Sir, drop the charge card - it's already too late.

by Howard Walker

You can put away your Visa card; the car you see here - along with its 299 identical siblings - is sold. They have been since July last year when Ford announced the birth of its latest Mustang road-racer, the 400-bhp Cobra R.

What the lucky few will get is the fastest, most dynamic, and best-handling Mustang ever built. A car capable of smoking its tires all the way from rest to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, hitting a top speed of 168 mph, pulling over 1g on a skidpan, yet also more than happy to burble down to Wal-Mart as comfortably as your uncle Elmo's Grand Marquis.

It could also go out and win races, straight out of the box. That's what the R stands for: Racing. Even though 90 percent of the Rs are unlikely to see the start line of a racetrack - they're worth too much as investments - the other 10 percent should do extremely well.

It's the work of Ford Special Vehicle Engineering, an assortment of dedicated petrolheads, whose mission in life is to 'polish the Ford oval' with an exclusive lineup of well-engineered performance derivatives. SVE develops the cars for Ford's Special Vehicle Team, which looks after the marketing part. SVT's current line-up includes the 320-bhp Mustang Cobra coupe and convertible, and the wild 360-bhp F-150 Lightning pickup. Next up is an SVT-enhanced Focus.

Strakes, bulges, and awesome power

Lift the Cobra's power-bulged hood and you'll see what all the fuss is about. Squeezed tightly in between the suspension turrets, is a heavily breathed-on 5.4-liter, dual overhead cam Ford V-8 topped with an aluminum intake manifold the size of an upturned beer crate.

The engine starts life as the torque-rich powerplant for Ford's XXL-sized Lincoln Navigator off-roader. SVE strips it down to the bare bones and adds a forged steel crank, billet steel Carillo con rods and forged alloy flat-top pistons. The iron block is then topped with re-designed four-valve cylinder heads that provide much-increased airflow through the intake and exhaust ports.

The end result is an honest 400 bhp at 5700 rpm, though SVE in fact, claim a more-conservative 385 bhp - they're playing it safe, not wanting a repeat of a recent faux pas where standard Cobra V-8s were found to be 15 percent down on their claimed output.

Even so, the Cobra R's output of 71.3 bhp per liter compares nicely with the 60.9 bhp per liter output of the latest 5.7 Chevy Corvette, and the 56.3 bhp per liter of the 8.0-liter V-10 Dodge Viper. This thing is a beast.

The Cobra motor gets its power to the rear wheels via a Tremec T-56 six-speeder - the same heavy-duty transmission that's used in the Viper and Aston DB7. The suspension is largely carried over from the stock Cobra, but with the addition of stiffer Eibach coils, which lower the car 1.5 inches in front, and an inch at the rear. It also includes Bilstein shocks - monotubes at the front, twin tubes at the rear - and stiffer bushings in the suspension control arms and rear subframe.

To provide the kind of stopping power needed to arrest this hard-charging, 3600-lb road-racer, the R gets 13inch front/11.6-in rear Brembo rotors and Brembo four-piston calipers at each corner. Air ducts running from the front spoiler provide extra cooling. All the Cobra's bodywork add-ons are there not only to make the car look stunning, but also to help keep the Cobra R from taking to the air at 170 mph. That snowplow-like front spoiler and air splitter is said to virtually eliminate front-end lift above 100 mph, without creating any downforce.

That giant rear wing, however, keeps the rear end planted with 780 lb of downward push. SVE's chief engineer, and acknowledged father of the Cobra R, John 'O.J.' Coletti, describes the high-speed handling without the spoiler as 'white knuckle.'

Functional, yet furious

Snuggle down into the tight-fitting Recaro buckets and you'll see that the Cobra's cabin is stripped out and functional. To reduce weight, the rear seat is removed, as is the stereo and air conditioning. Coletti was keen to jettison the electric windows until he discovered the Ford parts bin didn't contain any manual-wind alternatives.

Twist the key and the big V-8 explodes into life like small artillery fire, expelling gases through side exhausts mounted just behind the door. Blipping the throttle turns the burble into a rasping snarl that spins every head within 200 yards.

We've come to Firebird Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona to try out the Cobra R on the track before taking in the surrounding mountain roads. After just one lap, you realize that this is one absolute gem of a car at speed.

It's breathtakingly quick; all 400 horses get delivered in one fast, fluid rush that peaks at 6200 rpm and keeps on flowing all the way to the 7000-rpm cut-off. It pulls like a train too, hurling itself out of Firebird's tighter, slower, third-gear bends as if connected to some invisible rubber band.

Then there's the noise; deep, bellowy, urgent. The kind of thunderous rumble that sends Californians rushing for cover fearing the onset of the 'The Big One.' You'll need more than one lap to master the R's heavy and often plain-awkward six-speed shifter. Fast changes from second to third often end up in fifth, or Heaven forbid, first. And the lever itself often feels like it's set in wet cement.

The wide spacing of the pedals also makes it nigh-on impossible to smooth out downshifts by heeling and toeing. Coletti plans to tell customers to get the throttle pedal bent so it sits closer to the brake. It's much more cost-effective than Ford ordering a component redesign. But the real joy of the Cobra R is the sheer poise and breathtaking balance of its handling. Nothing seems to upset the car. And it has that rare quality of basically, doing anything you ask of it. Want power oversteer? Want to adjust your line mid-corner? Simply dial in your right foot. Certainly, the Mustang's superb body control, its razor-sharp steering and leech-like grip make it all seem so easy.

The same applies to the brakes, which have the uncanny ability of shedding vast amounts of speed, time and time again, without showing the slightest sign of fade. Away from the track, the Cobra R feels perfectly at home on the road. Again, the V-8's towering torque means the car will power away from 1500 rpm in third or fourth gear without the slightest hint of a judder or a chug.

And the price of all this tractability? A cool $54,900 - or $22,000 more than a standard Cobra coupe. Seems a small price to pay for having the baddest pony on the block.

2000 Mustang Cobra R
Base price: $54,900
Engine: 5.4-liter V-8, 385 bhp
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheelbase: 101.0 in
Length: 183.0 in
Width: 73.0 in
Height: 52.0 in
Weight: 3590 lb
Fuel economy: outrageous
Major standard equipment:
Every performance enhancement known to man

© 2000 The Car Connection

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