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

Though the Mach 1's engine is rated at the same horsepower as '96-'98 Cobra's, it has evolved from the earlier versions. The Mach 1 engine uses new cylinder heads and swipes its intake cam from the 5.4L DOHC engine used in the Lincoln Navigator. There are also new exhaust manifolds, and the compression ratio has been upped from 9.85:1 then to 10.0:1 now. That all results in a significant bump in peak torque output up from the '98's 300 lb-ft to the 03's 320 lb-ft, and that peak now occurs down at 4,200 rpm instead of up at 4,600 rpm. In other words, the already excellent Cobra engine is even better and easier to live with in the Mach 1. The Mach 1 also has the advantage of a 3.55:1 final drive ratio in its 8.8-inch solid-axle rearend rather than the old Cobra's 3.27:1 gears encased in an independent suspension.

The Mach 1's suspension tuning is also different from the '98 Cobra's. The springs are stiffer, the stabilizer bars are thinner, and the Goodyear Eagle P245/45ZR17 tires, while the same size as the BFGoodrich Comp T/As used on the '98 model, aren't as aggressive in compound or tread design. Beyond that, the steering rate has been slowed from the old Cobra's 14.7:1 to 15.3:1. However, the old Cobra's 13-inch-diameter Brembo front disc brakes do carry over to the Mach 1.

The Mach 1 is a dang fine Mustang, but the '03 Mustang Cobra is the greatest Mustang ever, at least for now. It's nothing less than the quickest, best-handling Mustang to have ever left a Ford dealership. It's better handling than the '70 Boss 302, quicker than the Boss 429, and more civilized than either of them.

At the heart of the Cobra lies a supercharged iron-block version of Ford's 4.6L, DOHC, 32-valve V-8 whopping out 390 hp according to Ford, and maybe even more. This engine is strong from idle to its 6,500 rpm redline where the fuel shuts off to keep it from revving on forever. It also pulls like a Farmall tractor, generating 390 lb-ft of mountain-moving torque. Such is the miracle of an intercooled Eaton/Roots-style blower huffing 8 pounds of boost into an 8.5:1 V-8 with the respiratory talent to use it all.

Sitting behind the monster motor is a Tremec T56 six-speed that feeds power to a 3.55:1 limited-slip differential cradled between the A-arms of independent rear suspension. Dipping into the Cobra's throttle is like being head-butted forward by a jet-propelled Expedition. There's some blower whine, but who wouldn't want some blower whine?

The steering is a touch quicker than in the Mach 1, but the wide tires also mean the turning diameter is about five feet wider. The Brembo front discs and 11.6-inch rear discs are shared with the Mach 1, and are very effective. The suspension is significantly stiffer than the Mach 1's or any other current Mustang's, but it's better controlled and not brutal.

This is also the most radical-looking Cobra yet, with a blunt nose, thick and vented hood, and massive P275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires on five-spoke wheels. Inside, the dash is a bit stark with its white-face gauges and relentless black plastic, but the seats are aggressively bolstered and upholstered in nice leather with suede inserts.

The DriveWe starting Friday morning from Santa Barbara at Miles Cook's mother's house (up the street from my manse), which is overflowing with her two sons' cache of Ford parts, pieces, and cars (we had to indulge Miles-after all, we were going to be thrashing on his Bullitt for two days). We headed down to Carpinteria and then across highway 150 to Ojai and then up highway 33. His mom didn't bake us any cookies.

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