Vinnie The Hitman
October 1, 2008
Photos By: Michael Galimi
Boom-pow! An '03 Cobra joins the stable here at MM&FF as our most-recent test mule. This car has 69,000 miles, and the original owner kept the Dark Shadow Gray snake clean. It's solid, but as we'll discuss in the next few issues, there are certain things you need to pay special attention to in order to make a Cobra perfect. Here, we baseline the car as purchased, and lay down a 12.74 at 109.38 mph.

Do you remember the first time you saw an '03 Cobra in the living flesh? For us, it was practically a religious experience complete with the sunglow and organ music. Our hearts were jumping off the rev limiter when we plopped our slab-sided behinds into the sumptuous suede-accented leather seats for the very first time, as the mere thought of driving the baddest and most powerful Mustang to roll off the assembly line was just a flick of the throttle away.

The '03 and '04 SVT Cobras ended up being a fantasmic (as in fantastically orgasmic) finale to the Fox-4 Mustang's 11-year run with its torque-belching, 390hp engine and taut, Bilstein-equipped, fully independent suspension. SVT gave us a world-class ponycar that could hang with more lofty and-just about always-more exotic machinery in terms of acceleration, handling, and sheer American excess.

Fast forward a few years to 2007, and we see that history has a habit of repeating itself. Ford's latest Mustang supercar is now called the Shelby GT500, and, like the Terminator that preceded it, it features a factory-supercharged mod motor with a six speed and super-bad looks.

The difference is that it weighs over 4,000 pounds and costs quite a bit more, at roughly $42,330 for an '08 version (five years ago, the '03 model listed for $33,460). Granted, you get a lot more car for the money with improved technology, but we figure for about half that money, we can have a little fun and drive around in something that still gets stares everywhere it goes.

We're not putting down the new car-no, not at all. We simply can't compare the two because they are so dissimilar, and there are obvious differences here in both the cars and the people who drive them. Both share Ford DNA, though, and as a result, each are surrounded by Cobra enthusiasts. So what does a Ford fanatic do when his or her love for a supercharged snake needs to be quenched? Quite simply, you go shopping for a used one.

With our piggy banks broken and our Internet access open, we put ourselves in the hunt for a Terminator Cobra. We found several examples on Mustang-specific Internet forums, and even perused the newspaper listings, but sadly, most of the cars were too modified for our tastes and perhaps a bit overpriced in our minds. Desirable examples that were clean and had little to no modifications did surface every so often with prices lingering in the $22,000-$25,000 range. We figured this was a good reference point, but wanted to pay less. And then it happened. On a clear Wednesday afternoon (not on company time, of course) we were able to bid online on a Dark Shadow Gray Cobra with 69,000 miles on it. The description was relatively short, stating that the car had a cold-air induction kit, a handheld performance programmer, and a pair of aftermarket mufflers welded in place. A phone call to the owner made us feel better about the car's history, and shortly thereafter, a deal was struck. We paid less than $20,000 for the car, factoring in the cost of trucking it across the country ($1,000) because it was located in Southern California-about 2,800 miles from our New Jersey office. Within a few weeks of our call to a trucking company, our new pride and joy was at our front door.

Once in our possession, the original owner's description was indeed accurate. Some of the highlights included no previous accident damage, glossy paint, and an incredibly clean undercarriage because of its pampered and garaged life in SoCal. After a thorough wash and detail, we assessed the rest of the car and ran through the mechanicals with a fine-tooth comb. Like any used Mustang-or any used car for that matter-there were a few wear items that needed to be updated or replaced.

It was time to install the new cold-air system. Here, the Steeda unit shines in front of what was in the car when we bought it, and the stock airbox which is all the way in back. Mustang Magic tested several air filter systems for these cars and found the Steeda piece to work best. Its quality construction and attractive price are a crowd favorite.

After a fresh oil change, a new MGW shifter, two new front wheel bearings, and some new rear tires, our Cobra was ready for the track. With a pair of spankin'-new 275/40/17 Nitto NT555R drag radials mounted in back, we took the Cobra down to Old Bridge Township's Raceway Park in New Jersey for its new life as an MM&FF test vehicle. With a short time of 1.81, the original clutch just lost a few of its last legs as we experienced some slipping off the line, so we didn't powershift the car in order to preserve the clutch for the rest of the day. Despite a little slip, we were amazed to see the car power through the traps to a leisurely 12.74 at 109.38 mph. Granted, it still had the original owner's aforementioned tweaks, but we consider this performance indicative of a Cobra with just a couple of minor bolt-ons thrown on it with some good traction. As we move on, we'll be looking to improve the vehicle's overall performance, both on the street, strip, and road course.

Magical Happenings
Thanks to the many performance shops that have made an incredible name for themselves ever since SVT put a blower on the Lightning and Cobra, finding a qualified tuner isn't all that difficult. There's the usual cast of suspects, but the crew at one of our favorite places to visit, Mustang Magic in Deer Park, New York, just happen to be '03-'04 Cobra experts as well. Proprietor Joe Panciarello and his team of trained misfits were able to accommodate us in our quest for increased Pony performance-on a Saturday, no less.

Because Mustang Magic has modified so many Cobras over the years, it has been able to effectively put together a list of items that works well for the street/strip enthusiast. For our Cobra, Mustang Magic recommended its Cobra Magicpak Stage 1 (PN CPMP-1), which features five key components, including a stainless steel MagnaFlow x pipe system with high-flow catalytic converters, MAC's 2.5-inch after-cat aluminized exhaust, a Steeda cold-air induction system, a custom SCT tune to the ECM, and a Mustang Magic supercharger pulley with a new belt, all for $1,949. In total, the kit promises to offer 100 hp more over stock. Digging through our MM&FF archives, we were able to find dyno numbers of 350-360 rwhp for a stocker, meaning that with Mustang Magic's advertised gain of 100 more horsepower, we'd be looking at results in the 450-460 rwhp range. Based on our experience, it was a reasonable estimate.

With our test car on the dyno rollers at Mustang Magic for its maiden run, we were prepared to see higher-than-stock numbers because the car already had some modifications performed, and the DynoJet 248c told the story once the rollers came to a rest. We estimated about 400 rwhp, but to our amazement, this Cobra cranked out a corrected 420.32 rwhp at 6,000 rpm and 389.39 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm. Considering the limited modifications that were already on the car, these results were a bit on the high side, but we attested this anomaly to the car's high mileage and gentle highway-driven lifestyle. A backup run confirmed the numbers. The temperature was a balmy 83.17 degrees with relative humidity at 51 percent. A mineshaft day this was not.

With our Cobra unstrapped from the dyno and placed on Mustang Magic's service lift, technician Steve Shaughnessy went right to work, starting things off by removing the factory supercharger pulley and airbox assembly. Using a special puller manufactured by Metco Motorsports, Shaughnessy carefully removed the pressed-on supercharger pulley and installed the 3.0-inch Mustang Magic pulley. The decrease in the supercharger's driven pulley diameter increases supercharger speed in relation to engine speed, for increased boost all across the rpm range. Manifold pressure goes from 8 psi to 13 psi with this simple modification. Next up, the Steeda cold-air kit was mounted to the factory 90mm mass air meter and laid into place with the aluminum heat shield protecting it from the radiator's turbulent and hot air.

With the car raised, Shaughnessy then replaced the factory catalytic pipe assembly and after-cat exhaust with the new components provided in Mustang Magic's Magicpak, namely a MagnaFlow x pipe assembly with high-flow cats and a 2.5-inch after-cat exhaust system that features mandrel-bent aluminized pipes with fully welded mufflers. Within a couple of hours, everything was tightened down, and the car was put back on the dyno where fellow Mustang Magic technician Joe Lauzardo started his tune. He likes to use the SCT Tuner to reprogram the ECM directly.

After a few adjustments to the fuel and timing curves, Lauzardo manned the dyno and checked the weather gauges. The atmospheric conditions were now working against us even more as temperature readings were at a sweltering 93.44 degrees. Despite the downward trend in air quality, our new peaks checked in at a corrected 453.31 rwhp and 453.45 rwtq. The horsepower gain was 30 over our already-high numbers, but compared to a showroom stock Cobra, we were definitely 100 hp and 100 lb-ft over. Even though the peak numbers were impressive, even more amazing were the gains in torque across the entire rpm band. The practically flat torque curve had gains of as much as 65 lb-ft over our previous best, and from 2,400 to 6,000 rpm, there's over 400 lb-ft of torque just oozing everywhere at your beckoning. With identical numbers of 453/453, and given a realistic 15 percent driveline loss, we're looking at 534 hp and like torque at the crank. On the street, that's just plain bananas. Fugetaboudit!

Since the Terminator's original launch, there have been several advancements in the supercharged Cobra aftermarket. Thanks to the greater availability of these cars on the used market and the subsequent affordability, we've been given the opportunity to take yet another look into the '03-'04 Cobra to see what's been going on in today's day and age. Remember, the goal here is not to compare it to the current Shelby GT500, because right now, the price disparity won't justify an apples-to-apples comparison. Rather, let's focus in on the Terminator's attributes and make them better. As we've proven, a mature aftermarket makes things a lot easier, and horsepower simply flows out of these cars like they were made to make tons of power. Come to think of it, they were.