Supercharged to 390 hp, the 2003 Ford SVT Cobra lays it on the line
By NATALIE NEFF/AutoWeek
Its Eagle F1s prance across the tarmac, spinning and spitting in a muscular pas de deux of rubber and road. Call it choreography at 390 horsepower. Call it a blast.
Given the assuredness with which the 2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra moves around the track, you’d never guess that under all that 21st-century sheetmetal and plastic sits a relic. But Ford’s Special Vehicle Team has managed to inject the 25-year-old Fox chassis with better all-around road manners than any Mustang has ever had. “Our intention was to make this car absolutely bulletproof,” said John Coletti, chief engineer at SVT. “And fast. And fun.”
And yet with its blown small-block and Vette-like numbers, the Cobra intimidates, especially given its almost 60 percent front weight bias. Visions of both power-induced and lift-throttle oversteer, of ends swapping mid-corner and the world spinning ’round outside the windows, conspire to keep speeds down during the first few laps.
But it doesn’t take long behind the wheel to find out— despite its ferocious specs—how easy the Cobra is to tame. The wheels transmit a tremendous amount of road feel, and control is so tactile the car seems like it has hands for contact patches. With every circuit of the track our speeds climb, nerves calm. Soon the car dances on the edge, at speed, with only a feathering of the throttle and flick of the wrists keeping it straight. And then speeds get even quicker, because for every clipped apex, every late turn-in and hard-braking point nailed just right, the Cobra rewards with the intoxicating sensation of riding on rails. All confidence-building stuff—more so the first time the tail does snap out on an overcooked corner, only to swing back in line with a couple of countersteering twitches of the wheel.
Ford has been de-bugging the Fox platform for so long now that the chassis finally feels robust. And don’t count on the fine-tuning to stop until Ford finally kills off the Fox and trots out a new model—on a new platform—expected in 2005.
And yet for all the attention due its track manners, the 2003 Cobra also has an engine story tucked under its conspicuously bulging hood and functional hood scoop. That’s where SVT engineers wedged a 4.6-liter dual-cam V8 with a massive Roots-type Eaton blower—the same found on the Lightning—bolted on top.
Spinning out up to eight pounds of boost, the supercharger hikes engine output to at least 390 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm. With an 8.5:1 compression ratio, actual peak power probably sits closer to the 400-hp mark, but SVT, still reeling from the not-quite-320-hp Cobra debacle of 1999, prefers to stick to the more conservative number for now.
To handle all that extra power, SVT opted to use an iron block, even at a 70-pound weight penalty—part of the reason for its heavy nose. Even so, “We blew up eight engines before we got this right,” said Coletti. So in went forged pistons like those found in the Lightning, four-ply head gaskets and beefed-up connecting rods, in an effort to corral the engine’s tremendous output. The 4.6 also uses a water-to-air intercooler, lightweight aluminum flywheel like that in the Cobra R, as well as the R’s bigger radiator and stronger halfshafts and U-joints.
To feed the blower and the increased demands of the more powerful engine, SVT cut out a larger grille opening up front, added functional hood scoops and tacked on a larger mass airflow meter and dual throttle bodies to cram the mill with air. Though not changed substantially, the engine’s new heads feature better flow characteristics, says Ford.
All that power gets shuttled through an 11-inch, single-disc clutch to a 3.55:1 limited-slip rear via a six-speed Tremac T-56 gearbox. Though its ratios feel nicely spaced, making it easy to stay in the engine’s powerband, the shifter itself feels chunky, stiff. It’s difficult to slot smoothly from gear to gear, and often the shifter hangs up between gears or forces you to search around for the correct one. And like all late-model Mustangs, the shifter sits too far forward to reach comfortably from just about any driving position.
Despite the testy shifter, the Cobra loves to put the power down. With the supercharger wheezing away underhood, the engine cranks out 90 percent of its peak torque between 1900 and 5800 rpm. Such a wide torque band makes for a car that pulls strongly in any gear and at most speeds, but it packs a particularly satisfying mid- range punch. We’ll have to wait to fully track-test the Cobra for confirmation, but power and weight suggest it will be in the 5.0-second neighborhood from 0 to 60 mph. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
To get it to dance so well, SVT made some changes to the Cobra’s underpinnings. It still uses a MacPherson strut front and the multilink independent rear suspension setup it added in 1999, but like its Lightning and Cobra R stablemates, the Cobra now uses Bilstein gas-charged monotube shocks all around for a great improvement in suspension damping, both on-track and off. Though we didn’t get to test the ride on any really rough roads, we did run it over one stretch riddled with severe and continuous undulations. The wheels stayed firmly planted at the crest of each hillock, and the body didn’t crash down on its bump stops as the springs loaded up in the dips, even at speeds in excess of 100 mph.
SVT also revised the independent rear’s bushings, mounts and spring rates. To handle the extra torque put out by the new engine, SVT added a crossbrace that attaches to the differential. Ford says this tubular crossmember helps to minimize the twist experienced by the differential assembly during hard acceleration.
Brakes remain the same, with 13.0-inch twin-piston vented discs up front and 11.65-inch rear vented discs, though the rear pad material has been revised. The front antiroll bar has gotten a bit beefier, at 29 mm, and the Cobra now has 17-inch Goodyear 275/40ZRs on nine-inch wheels instead of the eight-inchers worn by the outgoing model.
All these changes help keep the wheels planted and give the Cobra its balletic chops, and combined with its massive power, the Cobra has superb overall driveability. But we’d like to see the styling updated a bit more along with the mechanicals.
The car does wear revised front and rear fascias and side sills and body-color keyed breakaway mirrors, and the changes help to give the car a cleaner, more put-together overall look. And though ride height is unchanged, the fascias and rockers sit slightly lower, giving the Cobra a more hunkered-down look.
But the fake side scoops are still there, with those solid plastic inserts that are supposed to look like screens. And its dual-pod interior design remains mostly untouched and is now looking oh-so-old, even with new electroluminescent gauges on the instrument panel. The new seats, however, look and feel great, and now feature power-adjustable lumbar support and side bolsters.
Here’s a secret: SVT stitched the softtop on the Cobra convertible out of the same fabric as found on drop-top Jaguars—in other words, it’s better than the Thunderbird folding top. The convertible also gets a slightly softer chassis tuning than the coupe, but weighs about 160 pounds more. The convertible will represent about 40 percent of Cobra production.
When the 2003 Cobra starts waltzing into showrooms this summer, SVT says stickers will start below $35,000. That’ll make the Cobra one of the best horsepower-per-dollar values on the road, and they’ll no doubt move out of showrooms quickly. Ford only plans on turning out about 10,000 per year, so if you want to make one yours get your name on the dance card now. This Cobra is worth a whirl.
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.