Straight up the center of California runs Interstate 5, a road diabolically designed by Federal bureaucrats to avoid anything interesting. It has no interesting curves, it passes through no interesting countryside, and the pavement is often so grooved that tires rolling over it produce a hypnotic hum that leaves drivers susceptible to suggestions ranging from "eat at Burger King" to "bathe with Lifebuoy soap" or "drive a Camry." It's a misbegotten superslab conceived with sinister intent. And we love it.
We love I-5 because when it was built, it bypassed great roads that used to be the main arteries of the Golden State. Roads like California 33, 58, 229, and 41 that run through nearly forgotten towns like Maricopa, McKittrick, Creston, and Cholame in the center of the state. They have great curves, they pass neat scenery, and they're both lightly traveled and lightly patrolled. If all you want to do is drive, these are among the very best roads in the world to drive upon. All we needed was a place to go, an excuse to go there, and some cars to go in.
So we asked Ford for three Mustangs and got two: The new Mach 1 and the SVT Cobra (a regular GT wasn't available-go figure). Our excuse to go was evaluating these truly quick ponies-the best Mustangs ever and among the last to be based on the near-ancient Fox platform-before (we think) they're replaced in April of next year with a Mustang that should be even better. For a destination, we chose the city of Tracy, which is just outside of Stockton and was once home of the world's largest tire fire. It would be a salute to the biggest burnout ever!
Of course things didn't go as we planned. They never do. Fearless Leader Matt King was coming along, and his exalted status meant that his whims had to be indulged. First he invited ex-CC staffer (and current Mustang Monthly editorial whipping boy) Miles Cook and his '01 Mustang Bullitt along on the caravan so we'd have a two-valve Mustang around for comparison. Then he decided we shouldn't drive all the way to Tracey, but divert to Bakersfield.
So it was that on a Friday morning Matt King, CC Technical Editor Terry McGean, and Miles Cook showed up at my palatial mansion in Santa Barbara ready to head north.
The CarsFord has so many Mustang parts floating about that it can mix-and-match them to create an almost endless stream of performance variations. The new-for-'03 Mach 1, for instance, uses the angle-cut rear quarter-windows, instrument cluster, and shifter of the '01 Bullitt Mustang, along with the Mustang GT's side scoops and rear spoiler (painted flat black), an updated version of the normally aspirated DOHC, 32-valve, all-aluminum 4.6L V-8 from the '01 SVT Cobra, and a few new pieces like a front chin spoiler, Magnum 500-like five-spoke wheels and, of course, a reincarnation of the classic shaker hood. It's sort of like automotive Garanimals.
It's this mix of the familiar and novel that keeps the Mustang a compelling vehicle even though underneath it's still based on a 25-year-old family sedan (the '78 Fairmont for trivia buffs). If you're a Mustang freak like, say, Miles Cook, you know every slight variation among the different models and how they've been swapped around through the years and heck, decades.
But just because the new Mach 1 is a compilation of many previously seen parts doesn't mean it isn't a good car. In fact, except for the more stable, much quicker, and more expensive '03 SVT Cobra, it's the best Mustang Car Craft has ever driven. The Cobra engine, rated at the same 305 hp it was when it first appeared in the '96 SVT Cobra, is sweet-natured and with plenty of torque available, satisfyingly potent. Backing the engine is either the familiar Tremec five-speed manual or Ford's own familiar 4R70W four-speed automatic.
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.
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.
The TrackWhy is Bakersfield's famous dragstrip called Famoso? Probably because it's "famoso" for excruciatingly long lines in the tech and staging lanes. It seemed like forever before someone could verify that our completely stock cars were, in fact, completely stock. But we were at the drags, and at the drags you never feel overdressed or overweight.
The consensus here is that even though the Mach 1's engine doesn't shake much, it shakes enough to make watching the hoodscoop torque-over entertaining. Sure the shaker hood is a gimmick that doesn't make much power, but it's a great gimmick. We're also agreed that the flat-black paint and tape looks good on the car, and the interior, with its "comfortweave" black leather upholstery, is both better looking than the Cobra's and cooler when sitting on pavement on a hot day in Bakersfield. But we're not sure about the wheels, which are simply not the absolute stunners the Bullitt's faux Torq-Thrusts are.
With long lines and a lot of classes to call, we were only able to get two runs in on both the Mach 1 and Cobra. That's far fewer runs than we'd usually make hot lapping cars during a regular test, and nowhere near enough to optimize our launches.
A tree sloth could throw a brick at the Cobra's accelerator pedal and the car would run low 13s. Except for Chevy's Corvette and Dodge's Viper, there isn't another American car that can touch it, and the only foreign ones that can cost at least twice as much. Having developed some comfort behind the wheel, King ran a no-drama 13.31 at 104.87 mph in the quarter. We're all convinced that with some track time the Cobra would run near 13.0, and with some tweaking (maybe just tire pressure changes) it would dip into the 12s. No other Mustang has ever been anywhere near this quick from the factory. For the record, Car and Driver's test of a stock '03 Cobra had it running 12.9 at 111 mph-and there's no reason to doubt them.
Terry McGean had the dubious distinction of missing more shifts that afternoon than the entire UAW did during '02. On both his runs, Terry got spanked by lesser machinery-first a Honda Civic, and then a shockingly fast Nissan Sentra that ran a 13.0 at 104 mph. There's more technique to launching the Mach 1 effectively than there is the Cobra, but it's still a quick car. Motor Trend's Mach 1 test had the car running a 13.8 at 102.5 mph, and we're convinced that 13.6s aren't out of the question.
After cramming 40 seconds of thrills into six hours at Famoso, we hit the road back toward Santa Barbara (Miles and I) and L.A. (Matt and Terry) with one stop at an In-N-Out Burger for protein loading. Over absolutely riveting burgers, it was our consensus that it's truly amazing that less than a year after GM killed off its Camaro and Firebird, Ford offers not one, not two, but three performance versions of its Mustang.
The new Mustang debuts next year, and if Ford can retain the aura that keeps these cars compelling while shedding the compromises that make them a chore to live with, the next Mustang will be truly great.
But right now, even in their old age, at base prices of $28,370 for the Mach 1 and $34,065 for the Cobra, these cars are solid values. Those are minivan prices! And there's nothing mini about these cars.