Since their inception, muscle cars gained the reputation of being crude and primitive (but effective) machines. Truthfully, classics from the ’60s and ’70s with live rear axles, drum brakes, and carbureted engines might sound cool but were a far cry from precision driving machines of today. For years, Detroit stubbornly refused to invest in chassis architecture. Even when independent rear ends became standard, Camaros and Mustangs of the ’90s still had live rear axles.
The proven formula might’ve still been around if it wasn’t for one car that revolutionized the breed and showed what muscle cars are capable of. The 2003 to 2004 Mustang SVT Cobra is the first modern muscle car and first modern Mustang. Here is why you need one.
Back in the late ’90s, Mustang was a popular but not a very advanced muscle car. It had warmed-up Foxbody chassis underneath, and a cool design, but the whole package felt a bit outdated. Then, in the late ’90s, Ford had massive publicity screw-up when fans found that 1998/9 Cobra had less power than advertised, questioning its performance reputation. Ford had to do something to salvage Mustang’s image and reclaim the muscle car crown. The 2000 Mustang Cobra R, a unique, limited production model designed for racing, showed how. If the Mustang wanted to survive, it had to be more modern, capable, and faster than mild-spec late ’90s Cobra.
Birth of the new SVT Cobra
Ford approved the SVT Cobra project in late ’99. Thus, engineers had very little time designing, testing, and preparing the new production model. Ford simply couldn’t afford delays since the S197, a totally new generation, was due for 2005. So, engineers worked hard and concentrated in two directions – more power and more control.
To achieve more power in such a short time and with limited resources, they did the only logical thing, added the forced induction to a well-known modular, 32-valve, 4.6-liter V8 engine. Using the same principle as in 1991 F-150 Lightning, they got a monster V8 with 390 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque.
Although the V8 stole headlines, something more important further enhanced the appeal of the 2003 to 2004 SVT Cobra. That was the independent rear suspension set up, first for regular production Mustang. There were IRS-equipped Mustang prototypes since the ’60s, sure. However, 2003 marked the first year customer could get Mustang that handled like a real sports car and had precision driving dynamics that it lacked previously.
Of course, the rest of the drive train was enhanced to withstand more power and torque. The 3.55:1 differential had an aluminum case, the driveshaft was different, and big disc brakes were all around. The engineering team worked day and night to make the car ready for the 2003 release.
21st Century Mustang
When Ford released the brand-new SVT Cobra as a 2003 model, the muscle car world was stunned. It was the most expensive regular production Mustang with a base price of $35,000 for the coupe and $39,000 for a convertible and the fastest and most capable. The official power rating was 390 hp, but very soon, enthusiasts started reporting that Ford, this time, was conservative in ratings, stating that the engine’s real output was from 420 to even 450 hp.
Indeed, the performance figures suggested that this Mustang was set to reclaim the fastest muscle car title. With 0-60 MPH time of 4.6 seconds and a 155 MPH top speed, the 2003/4 SVT Cobra punched above its weight. This also meant that the Chevrolet Camaro was no longer its main rival. The top speed was electronically limited, and if you removed the limited Cobra would accelerate up to 180 mph. With such numbers, Cobra aimed at Vipers and Porsches.
There was no mistake that this was a serious performance machine; the 6-speed manual was the only option, the suspension provided maximum grip, and the car came with meaty (for the times) 275/40/17 tires.
Immediately after the release, the SVT Cobra became the favorite street racer’s weapon. Although it wasn’t particularly light with over 1.6 tons of curb weight, the independent suspension made it precise and manageable to drive fast. Of course, as with any Mustang, the aftermarket parts made it even quicker with just a few basic bolt-ons.
With the SN95’s life cycle ending in 2004, Ford discontinued the SVT Cobra after making over 13,000 cars in two years. The company considered this a success, despite the high price (for a Mustang). Today, 2003/4 SVT Cobras are sought-after cars and hold their value well.
Many people think that the 03/04 Cobra was just another fast Mustang, but they could not be more wrong. This model was the last and fastest of the Foxbody Stangs and the first of the modern Mustangs with a 32-valve engine and independent rear suspension. Also, it provided a blueprint for future Shelby GT500 cars. Just a few years after discontinuing the SVT Cobra, Ford released the 2007 Shelby GT500, based on S197 architecture, with supercharged V8. Also, we can see traces of SVT’s legendary Cobra in the newest 2020 GT500, as well.