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Shock And Awe - 2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 And SVT Cobra

Road Tripping The Mustang Mach 1 And SVT Cobra

Photography by Miles Cook, Terry McGean, John Pearley Huffman, Matt King

Both 150 and 33 are smooth, relentlessly curvy, and filled with spectacular altitude changes. On this pristine pavement, the Mach 1 proved to be well-behaved and very quick. Turning the traction control off produced a car that with a little spur would gently hang its tail out into a controllable drift. But when the road was less than velveteen, or merely pebble-strewn, the solid rear axle would betray the car. It's not dangerous, but the rearend takes a moment to settle down after a bump, and when one tire loses traction it feels like the other one is just along for the ride.

The Cobra, on the other hand, felt like it wasn't just driving over the road but biting into it, digesting it, and spitting a fresh ribbon of asphalt out the exhaust. The Cobra's steering feels heavier and less precise than the Mach 1's or the Bullitt's, but its feedback is good. Turn the traction control off and the rearend can be brought around with just a nudge of throttle, and the rearend is much better settled than the Mach 1's. Run over an irregular surface with the Cobra and it just smothers it and moves on to the next challenge.

At 3,665 pounds, the Cobra weighs in 200 pounds heavier than the Mach 1. But that extra weight seems to be split relatively evenly between the iron-block engine and the more complex rear suspension. Both the Mach 1 and Cobra have a bit of initial understeer diving into a corner, and both have enough power to overwhelm that with throttle.

But neither the Mach 1 nor the Cobra ride as well as the Bullitt, which has a softer suspension but the same tires as the Mach. The Bullitt doesn't have the easy surplus of power that lets the driver balance the car as do its newer brothers, but it rides better and is quieter. That may not be important thrashing up highway 33, but some of us have to drive our cars to work-every damn day.

Through Maricopa and on to McKittrick we screamed until almost making the turn onto highway 58. Some embarrassing backtracking later we blasted onto 58 (which actually runs south) and headed to Creston.

Highway 58 is a spectacular road of whoop-de-dos and curves through cattle-grazing country with some long stretches that let the cars run toward their top ends. The Cobra is an easy 130-mph cruiser; it's got enough torque to pull not only its Fourth gear, but its Fifth and deep into its Sixth. Even without a rear wing, the Cobra is dead-nuts stable at speed and nonchalant about its high-velocity work. But it's not quiet about it. The tires roar, the blower wails, the wind sounds like it's going to rip off the windshield, and pebbles hitting the floorpan ricochet like small-arms fire. Decelerating into corners, the Cobra's nose barely dives at all, but the front tires seem to take just a moment to hook in for the turn. Maybe a lower-profile tire on a larger-diameter wheel would quicken the turn-in a bit, maybe not. And going to lower profile tires could sap away what little suppleness there is in the tight suspension.

The Mach 1 never feels as stable as the Cobra at higher speeds. Whether that flat-black rear spoiler has any stabilizing effect is open to speculation, but once the speeds head toward triple digits it feels like the hind end is lightening significantly. And even without a supercharger, the Mach 1 builds speed rapidly.

At speed, the Mach 1 is quieter than the Cobra-the tires aren't screaming and there is no blower whine. Of course it doesn't have the ultimate top-end grunt of the Cobra, but it's the strongest normally aspirated four-valve Ford V-8 yet.

By the time we reached McKittrick, the sun was setting and Editor King was ready to head off to the local bar before hitting the hay and resting up for some bracket racing the next day at Bakersfield's Famoso raceway. So we cut east to Visalia to crash at the glamorous Fairfield Inn and slammed down to Bakersfield on Saturday morning.

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