Ford's Mustang was the first of a new breed of factory hot rod — the "pony car" — when it was launched back in 1964, and during the decades that followed it's stuck largely to the same genetic coding: high performance, low tech and low cost.
With a simple rear-drive chassis borrowed from a sedan and lots of components borrowed from other Ford vehicle lines, the Mustang has always been relatively cheap to produce, delivering lots of performance at bargain prices.
However, in terms of maximum performance, the Mustang's formula has, in recent years, fallen behind the pace set by GM's Camaro-Firebird twins. Ford's durable old 5.0-liter V-8 simply didn't match the muscle of GM's 5.7-liter V-8, which bristles with torque and horsepower.
So for 1996, Ford answers the challenge with a new engine. The overhead valve 5.0-liter has been replaced with Ford's much more sophisticated 4.6-liter V-8, an engine with better volumetric efficiency as well as better emissions performance. The Mustang GT receives the single overhead-cam version, similar to the engine used in the Ford Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car. With 215 hp and 285 lb-ft of torque, it delivers roughly the same performance as the old 5.0-liter.
But if sizzling go-power is the objective, Ford now has an answer for the Camaro Z28 and Firebird Trans Am. The new Mustang Cobra has the dual overhead cam, 32-valve version of the 4.6-liter V-8, and in Cobra tune it throbs with 305 hp and 300 lb-ft or torque.
With lots of V-8 power driving the rear wheels and a number of suspension revisions, the Mustang Cobra can gallop stride for stride with its GM rivals, whether the road ahead is straight or twisty.
Since the Cobra represents the best of what's new about the Mustang, it was our choice for this test.
The Mustang lineup includes three models. At the entry end is the basic Mustang, powered by a 3.8-liter V-6 that provides good torque and satisfactory performance for those who want Mustang style but aren't obsessed with 0-to-60 mph times.
Each model level is available as a coupe or convertible. If you like fresh air motoring, the Mustang convertible has higher quality than most. It's remarkably free of rattles, the top mechanism works very well, it includes a glass rear window and the top boot cover is easy to install, fits neatly and is nearly flush.
However, if you're interested in extracting the last ounce of performance, coupe versions are a better bet — better body rigidity and about 200 pounds less curb weight. Because of the extra structure needed to compensate for the absence of a steel top, convertibles invariably weigh more than their coupe counterparts.
There aren't many options for the Cobra, which is well equipped as is. Our test car was fitted with Preferred Equipment Package 250A ($1335), which included an anti-theft system, leather seats and a premium AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system. The only other available option is Mystic Clearcoat Metallic paint, an irridescent finish that seems to change color depending on viewing and/or light angles. Ford thinks this is very snazzy indeed; we don't agree, particularly for $815.
The functional standard equipment list for the Cobra includes antilock brakes, limited-slip differential and 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels mounting 245/45ZR-17 high performance tires. The transmission is a five-speed manual, natch, and there's no automatic transmission option.
Like the rest of the running gear, the huge brakes — 13.0-inch vented rotors up front, 11.65-inchers at the rear — are designed for high performance.
The Cobra also has different suspension tuning, including a slightly smaller front antiroll bar and a slightly larger bar in the rear, a combination designed to reduce understeer — the tendency for the car to go straight in hard cornering.
One thing the Cobra isn't is cheap. Base price for this model is $24,810. Our test car was $26,270. Add destination, taxes and license and you've clobbered 30 grand.
On the other hand, you'll be in a car with some pretty serious go-fast credentials. The four-cam (two cams per cylinder bank) V-8 is a genuine sweetheart. The tachometer needle seems directly connected to the driver's right foot.
Unlike typical American V-8 engines that run out of wind at higher speeds, the Cobra V-8 cranks hard all the way to the redline. It has that high-revving, spirited feel we've come to know and love in high performance engines from Germany and Japan, and it's an absolute treat to operate.
With big tires, wheels and brakes, the cornering and stopping capabilities of the Cobra are up to the high standard set by the wonderful engine. In the sense of absolute handling limits, the Cobra is hampered slightly by its chassis design, which dates to the old Ford Fairmont. However, if the handling distinctions between the Cobra and the Camaro Z28 might be measurable — in tenths of seconds — on a racetrack, it would tough to find any difference on public roads.
The Inside Story
Ford engineers went to a lot of trouble to give the Mustang a decent interior, and they've largely succeeded. Fairly tall drivers will find room for head and legs, and fairly short drivers can adjust the seat for adequate reach to all the controls. The seating position is also generally more upright than the Camaro and Firebird, which is generally more comfortable for extended periods of driving.
On the other hand, the Mustang interior feels a little dated with its relatively tall, narrow dimensions, and some of the control locations could be better. Sound system controls, for example, are directly ahead of the shift lever, the fog lamp and headlight switches are on opposite sides of the steering wheel and the small center console has only one cupholder, which is awkwardly placed.
Like almost every other sporty coupe, the rear seat is suitable for briefcases and/or a load of Chinese takeout food — not for people. If rear seat space is important to you, you're in the wrong class of cars.
Trunk capacity, on the other hand, is not bad. A big plus is that the shape of the trunk provides some vertical space, so you can load the tall variety of paper grocery bags without crushing the potato chips. The trunk will also take a couple of golf bags, and should handle luggage for two.
Ride & Drive
The Cobra is much faster than you're likely to go on public roads. The big tires, firm suspension and superb brakes give the car an impressive range of performance in all areas. Your ability to get someplace in a real hurry will be limited only by your own skills and, more to the point, the fragility of your driver's license.
The handling feel is light to the touch, and the tires generate plenty of grip, which translates as very high cornering speed capability. The ride is on the stiff side compared to mainstream sedans, but more comfortable than we expected and more supple than the Camaro Z28.
While the engine is terrific, the shifter is a little less endearing. The shift throws seem long, detracting from the ability to make quick, precise gear changes. And the relationship between the seat, steering wheel, shifter and foot pedals seems less conducive to enthusiastic driving than the Camaro or Firebird.
But somewhere in the middle of a long freeway ramp or a series of twisting mountain passes, you're going to step on the gas and feel a surge of power that's both visceral and velvety. This engine just screams for redline; it might be the sweetest engine ever installed in an American muscle car.
This is one car in which the engine alone could be worth the entire price of admission.
The only rationale for buying a car like the Mustang Cobra has to do with how much and how often you like to have adrenaline pounding around inside your vascular system.
It's built on a platform that has to be near the end of its usefulness, it's a little pricey and it's the kind of car that makes insurance agents grab for their calculators.
On the other hand, it's surprisingly quick on its feet, it's long on charisma, and it's as American as fireworks on the 4th of July; when you tramp on the gas you can hear that wonderful engine growling its own version of "Stars and Stripes Forever" through the twin exhaust pipes.
That's got to be worth something.
In fact, for some folks, that's more than enough.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.