One-Year Test Verdict: 2003 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra Convertible
Showing its age, but still a rocking horse
By Editors of Motor Trend
Photography by John Kiewicz, John McGann, Scott Mead & Brian Vance
Ford's SVT Cobra is the most powerful, highest-performing production Mustang currently offered--and among the best to date. But it's an aging platform (due to be replaced next year) and far from perfect. That hasn't kept it from being the best-selling Cobra of all time, however. For the 2003 model, nearly 13,500 customers--over 5000 of them Cobra-convertible buyers--paid from $34,750 to almost $40,000 to take one home. They looked import-performance devotees in the eye and said, "I want my rear-drive ponycar!"
Ford's Special Vehicle Team upped the Cobra's ante last year with the addition of an Eaton Roots-type supercharger to the 4.6-liter 32-valve V-8. From the naturally aspirated 2001 model's 320 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque, output rose to 390 horsepower, 390 pound-feet. That put performance in the ballpark of the limited (300 units), all-out racer SVT Cobra R from the 2000 model year.
For an imposing base price of $38,995, our Dark Shadow Grey convertible came with the signature Cobra front and rear fascias, rocker panels, hood, rear deck, and color-keyed outside mirrors. The Cobra is the only Mustang with independent rear suspension.
Other standard equipment included the T-56 six-speed manual, SVT instrumentation, power windows and locks, Nudo leather/Preferred suede upholstery with power adjust and power lumbar/bolsters for the driver's seat, tilt steering wheel, cruise, security system with keyless entry, Mach 460 audio with six-CD in-dash changer, and power top. We added the only extra cost option available: chrome wheels ($695), for a total of $39,690.
It's not only the strongest Mustang yet, but also (save for the aforementioned SVT Cobra R) the most expensive. By comparison, a 2003 260-horse Mustang GT Premium Convertible stickered for about $10,000 less.
The basic structure of this Mustang dates back almost 25 years. Senior editor Ron Sessions writes, "Considering that the basic package hails from the late 1970s, when just about all cars were embarrassingly bad in terms of fit and finish, noise, vibration, harshness, ergonomics, and structure, it's amazing the Cobra performs as well as it does."
Our Take: 2003 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra Convertible
• Strong, sweet-sounding supercharged power
• Rarefied owner's club; ragtop even scarcer
• SVT-signature styling
• Poorly located shifter
• Dated interior, challenging ergos
• Drop-top-limited trunk space
Functional flow-through hood scoops help vent hot air from the engine compartment
Ends this generation of Mustang on a high note, but time for something up to date
From the beginning, comments dominated the logbook about how poorly the car fit nearly everyone who drove it. Pedals, shifter, and radio all seemed hard to reach. "It's obvious that this floor stamping was done before there were airbags, sport seats, and a six-speed. All the steering wheel, seat, floor, shifter reach relationships are off," remarks executive editor Matt Stone. "My back comes clean off the seat when I reach for a 4-5 shift; can't they recontour this shifter so it's easier to reach?"
Ergonomics aside, we enjoyed the lusty thrust of the blown engine and the throaty exhaust note. With every stab of the throttle, seeing the boost gauge flex and hearing the sirenlike whine of the supercharger confirmed that this was not simply a musclecar wannabe. "What an amazing amount of torque throughout the entire rev band. Highway onramps have never been more fun," enthuses one editor.
Others expected more from the advertised power, but the Cobra convertible outweighs a similar Corvette by over 500 pounds. Senior photographer/senior feature editor John Kiewicz jots, "This is the best Mustang V-8 in years. Strong, torquey power throughout the revs, but I almost expected more from nearly 400 horsepower. Likely as not the ragtop's added weight is taking the edge off this otherwise potent mill."
Ride and handling drew mixed reviews. Some found the ride surprisingly compliant, even soft. Over time, others judged it to be harsh. While the gas-charged Bilsteins and independent rear setup produced flat cornering on smooth pavement, mid-corner bumps and highway expansion joints produced considerable chassis shudder and cowl shake. Senior road-test editor Chris Walton reports it took real technique to produce a respectable performance on the slalom and dubbed it "a lasagna-noodle chassis."
Lowering the cloth convertible top was fairly quick and easy. After releasing the twin header latches, depressing the top switch powered the top down in about seven seconds. The included semi-hard tonneau cover spent most of its time in the trunk, as it took two people to install it easily. Getting the manual latches to line up again when closing took some jiggling; rolling the windows down slightly worked best for some. At the car wash, we did note minor water leakage at the A-pillar seals.
Overall, our Cobra was reliable, with the exception of a few minor annoyances: One foglamp seal leaked, a convertible-top guide pin fell out, and the front-passenger seat developed a squeak. Each was serviced under warranty, and our Ford dealer picked up the tab for two of our three oil changes and a punctured tire repair. We tangled with a concrete block and ruined a wheel/tire combo--operator error--which cost us $479.22 to replace. There were never any serious mechanical issues--or anything that would have stranded us. Our original agreement with Ford was for a six-month loan of the SVT Cobra. As it turned out, it stayed with us for four additional months, although the total mileage still fell short of our normal one-year test.
The Mustang SVT Cobra Convertible looks, sounds, and drives like the holdout it is: a primitive, beefy Detroit musclecar from another era. Yet, in spite of the frustrations many staffers had with those dated attributes, some still liked it a lot, as die-hard Mustang fans probably would, too. "It's fun to drive, and all its failures add to the fun," one logbook entry muses. "Too bad about the price." That parting shot is the cold truth. With so many other performance-car choices in and around the $40K mark, none of us could imagine plunking that much down on this aging racehorse. We look forward to a better all-new Cobra in mid-2005.
What's New, Changed, Different
2004 is the 40th anniversary of the Mustang, and the SVT Cobra bows for the final time on the current Mustang platform. Changes from 2003 are primarily cosmetic. Two new exterior paint colors will be added: Screaming Yellow and Competition Orange. Limited to 1000 vehicles will be a special MystiChrome Appearance Package: The iridescent exterior and interior colors change as the viewing angle shifts.
From the Logbook
"Without a doubt, the best manual transmission ever fit to a Mustang. Too bad the shifter remains so ridiculously far forward in the console."
"I struggle with this car. It would seem that a near-400-horse Mustang ragtop would be on anyone's Ultimate Car List. Yet I find it almost a job to drive. Still great fun on a warm summer night--top down, of course."
"I just drove through 20 minutes of mountain twisties. Spectacular! Great weight on front tires and great horsepower to the rear wheels equal a ball to drive."
"Thank goodness a new Mustang is coming in 2005, because this car is a museum piece. Love the power and Yankee simplicity, but, boy, is this car rough around the edges."
"I got more attention than I ever imagined in this car. I thought it'd blend in, but many people turned and pointed. All guys, of course."
2003 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra Convertible
Drivetrain layout Front engine, rwd
Engine type V-8, supercharged, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, iron block, alum heads
Displacement, ci/cc 280.0 / 4601
Max horsepower @ rpm 390 @ 6000
Max torque @ rpm 390 @ 3500
Transmission 6-speed manual
Suspension, front; rear MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes, f;r 13.0-in vented disc; 11.7-in vented disc ABS
Wheels 17x9.0, cast alum
Tires 275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1
Traction/stability control Yes/no
Wheelbase, in 101.3
Length, in 183.5
Width, in 73.1
Height, in 52.9
Curb weight, lb 3780
Seating capacity 4
Cargo capacity, cu ft 7.7
Fuel capacity, gal 15.7
0-60 mph, sec 4.9
1/4 mile, sec @ mph 13.12 @ 109.58
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 121
600-ft slalom, mph 64.1
200-ft skidpad, lateral g 0.85
Total mileage 12,187
Avg test mpg 14.3
Problem areas Foglamp seal, convertible top guide pin, passenger seat squeak
Non-warr cost $51.64: oil/filter, tire rotation; $479.22: replace damaged wheel/tire
Base price $38,995
Price as tested $39,690
Current value, wlsl/rtail* $25,548 / $33,458
Airbags Dual front
EPA mpg, city/hwy 16/22
Range, city/hwy, miles 251/345
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Roadside assistance 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Recalls None *According to IntelliChoice