The one-trick pony learns a few new moves.
by Robert Ahl
The Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird - yes, it's still PC to call them "pony cars" - suffer an image problem in the United States. Their combination of wild styling, powerful V-8 engines, and low sticker prices make them appeal to a younger, less sophisticated crowd. In short, they’re viewed as fast but crude cars for kids.
The Mustang Cobra was supposed to change that. Designed by SVT, Ford’s in-house performance group, the Cobra is not just the highest-performance Mustang that Ford offers. It’s also the most expensive, with a sticker price over $28,000. With an aluminum 32-valve DOHC V-8 under the hood, the limited-edition Cobra was supposed to appeal to driving enthusiasts who would otherwise consider a BMW or Porsche.
The Cobra has enjoyed only limited success in changing the pony car’s image. Part of the problem has been that the Cobra inherited the Mustang’s solid rear axle, a cheap suspension design that dates back to the late 1970s. The lack of an independent suspension made the Cobra (and the GT) handle poorly over rough roads. The second problem has been the Cobra’s 4.6-liter aluminum V-8 engine, which is built by hand on a separate assembly line. For all its sophistication and expense (for Ford), it’s high-winding 305 horsepower was no match for burly 5.7-liter V-8s offered in the Camaro and Firebird, which could make up to 320 horsepower, and offered more torque, too.
But 1999 is a year of change for the Mustang. The base and GT models were updated last fall. Now, it’s the Cobra’s turn. With a new independent rear suspension (IRS) and more power, it gets the most significant changes of all.
The rear suspension is an interesting design. Ford has been obsessed with cutting costs recently, and in designing the IRS, SVT engineers were given two simple rules: the Mustang’s body could not be altered, and the IRS had to use the solid-axle suspension’s mounting points. The solution the engineers came up with looks a bit strange, but it works. They designed a welded tube-steel subframe to attach to the body at the mounting points, through rubber isolators. Attached to the subframe are upper and lower cast-aluminum control arms. The aluminum differential and the wheel bearings are from the (now-extinct) Lincoln Mark VIII.
The Cobra IRS arrives already assembled and aligned at Ford’s River Rouge Mustang factory in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford even uses the same machine to lift it into place that the solid-axle Mustangs use. The IRS assembly weighs about 80 pounds more than the solid-axle setup on the Mustang GT, but it allows a 125-lb reduction in unsprung suspension weight. To compensate for the heavier rear end, the engineers lightened the front end by 95 pounds, providing the 1999 Cobra with an improved 55/45 percent weight distribution, compared to last year’s 57/43 percent.
The new IRS (which can be retrofitted to 1994-98 Mustangs) does not magically convert the Cobra into a bargain exotic sports car. The power steering, while improved for 1999 on all Mustangs, still needs more feel. The steering also requires more correction around corners than would a Porsche, Ferrari, or Corvette.
It’s amazing, though, how aggressively you can drive the Cobra now. You can throw it very hard into corners - even bumpy ones - without worry that the rear will slide out unpredictably. The BFGoodrich Comp T/A tires offer up an almost sports carlike 0.88g of grip. They reach their limits smoothly, and the suspension has excellent balance, allowing you to easily moderate tail-out slides with the throttle. The brakes have a firm pedal, and have excellent resistance to fade, even on a racetrack. The Cobra is now a well-balanced performance car. In fact, it’s probably the best-handling Mustang since the race-ready Boss 302 of 1969.
The suspension is now a more equal partner to the sophisticated DOHC 32-valve 4.6-liter aluminum V-8, which gets more power this year. At least that's what Ford says. The engine received stronger bearings, and new intake ports and combustion chambers to increase tumbling of the fuel-air mixture. Ford also fitted the engine with coil-on-spark plug ignition and improved the knock sensor. With these changes, Ford rates this engine at 320 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque, 15 hp and 17 lb-ft more than the 1998 version.
The Cobra doesn’t feel any faster, however. We managed to accelerate a coupe to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, and a convertible - which is 297 pounds heavier - to 60 in 6.0 seconds. That’s about the same as the 1998 Cobra coupe and convertible. It also means the Cobra will still fall behind a Z28 or Firebird Trans Am in a stoplight race. Why acceleration hasn’t improved is not clear. Top speed for the ‘99 is 150 mph - again, about the same as last year.
That doesn’t mean the driveline isn’t a pleasure. The engine barks through big 76mm dual exhausts borrowed from the GT, and emits an expensive-sounding howl at wide open throttle, particularly near its 6800-rpm redline. While the DOHC V-8 lacks the low-end punch of the bigger Z28/Trans Am pushrod V-8, the Ford engine does pull strongly past 6500 rpm. It gives the Cobra a more expensive feel than the GM twins (with redlines of 6000 rpm.) The five-speed manual transmission, built by Tremec, shifts precisely. An automatic transmission is not available, which is an indication of how serious SVT is about the performance image of the Cobra.
There are few changes to the interior that distinguish the Cobra from other Mustangs, other than white-faced gauges and a “COBRA” insignia on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the Cobra comes with the same cheap front seats that come on the GT. The seats may look like proper buckets, but their soft side bolsters seem to disappear in the first corner, leaving the driver with almost no lateral support. This car deserves better. All Cobras otherwise come very well equipped with a powerful AM/FM stereo cassette/CD player; power windows, seats, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; and keyless entry. The Bosch traction control that was introduced on other Mustangs for 1999 is standard equipment. The Cobra also shares the new, sharp-edged body with other 1999 Mustangs, but it gets its own front end with round fog lamps. The rear end features yellow turn-signal lenses, also unique to the Cobra.
Base price for the coupe is $27,995. The convertible is an additional $4000. It has a convenient power top that is released with two latches at the windshield header. It can be raised and lowered in just 10 seconds, and comes with a soft boot cover. Other than the price, the only major disadvantage to the convertible is the additional curb weight mentioned earlier. Cowl shake is minor.
As with the SVT F-150 Lightning and the SVT Contour, the Mustang Cobra will only be sold at the 600 or so SVT-certified Ford dealers across the United States. Ford hopes to sell 8000 Cobras for 1999 - just 6 percent of Mustang production. At those low volumes, even if it isn't any faster, the Cobra is almost guaranteed to be a standout at the drive-thru.
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