the '03 to the finish line first.

If you're looking for where the '03 Cobra shines, go no farther than the nearest freeway on-ramp. A superb high-speed cruiser, the '03 has the gearing and muscle to effortlessly notch up the interstate miles, while simultaneously the truly plush ride, quiet cabin, and full suite of creature comforts makes it a relaxing experience. Cruising speeds can be whatever you want, with wind noise and fuel consumption not terribly out of line when pushing beyond today's highway speeds. It's also important to emphasize the '03's fine Mach 460 six-disc sound system and meat-locker air conditioning.

Get off the freeway and the Cobra shows its wideband power-curve agility. Hit hard and revved, the blower Cobra kicks out the jams in short order-no worries there. Make no mistake, this car is fast, even visibly fast to bystanders at the strip. When people remark how hard a car runs just from watching it, it's doing the deed.

Nor is there a powertrain concern when slogging around town. The '03 has workable off-boost torque that responds nicely to short shifting. We habitually shifted the car at 3,800 to 4,200 rpm-that's at least 2,300 rpm short of redline-as much more gets you to felony fast in two gears. We also like to skip gears as traffic and terrain dictate, and that's no problem either because the '03 has the torque to do it. Furthermore, the intermediate Fifth gear is perfect on secondary roads where speeds hover around 55 mph. And there's still the ghost rider's Sixth gear for the open road.

Where the Cobra falls short as a street car is in the seating position. Given heavily bolstered buckets-and our equally well-padded posteriors-we either had our hair in the headliner or our knees wrapped around the steering wheel. All that bolstering pinches in the seat bottom, and while cheek shifting around that, you'll also notice the shifter is-to quote George Lucas-"far, far away." Then, as always in every Mustang built since 1973, we tried to adjust the seat farther back five times before convincing ourselves that there simply wasn't any more legroom. Laying the seat back down one notch more than normal helped fit the legs and torso but moved the shifter even deeper out of reach. What's more, we found the heavily upholstered street Cobra left little room between the seat and door-the electric seat controls are thus on the front of the seat cushion. On the whole, the ergonomics are awkward, forcing the driver to conform to the car and not the other way around. [It's not so bad for those of us in the audience clocking in under six feet.-Ed.]

Much nicer are the Cobra's well-weighted control efforts. Only the clutch is heavy-the brakes are normal and the steering is pleasantly direct. The general sense of responsiveness from the helm is satisfying at street speeds. Taking more acclimatization was the shifter. It's precise enough fore-and-aft, but it's slightly vague, moving left or right through the closely spaced gates. Reverse seems especially nebulous.

Toss in the hood bulge and a shorter driver and the Cobra becomes a bit ponderous around town. Seeing to the right over the hood can be a minor challenge, and the car's 3,665-pound weight means there is some inertia to account for during each launch off a traffic light. As with all Mustang fastbacks, the '03 is a bit blind in the rear quarters. Bottom line: the '03 is civilized; it's capable around corners; it has an especially plush ride; it's inoffensive to innocent bystanders; and it goes like a bomb when asked to.

And then there is the Cobra R, snorting between stoplights like a bass between a rowboat's ribs. Actually, the R is rather streetable, but with the heat boiling, the exhaust talking, and you reaching for the stereo power switch and A/C knob for the third time in five minutes, it's not most at home between stoplights.

Toss temperature and tunes aside, and most everything else is actually better in the R. The Recaro seats make a big difference. Offering more rump room, and with thinner, firmer bolstering, there's suddenly more space everywhere in the cockpit. Only the shifter remains too far away-a family trait of T56-equipped Mustangs.

The clutch is lighter, being straight out of the naturally aspirated '99 Cobra. Steering precision is a major step ahead of the '03's-and any other Mustang for that matter. That means steering and shifting are remarkably easier and more pleasurable in the R than in the '03. And the engine is no bad guy. It positively rages when unleashed, but it's a smooth idler if you'll accept a lazy, 200-rpm rise and fall. It's an easy starter with no driveability issues.

Cockpit noise is an issue in the R, however. The thin insulation lets in plenty of tire noise, especially from the rear. And while the exhaust is exciting, it's right there with you all the time because it exits just behind the doors, and the windows are almost always open for ventilation. We also sensed a fair amount of general noise from uninsulated body panels. All told, it's loud enough inside that conversation is best done at stoplights. And don't forget there's no back seat in the R, so it's just you and a good friend.

Truly amazing is that the R weighs 3,590 pounds-only 75 pounds less than the '03 Cobra according to the spec sheets, yet from behind the wheel you'd swear the R is several hundred pounds lighter. It's the steering precision, lighter clutch, firmer seating, faster chassis response, and noise combining to signal the R moves on command and not a quarter second later.

Some of this is center of gravity, too. Both the R and '03 Cobras use iron engine blocks, but the R is topped with a relatively light intake manifold, while the '03 wears a heavy blower and intercooler up high in the engine compartment. So while the overall weights are close, over the front axle the '03 wears its higher than the R.

Ride quality with the R is good. Clearly it's not as plush as the '03 with its charm-school manners, but it's not harsh either. Enthusiasts inside Ford SVT tuned the R's spring and shock rates, and they stopped just before things became rough. In other words, for a performance car, it's perfect.

Braking on the street is child's play for the R. It does squeal or groan on occasion, but the pedal effort is moderate and easy to modulate.

As for looks, the wing and splitter are somehow macho without being dumb kid stuff on this car-and who doesn't like red? It's also tough to quantify the truly limited-edition status of the R. As with a "regular" Cobra, enthusiasts know what this is when they see it, only more so.

Besides the racetrack, the R is also a star on open secondary roads. For a dedicated driving fan, it doesn't get any better. The R's dynamic excellence takes over and nothing else matters. The chassis is sharp and communicative, and the engine-oh, that 5.4. Well mannered when it should be, and a raging, shake-the-cage-bars animal when it counts, the R's 5.4 is the sharpest blade in the Ford drawer when it comes to throttle response, and its mid- to top-end thrust is the stuff of THX digital-surround-sound dreams. It's easily our favorite Ford V-8. Any more civilized and it would be dull; any more aggression would be vulgar.

Any conclusions about this pair of speedsters would be incomplete without a trip to the test track. We sweet-talked our buddies at Motor Trend into running this Cobra doublet through their standard road-test regime.

The factory stock '03 Cobra was supplied by Ford Public Affairs. It had 5,500 miles on the odometer, but maybe just 1,000 miles on a fresh engine. Press fleet cars lead a tough life but receive the best of care, after all.

The '00 Cobra R was sportingly supplied by noted So Cal performance enthusiast Jeff Childers. His robust collection includes one each of the three R models built-'93, '95, and '00-and this one had only 1,900 miles on the clock, all from open-tracking at Willow Springs. Imagine, the three-year-old, private-owner car had roughly a third of the mileage of the dedicated factory demonstrator. That was a first.

Modifications to Jeff's R were minimal. A set of Griggs Racing caster camber plates and a Kenny Brown upper strut tower brace are underhood. Out back, the stock Borla mufflers and side-exhausts had been replaced with Bassani's duplicate kit. Otherwise the R was original, right down to its tires. We don't think Jeff's car materially benefited from any of its changes, other than the camber plates would allow more aggressive alignment settings and thus improve skidpad and slalom performance. No one could remember what the alignment was on the R, however, and as the front end wasn't visibly cockeyed from excessive negative camber and the steering didn't have that characteristic "big camber" deadness to it, we concluded things were at least close to stock up front.

Motor Trend's senior road test editor, Chris Walton, did the driving, so we got-or more properly, had-to watch for once. We easily noted Chris working to launch the R at the dragstrip-the sticky BFGs and tight suspension would either bog or spin the rubber. In the slalom, the '03 made beautiful slides through the cones, while the R simply rolled a little and sliced undramatically, but faster, through the gates.

Better yet, here's what Chris had to say.

'00 Cobra R "It was a little difficult to hold the revs to 2,000 (it would oscillate between 1,800 and 2,300 rpm), but it turned out to be the best rpm for the track surface. Once the clutch engaged, all I needed to do was modulate the throttle and all that torque with the loud pedal-a task made that much easier with the roaring exhaust pipe a few inches away. Ah, that sound is music to a car-nut's ears. Wheelspin was highly controllable and the G-Force KD tires offered a great deal of feedback as well. I found that the 5.4 ran out of oomph above 6,000 rpm, so I short-shifted as the needle swept past that mark. This seemed to work well and was good enough to beat our previous acceleration numbers from late 1999."

'03 Cobra "It needed at least 3,200 and at most 3,500 rpm to get a good launch, but if I wasn't judicious with the throttle, it would light the Goodyears without even trying. There was very little range in the throttle to play with to get the optimal amount of wheelspin. I've also learned-after testing about five '03 Cobras-that the key to a smooth shift is by pretending the tach is slow. Short shifting at about 6,200 eliminates the forward jerk you'd find if you were to shift at 6,500."

'00 Cobra R "Camarillo [Motor Trend's previous testing venue-Ed.] always seemed to produce better decel numbers with its paint-free, chunky-monkey pavement, but it also chewed up tires more. At 118 feet [at Fontana-Ed.], the 60-0 mph is still a respectable number and only 2 feet from the previous best. An interesting aside: When I didn't know the car had ABS (I should've known at the start, duh), I found the brakes to be ultra-tractable, offering more feedback than I remember any Mustang before. Without waking the ABS pump, I managed to get a 121-foot stop. The car's multiple and consistent 100-0 stop was probably the more impressive of the two at 329 feet-zero drama, and arrow-straight and true."

'03 Cobra "Nothing notable except measurable fade after just two stops (100-0 and 60-0 mph). Neil [the test assistant-Ed.] told me, 'You're done,' when the distance grew by about 10 feet."

'00 Cobra R "This is what 40 years of Mustang development and refinement should feel like. Granted, the tires have a lot to do with how well it sticks, but the spring/ shock/bushing tuning is probably the best I've ever experienced from a Mustang. It's obvious from a driver's perspective that there were countless days spent on the development racetrack with this car. Hats off to the SVT crew who put this one together."

'03 Cobra "While it doesn't have any particularly bad habits, it's nothing special. If it had better tires that could stand up to more runs, I might've been able to eke out another mile-an-hour or so. The limit of this car becomes the predictability of the slide as one passes each cone. Predict correctly six times, and you'll find 65-plus mph, but not more."

'00 Cobra R "This is the Mustang to own and to drive-especially in anger. It'll snap your neck in any direction like an unregulated carnival ride. It'll have your neighbors calling in a 'disturbing the peace' report. And best of all, the guys in those decal-festooned imports won't know what the heck it is."

'03 Cobra "While it's a better-than-average straight-line car, it's merely a good handler. Compared to the '00 Cobra R, it feels like it came from a completely different group of engineers with lower expectations and aspirations. Shouldn't it be better with three more years of work behind it?"

Well, Chris obviously enjoyed the R, and we know you would too. Furthermore, after seeing the formal road test results, we really didn't have to do the other test we would have liked-lap times at Willow Springs. We know the R would run away and hide from the blown Cobra at a road-racing track. That's because the two cars are close on power, but the R has the chassis cajones to put more braking, cornering, and horsepower to the ground.

And if it was any other way, something would be terribly wrong. The R was built for the track; the '03 Cobra was not.

Drive home from a track test, however, and unless you flip your thumb, fore, and little finger out at every social interaction, you'll wish you were in SVT's major freeway missile soaking up the cool air and hot tunes, still with all that power waiting in the wings.

Eventually SVT will deliver a new Cobra and Cobra R based on the all-new S197 Mustang platform. If we're reading our engineers correctly, we might see something naturally aspirated such as the then-old R model 5.4 in both machines, and-as with this pair-they ought to be something special.

We had fun testing these two exciting Mustangs at Motor Trend's usual Fontana, California, testing venue. Per normal MT practice, the driver was Chris Walton, and the acceleration data is corrected to standard-day conditions. In short, if running for pinks, you'd better be good-or choose a venue with corners. When the road gets twisty, the R gets gone.down to the driver. The acceleration data is corrected for standard-day conditions.

 '03 Cobra'00 Cobra R
Acceleration
0-302.139 sec2.149 sec
0-402.910 sec2.862 sec
0-503.730 sec3.819 sec
0-604.902 sec4.737 sec
0-706.045 sec5.{{{929}}} sec
0-{{{80}}}7.676 sec7.296 sec
0-{{{90}}}9.306 sec8.820 sec
0-{{{100}}}11.103 sec10.832 sec
Quarter-mile13.095 at 110.82 mph12.942 at 111.51 mph
Braking
100-0341.27 ft (4.73 sec)328.79 ft (4.53 sec)
60-0121.67 ft (2.65 sec)117.77 ft (2.72 sec)
Handling
Lateral Accel.0.82 g0.94 g
Slalom64.0 mph69.0 mph

Ours was not the first time Motor Trend had tested either of these cars-although it was the first time they had been tested together at the same day and track. Digging through the MT files unearthed the following test results for comparison. Variables in cars, drivers, weather, and test surface account for the differences between these numbers and those we obtained testing using the same-track, same-day format. It's interesting how these two cars swap mph and elapsed times in the standing quarter and mile. In a drag race, it would definitely come down to the driver. The acceleration data is corrected for standard-day conditions.

 '03 Cobra'00 Cobra R
Acceleration
0-604.82 sec4.82 sec
0-10011.25 sec10.81 sec
0-100-015.67 sec15.29 sec
Quarter-mile13.01 at 110.69 mph13.09 at 108.55 mph
1-mile33.5 at 151.433.01 at 149.5
Braking
100-0319 ft (4.42 sec)n/a (4.48 sec)
60-0116 ft116 ft
Handling
Slalom69.4 mph65.4 mph
Skidpad0.85 g1.00 g

Sometimes surprises are fun-like when you end up with more horsepower than promised. The '00 Cobra R is rated 385 hp at 5,700 rpm and 385 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The '03 Cobra is rated at 390 hp at 6,000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Thank goodness none of these figures is particularly accurate.

In previous chassis dyno tests-on different dynos on different days-we've recorded more power at the rear tires than Ford's flywheel ratings would suggest. In addition, the cars run harder at the track than expected for their rated power. Here's a review of what these cars belt out on the chassis-dyno rollers using the full-dyno readouts in our archives. Add 15 percent for driveline losses to arrive at flywheel horsepower-429 hp for the blown Cobra, 416 hp for the R-and you can see Ford used Clydesdales when rating both engines.

It's also clear the '03 we dyno tested was either an overachiever or the dyno read high because with power and torque advantages such as these, it should have beaten the R at the dragstrip. In fact, while testing yet two other '03 Cobras on still another chassis dyno, we recorded stock power peaks of 361 and 369 rwhp. That would be 415 and 424 hp at the flywheel, respectively.

So, choose a Cobra horsepower rating you like. At the strip-and to our Levi's-the R has the charge where it counts.

 '00 Cobra R '03 Cobra
RPMHPTorqueRPMHPTorque
2,{{{200}}}1252972,250154359
2,4001403062,500174366
2,{{{600}}}1482992,750196374
2,8001633063,000214376
3,000171{{{300}}}3,250235380
3,2001833003,500251377
3,4002053173,750270378
3,6002353434,000288378
3,8002483424,250305376
4,0002603414,500321374
4,2002943674,750334370
4,4003123725,000348366
4,6003143585,250354354
4,8003223535,500368352
5,0003413585,750373340
5,2003573616,000370324
5,4003623526,250370311
5,6003593366,500363294
5,800355322 
6,000353309 
6,200354300 
6,400348286