(Heartland, USA) And then there was one. Only one pony car left from the days of yore when every major manufacturer had one and every male child lusted to buy one. GM has shelved the Camaro and Firebird, and only the car that started it all is left standing. Unlike the others, the Mustang has kept true to its roots and continues to sell in healthy numbers.
While the bulk of the Mustangs sold over the years were base models, there has almost always been a high performance version available to keep the halo polished. And surprisingly, in a year when there is no competition, the Special Vehicle Team (SVT) introduces the hottest Mustangs of all time: the 2003 SVT Cobra.
The last Mustang Cobra delivered 320 HP from it's technically sophisticated V8 and introduced an independent rear suspension (IRS) for improved ride and handling. They could have rested on their laurels and kept producing that great car. But no, the SVT folks refused to leave well enough alone and have produced the ne plus ultra of pony cars; a real "super car" Mustang.
The SVT Cobra can put up performance numbers that will stand your hair on end, yet it delivers those numbers at an incredibly modest price. Available in coupe or convertible form, both versions build on the strengths of the last SVT Cobra with a large power enhancement to boot.
The heart of this massive power increase is a "Roots" type supercharger, not unlike those found on top fuel dragsters. Producing a maximum pressure of 7.5 to 8 pounds per square inch, the supercharger delivers a dense wallop of air into the combustion process. To help deal with the stress of that additional power, the bottom end of the engine has been reinforced. The crankshaft is forged, tough H-beam connecting rods are used and specialty connector hardware is used.
The SVT Cobra 4.6L Supercharged V8 is rated at 390 HP and 390 foot-pounds of torque. John Coletti, SVT's chief engineer, has vowed that they won't have the problem they faced a few years ago with published horsepower numbers not being quite up to what customers found when they dyno-tested their Cobras. Coletti said, "When they test the '03 Cobra, we're confident that they'll see at least 390 HP," And his grin seemed to widen when he added, "at least!"
Transferring that incredible power to the tires is a six speed manual transmission (sorry, no automatic is available), an aluminum drive shaft, and 3.55:1 limited slip rear end. The tires are beefy 275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle F1s. These tires offer superb grip, yet provide docile ride and noise characteristics.
This isn't a car for the faint-hearted. With all that power on tap it can be VERY tail happy! Thank goodness for traction control because without it, coming out of a low speed corner and getting on the throttle too early can produce lots of drama. However, turning off the traction control prior to a launch from a light can produce an awesome display of tire smoke! (And you can bet that replacing those meaty rubber donuts won't be cheap!)
The icing on the cake is the great sounds this car makes. The throaty rumble of the V8 plus the muted whine of the supercharger (quieter than in previous SVT offerings) all stir the enthusiast's soul. SVT pays a great deal of attention to how their cars sound and the aural experience is a symphony to gear heads.
It's hard to put into words the ecstatic feeling that comes from exploring this car's capabilities. The SVT Cobra will put a smile on you face when nothing else will. Driven hard, this car responds with confidence inspiring grip, incredible amounts of power and positive feedback through steering wheel and pedals. The clutch feels stiff and the gearbox notchy, but when it's time to hustle this car, these components come across as solid and precise.
Powerful four-wheel disc brakes, with ABS help bring this beast down from speed. The front brakes are Brembo twin piston calipers on 13" rotors; and they look great peeking out from behind the five spoke cast aluminum wheels!
At speeds significantly beyond posted limits this car feels rock solid and inspires confidence. High speed sweepers are a joy with the Cobra's wonderful suspension. Subtle suspension changes include increased spring rates in the coupe (and slightly softer springs in the convertible), special bushings and Bilstein monotube shock absorbers. Plus, thanks to the IRS, the Cobra tracks straight and true over rougher roads.
Enlisting a reluctant test subject with a touchy back, we set out to find out just how rough a ride this Mustang delivers. But amazingly this car delivered a relatively comfortable ride. The concerned rider remembered rides in Mustangs of yore that were much rougher than the new Cobra. And coming from that particular critic, it is high praise! The Cobra eats up real estate at a rate that's rarely equaled by any production automobile. One of the nice things about having all of that power on tap is its availability in passing situations. Having to pass an 18-wheeler on a two-lane highway is much safer in a Cobra than a car with half its horsepower. All of that power can minimize your exposure to oncoming traffic.
Given the extraordinary potential of this car it's good that SVT didn't gussy it up with a bunch of tacky "boy racer" aero add-ons. Instead, there is an understated exterior with a simple SVT badge, a couple of small Cobras on the front fenders, a custom raised hood (to clear the supercharger), 5 spoke 17" wheels, a clean front fascia with large fog lamps and twin large diameter exhaust tips. The most blatant 'look at me' piece is the embossed "COBRA" on the rear bumper. When delivered in black, white, silver, blue or grey paint you'll have a chance to blend in. If you want to get noticed though, opt for the red or yellow (and watch your mirrors.)
The interior of the Cobra starts with standard Mustang pieces including what may be the last "pull on" headlight switch still in production. The gauges are dark numbers on a titanium colored face. They glow green at night. The sports bucket seats are tight fitting and very grippy leather trimmed with suede inserts. Air conditioning, rear window defroster, power driver seat, cruise control and tilt steering are standard as is a superb Mach 460 AM/FM in-dash six-disc CD player. The Mach 460 system rivals the intake and exhaust for great sound quality.
The SVT folks have done it again and they've delivered much more than they had to. If any other maker wants to get back into the pony car market, they've got a large SVT Cobra sized hurdle in front of them.