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Mustang Cobra born to go fast

By Paul & Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

Anita's rating: (subpar)
Paul's rating: (above average

The newly revised 2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra is being hailed in the media as the finest-ever factory Mustang -- and a real bargain at under $35,000. And it's clear that Ford Motor Co.'s Special Vehicle Team, the automaker's in-house performance group, had a lot of fun tweaking this American icon.
It's got considerably more horsepower than the 2001 version, and a new six-speed gearbox is standard equipment. Paul was amused driving this throwback to the 1960s muscle-car era, but Anita was less than enthusiastic, considering that she couldn't even reach the pedals.
She: You know, I would enjoy a fast car that reminded me of growing up in Detroit in the '60s. Unfortunately, this SVT Mustang Cobra feels like the old treehouse with the sign "No Girls Allowed." It's pretty hard to enjoy a car, especially one that's built totally around a performance theme, when you can't reach the clutch or the accelerator. By the time I got the seat inched forward enough so I could just reach the pedals, my knees were jammed into the bolster. If Ford is putting adjustable pedals on Lincolns and Tauruses and even Explorers, why wouldn't they make adjustable pedals standard on the Cobra so that shorter people can enjoy the car?
He: Don't you remember what Randy Newman sang? "Short people have no reason to drive." Or something like that. In fact, the Cobra, as entertaining as it is, seems like an ergonomic nightmare. I'm 6'2" and by the time I got the seat moved back far enough from the steering wheel and pedals, I couldn't reach the darn climate controls on the center console. Strange. And Ford was bragging about the new power seat controls, but I could never seem to get the driver's seat adjusted to my comfort. But those are really niggling things when you consider the Cobra is a single-purpose car. And that purpose is to go fast -- REALLY fast.
She: Well, they did everything right in that respect. Over the past two years, this top-of-the-line Mustang has gone from 320 to 390 horsepower, and from 317 pounds-feet of torque to 390. It has a new six-speed manual gearbox, although I never got the Cobra moving fast enough, even on the freeway, to use the top gear.
He: I'm still impressed by how well this old chassis handles, after all the tweaks and tuning done by the Special Vehicle Team. You'd never guess the Mustang platform dates back to the late '70s and was an evolution of the old Ford Fairmont. It really is an anachronism -- a point that is driven home by the fact that General Motors Corp. just killed the only two true rivals to the Mustang, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird. That makes the Mustang the last of the '60s-style muscle cars. It just seems to be feeling its age these days.
She: One thing I remember about cars of that era is that they required so much effort to drive, which is not so true of modern cars. The Cobra is really a throwback in that sense. The clutch and the gearbox both require a lot of effort to engage, which to some drivers may seem like an asset. It'll certainly remind them of the original Cobras from the '60s. And so will the styling of the 2003 model, which has a lot of cues that take you back 30 years, like the hood scoops and the miniature chrome pony in the grille.
He: Ford is trying hard to keep the Mustang loyalists happy. Even the all-new 2005 model, which will be previewed at the Detroit auto show in January, has vintage styling cues that will recall the '69 Mustang, which was one of my personal favorites. I just wish Ford would do a little more to modernize the car. A nicer cabin would be a start. I'm really sick of looking at that cheesy plastic interior, which looks embarrassingly out of place on a $35,000 car. And while the handling on the Cobra is still top drawer, the ride quality leaves quite a bit to be desired. This is definitely not the vehicle for a 500-mile road trip.
She: Or even a 100-mile trip if it's snowing. The Mustang is still rear-wheel drive, which is fine for enthusiasts driving on dry pavement. But even with standard traction control and antilock brakes, I'd hesitate to take a muscle car with nearly 400 horsepower out on icy or snowy roads in Michigan winters. And where are the side air bags? Even the cheapest economy cars are offering them these days. I'm a child of the '60s, but the SVT Mustang Cobra is not a car that appeals much to me -- or to many other women, I suspect. Who knows? Maybe the Special Vehicle Team will trick out a minivan one of these days.

Likes: Substantial increase in output makes this one of the most powerful V-8 engines available. Feels like a throwback to the Sixties. Last of the rear-drive, high-output American muscle cars. Sensational handling. New six-speed manual gearbox (Paul). Standard antilock brakes, traction control. Cool-looking metal pedals (Paul). Standard 17-inch wheels and tires.
Dislikes: Couldn't reach pedals (Anita). Shifter extremely difficult to throw (Anita). Didn't use sixth gear once in normal driving, even on freeway (Anita). Be prepared to pay $1,000 gas-guzzler tax. Costs $10,000 more than a standard Mustang GT V-8. Cheesy plastic interior looks out of place in a $35,000 car. Side air bags are not available. Teeth-chattering suspension. Don't even think about driving this in snow. Climate controls difficult to reach from driver's seat (Paul).

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe.
Price: Base, $33,125; as tested, $34,750 (inc. $625 destination charge and$1,000 gas-guzzler tax).
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8; 390-hp; 390 lb-ft torque.
EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
12-month insurance cost, estimated by AAA Michigan: $1,623 (Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)
Where built: Dearborn.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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