Steve Baur
Former Editor, Modified Mustangs & Fords
October 19, 2006
Anthony Giagnacova of Neptune, New Jersey, is one of the Terminator faithful, though he is looking to add an '07 Mustang GT to his stable. He picked up this '03 Cobra second-hand at Rt. 66 AutoMall in New Jersey, where he is a sales associate.

The '03-'04 SVT Cobra Mustangs, or "Terminators" as SVT referred to them, are some of the most powerful auto-mobiles on the road. They've taken Mustang owners into the supercar realm when modified, and have become a cultural automotive icon, earning respect on the street from Corvette and exotic owners alike.

For 2007, the Cobra namesake has been shuffled off in favor of the Shelby GT500 moniker. Based on the new S197 platform, the Shelby embodies the essence of all that was, errr, is SVT, but as the Shelby comes to market, we have to wonder, even with 500 hp, if the performance crown has truly been passed. According to former MM&FF Editor, Jim Campisano, it has, but a lot of Terminator owners may disagree.

When the production SVT Cobra broke cover, its performance was way beyond virtually any previous Mustang, save for the rare and expen-sive '00 Cobra R and a few big-block Stangs of an era gone by. It featured forged pistons and Manley rods, which racers would normally term as a "built short-block." This gave the bottom-end superior strength, and with some simple upgrades, allowed Cobra engines to reach the 800-900hp level.

Its most exciting feature, though, was the Eaton blower that gave the Terminator a generous 90hp bump and more notably a surplus of low-end torque. This treatment was something the 4.6 had been lacking. The huge leap in grunt was coupled with better handling from an IRS suspension, a larger wheel/tire combination, and improved driveability and strength thanks to its six-speed manual transmission.

The snake's MSRP was up there at $34,000-plus, but the improvements impressed the masses enough to justify the cost. Performance that was unheard of with bolt-ons was just a few mods and less than $2,000 away. MM&FF modified one of the first Terminators, which ultimately ran 11.68 with just a small drive pulley, a K&N filter, the front antiroll bar removed, and M/T tires. Bone-stock it ran 12.43 at 113 mph! Owners have gone 9s since, some with mostly stock engines.

With such amazing power, prying the performance crown from the SVT Cobra owners will be difficult. The last Cobra achieved cult-like status as Terminator models have formed a formidable following of loyal enthusiasts who patrol the roads with their heads held high and their right foot ready to wake up the snake's supercharged mill. Much like the Toyota Supra in the import world, the Terminator carries the respect of the domestic crowd, and its numerous owners are eager to show you how lethal their snake's bite is. "A few years back, if you had a Mustang, the LS1 guys were like, c'mon, let's go. They don't want to touch a Cobra, though," says Richard Lelsz of Houston, Texas-based Strictly Performance.

The superior performance is evident at racetracks across America. Rumor has it the performance of Terminators, along with Corvettes and Vipers, prompted NHRA to change its 11.99-second rollbar requirement, as these cars are capable of mid-11s with just simple bolt-ons. (A rollbar is now needed at 11.49 or quicker.) But a mildly modded Cobra can run deep into the 11s, and many owners don't want to install a rollbar. Because of that, many high-horsepower Cobras never even make it to the track. This fact has spawned a new era of enthusiasts who brag about dyno numbers rather than timeslips. As you can see, the Terminator had a huge effect on the performance scene (which is the point of this article), one that might not be eclipsed by the GT500.

The Terminator has spawned numerous Web sites, such as www.svtsnake.com, and the interest in these cars has created more traffic for sites like www.svtperformance.com and www.svtoa.com. The factory package is cool enough for most to fall in love with, but many who have chosen to modify these cars have found making big power and torque numbers is easier than asking, "How much do you want?"

As we mentioned before, MM&FF showed a brief glimpse of the available power when we installed a smaller blower pulley onto a preproduction coupe. An easy 40 hp at the wheels turned the snake into a tire-burning monster. And where centrifugal blowers ruled in the Mustang market, owners now saw the potential of a Roots-style compressor. Today, blowers from KB, Roush, Saleen, and Whipple are as popular as units from Paxton, ProCharger, and Vortech. And one could argue that it's due to the Terminator. Meanwhile, enthusiasts found that an air intake, a tune, and exhaust mods were worth another 40-80 hp. These days, 500 rwhp is just $2,000-$3,000 away, and extremely common among Cobra owners-try that with a Corvette.

We asked some of the hottest tuners what the limits are for the Terminators, and the results were quite impressive. Joe Panciarello of Mustang Magic in Deer Park, New York, told us that his own personal ride "makes over 600 to the tires and still gets 20 mph on the highway, and passes (New York State) inspection." Most of the other tuners estimates are around the same level.

"I've seen Cobras making over 800 driving on the street, but the bottom line is what you feel is 'streetable'," says Jim D'Amore Jr. of JDM Engineering in Freehold, New Jersey. "I have a lot of guys who won't put anything less than 103 octane in their Terminators, and they consider it their daily driver. A daily driver running on minimum 91 octane and getting a good, strong life from the stock engine will deliver 600-650 hp at the tires.The cool thing about today's technology and tuning is that we can make 600, 700, 800, or more horsepower and still turn the power down to a conservative amount for the street, with just a simple tune and lowering of the boost level."

Johnny Wiker, of Johnny Lightning Performance, says, "JLP has built three high-to-low-10-second Cobras running as fast as 137 mph in the 1,320. All are street drivers with IRS, six-speeds, and ice-cold air conditioning."

That's a stout package for any street car, but the fact is, not many hot rods can deliver the goods like the supercharged SVT Cobra. "[Terminators] are definitely one of the best buys on the market for your 'bang for the buck' performance," says SLP Performance Part's Brian Reese. "They're very capable of 700 hp to the tires on a factory engine. That's hands-down unbeatable."

With that kind of power and torque readily available, the Cobra's independent rear suspen-sion, a feature unique to '99-and-later SVT Cobras, has been criticized for not holding up when the power is put down. Wheelhop in the first iteration of the Cobra IRS was rather noticeable, so in 2001 Ford added better bushings to solve the problem. Obviously, the whopping increase in power for the 2003 models required further development of the IRS, and this resulted in even stiffer bushings, as well as thicker axle shafts.

IRS failures usually occur at the dragstrip where traction is plentiful. Having witnessed numerous abbreviations in IRS life expectancies at events all over the country, we can tell you there are two main causes. The first problem comes from inexperienced pilots who believe they can drive through wheelhop. Keeping the pedal down once the car has started bouncing will, nine times out of ten, end in breakage and a call to AAA.

The other main cause for failure is a combination of shock load from a clutch drop and/or the differential housing moving around in its carrier. When the diff moves, it dissipates torque throughout the aluminum case-rather than the ring-and-pinion gears, which are designed to handle that sort of pressure-and it can blow apart. This won't be an issue with the Shelby.

Terminator owners who frequent the dragstrip have been known to swap out the IRS for a solid axle. It's a fairly easy job. We've seen quite a few solid-axle Cobras and thought the swap was pretty common, but as we found out, that's not the case. After surveying some shops and a generous amount of Cobra owners, we learned that most enjoy the IRS and plan to keep it.

"While my old solid axles were more forgiving with hard launches, the IRS keeps all four of my tires in contact with the pavement during tight maneuvers, and has made me see the IRS light," says Mystichrome convertible owner R. David Jones. "It has a much smoother ride with the IRS when I'm just cruising around town, too."

"Comparing my '97 Cobra versus the '03 Cobra driven on the same rough roads, the '97's (solid) rearend would be all over the place, and the '03 with the IRS would remain planted," says Rexford Dundon.

On the other hand, a properly prepped IRS can handle just about anything. We've seen '03 Cobras run 9.60s with a six-speed/IRS combination, and the street racer pictured here found that the IRS worked extremely well on the street, as evidenced by this wheelstand.

In talking with the JDM Engineering team, we learned that as much as they liked the IRS, they had broken three of them in their '03 shop Cobra. Our own Editor, Evan Smith, was at the helm during one of these demolition sessions and received a spine-straightening shock after JDM head honcho Jim D'Amore gave the orders for a 5,000-rpm clutch drop. This was, of course, before the IRS was modified, and a softer-hitting 4R70W automatic transmission was swapped in.

Strictly Performance's Richard Lelsz explains, "On the street, you can't beat the IRS. It hooks up better than any solid will. With a 600hp car, you can hook up in First gear, but with a solid axle, you'll spin through Third." As much as he praises the IRS' street manners, Lelsz was also quick to point out that a solid axle with the right tires will be faster at the dragstrip. IRS aside, the Terminator Cobra is as bulletproof as factory hot rods get. Ask any LS1 owner about his wimpy 7.5 rear axle or the weak little clutch they put behind the engines to save it.

Now, two years after Cobra production has come to a halt, some shops have seen a decline while others report constant supercharged snake traffic. "We're still working on them every day," says Lelsz. "We've got KB/Whipple Cobra owners who are not afraid to run $5-$6 per gallon race gas."

JDM Engineering has seen a turn in the market, though. "The Cobra market definitely has peaked and is almost tapped out," says D'Amore Jr. "A lot of Terminator owners are bored with the superchargers available and are going to single and twin turbo kits."

At Alternative Auto's shop in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, owner Lidio Iacobelli says he is "busier than ever with '03-'04 Cobras. Second- and third-hand owners are coming in as the warranties are starting to run out. As a result, lots of guys are very quick to install a 100-125 shot of nitrous oxide on top of the Eaton, or replace the Eaton with an upgraded screw type blower."

Solid axles are preferred by Cobra owners who primarily use their machines for strip duty.

Joe Panciarello of Mustang Magic noted that they're still busy with the Terminators, and they've even had a couple of customers sell their '05 GTs to buy '03-'04 Cobras.

Shelby-Bigger And Better?Sporting a retro look and a new chassis, the S197 Mustang is bigger and better in most every way. With its base 300hp motor and improved driving dynamics, however, the package has not convinced most Terminator owners to trade in.

Jeff D. of Fremont California says, "I have no interest in the S197. I don't care for the body design inside or out. Even though it's not some-thing I'm interested in owning, I'm glad Ford continues to raise the bar. I had no expectations/ delusions that my Terminator would be the "be all, end all" Mustang."

Lelsz says he's had a few customers trade for the S197, but that they've mainly been older guys who prefer the retro styling for sentimental reasons. A lot of people have joined them, as SLP Performance Parts' Brian Reese can attest to. "Cobra parts sales have always been modest, but steady," he says. "The S197 has exceeded my expectations and was an instant hit in the aftermarket. We sold over 100 LoudMouth axle-backs before even producing the first unit."

Many people feel the new Mustang is simply too large, and it gets away from what the Fox-body and SN-95 cars were about. "The new car lacks the musclecar feel of the Fox body cars," says Adam Dugger of New York. "It is a bit 'too refined,' if that is possible. The S197 has also brought a lot more people into the Mustang scene, both individual owners/consumers and companies who market products. It is also interesting how it appears that many baby boomers are reliving their youths with the car."

The Terminator's subtle body modifications are cherished by enthusiasts, and give them a slight edge during the stoplight grand prix where the average gearhead may not notice that this is more than just your average Mustang GT.

Seeing as how the S197 Mustang GT wasn't enough to persuade the Cobra clan to trade in their rides, will the '07 Shelby GT500 have the value to get the job done? On paper, the car is a mean machine that boasts the most power and torque of any Mustang ever. It features a new chassis that rides better, and has bigger brakes for improved braking. But the one black spot on the Shelby's resume, that being it's portly proportions, might have necessitated them just to maintain the current braking performance level.

At 3,920 pounds, it's one of the heaviest Mustangs ever, and with an iron block, a supercharger, and water-to-air intercooler all occupying the front half of the car, it's destined to be one of the most nose-heavy. Certainly, the Terminator was significantly more nose-heavy than its naturally aspirated predecessors, but its independent rear suspension helped to even the weight distribution a bit.

Has the Ford performance crown been passed? Most agree that the Shelby won't just walk onto the stage and steal the show. Its predecessor is quite venomous and is in prime condition for defending its territory.

Rumor has it the GT500's original plan included an IRS, but it was later discarded. While the solid axle lightens the already heavy behemoth, this decision has people arguing on both sides.

"Ford hit a home run with the solid axle in the S197," says '03 Cobra owner John English. "The '06 Roush and Saleen '06 Mustangs on street tires were taking corners faster and braking later than I was on R compound tires at the Autobahn Invasion road-course event."

Lacobelli says, "Thank you, Ford, for not hindering and plaguing any of the current and hopefully future Mustangs with any sort of an IRS. There is just no place for its added weight, cost, complexity and unreliability in our beloved Mustangs."

D'Amore Jr. made a good point by saying, "The Shelby will really impress a lot of the naysayers who feel the solid axle will hurt handling. Ford's FR500C cars carrying the new solid-axle setup out back are making a name against Porsche, Audi, BMW, Corvette, and many other big-name companies running an independent rear."

From a technology standpoint, SLP's Director of Engineering Brian Reese believes, "The IRS is the only competitive option for production cars any more. Solid axles are disappearing quickly. The only catch is making it as bulletproof as a solid axle."

But the lack of an independent rear sus-pension won't be the deciding factor for most who are looking to purchase the new Shelby GT500. Most people we surveyed say the price and dealer markups are going to be the deciding factor, at least in the interim. While the $41,950 suggested retail price is a bargain, with markups-some rumored to be in the $25,000 range-is the performance really worth it?

Jason Lusher, owner of an '03 10th Anniversary Cobra, says, "I will most likely either trade my Cobra for one or just buy it outright depending on how long I can wait, or how long the crazy prices last."

Even at sticker, the Shelby's performance value will have to face the Terminator's outstanding record. "With the starting price of over $40,000 for the Shelby (not to mention the markups we'll see), the better bargain remains the original Terminators," says Tampa, Florida's John Robb. "I contemplated waiting for the Shelby, but at $15,000 less than the starting price of the '07 Cobra, even with mods, it's a no-brainer.

The Shelby GT500 packs a serious 500 hp thanks to its 5.4-liter, Four-Valve supercharged power plant.

Panciarello believes the GT500's price will keep a lot of potential buyers away, thus allowing the cheaper alternative, the Terminator, to "com-mand high resale prices."

Dealer markups or not, we all know the Shelby GT500 will sell, but will the collector crowd drive the real enthusiasts away? Shelbys are hot these days with the Barrett-Jackson auto auctions showcasing the stuffed-wallet types and their ego-driven accrual of six-figure Shelby products. That crowd will no doubt be looking to snag some of these prized ponies, and the dealers have realized this by taking bids for places on the GT500 ordering list. Check out eBay and you'll see people paying upwards of $20,000 on top of the retail price. Sort of takes the fun out of buying a secretary's car, doesn't it? The good thing, though, is that Ford plans on building 8,000 Shelbys per year for about five years. The price will eventually come down.

Collector car or not, the '07 Shelby GT500 out of the box will be a force to be reckoned with at the street light and on the racetrack.

"The Shelby is going to be a street/strip animal with minimal modifications," says D'Amore Jr. "With bolt-ons, more boost, full exhaust, gears, and a good tire, the new Shelby should run 10s, The Terminator with similar parts will still run very low 11s."

That advanced thinking shows respect for the GT500, and for good reason. Its 5.4 Four-Valve powerplant has proven to be extremely powerful and reliable at increased power levels. The SVT Lightning and Terminator Cobra have proven there is plenty of untapped power in Ford's super-charged modular engines, and we have even seen modified Ford GTs eclipsing the 800hp barrier on pump gas.

With Terminators regularly running around with 575-plus rear-wheel horsepower these days, the GT500 will, as Larry Vanderpool of Dayton, Ohio put it, "have awfully big shoes to fill."

With respect like that, the '03-'04 Terminator Cobras will always be at the top of the Ford performance hierarchy. SLP's Brian Reese says, "While they will not retain the king-of-the-hill title from a power or performance point of view, they'll always retain value and a top place in the Mustang history. People still drool over '93 Cobras, which were dethroned long ago."

Perhaps the Shelby will gain a whole new following, and we'll have to check back to see where its sales have gone and if the price gouging is still going on. Certainly, there will be a whole crowd who hopes the Shelby name will allow them to sell and retire in five years. But we doubt that will happen. It won't be until Shelby is long gone and these cars are 20-30 years old before the price goes up, up, and away. Expect it to be high at first, as we are seeing, but then it will drop like most new cars.

Until then, we leave you with Tampa, Florida's John Robb who says, "I own an '03 Sonic Cobra. I have the Shelby covered . . . bring it."