Ford’s SVT Mustang Cobra has always been an animal apart from its parents, the ballet dancer from a family of weight lifters. Strong, yes, but refined instead of brutal.

It shares the basics with the Mustang GT–body, wheelbase, 4.6-liter V8–but gets twin overhead camshafts instead of one, 32 valves instead of 16 and 305 horsepower instead of 225. Brakes are huge, 13-inch discs in front, 11.65-inchers in the rear, and they stop this pony the way an arresting cable of an aircraft carrier snags the tailhook of a fighter plane. The suspension has been softened up to be more supple, thus forgiving, in the daily hustle and bustle of city streets that are far from being as smooth as proving-ground test tracks.

In other words, in spite of the Cobra’s greater power, it lives easier in the real world because of a supple ride and powerful brakes.

The Cobra is a product of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT), a small, in-house skunkworks of go-fast folks who turn standard products into limited-production vehicles targeted at driving enthusiasts who might otherwise choose a European-style sports sedan. SVT also produces a hot Contour and is working on a version of the F-150 pickup truck for next spring. Less than 10,000 Cobras are scheduled for worldwide sale. Fewer than 700 of the 4,200 Ford dealers sell SVT models. To find the one nearest you call 1-800-FORD-SVT.

You have to look hard to tell the SVT Cobra from the garden-variety Mustang GT. The key difference is a set of 17-inch diameter, five-spoke alloy wheels shod with Bridgestone Comp T/A tires. The slender-spoke wheels not only save weight but show off the big brakes lurking underneath. The trunk-lid spoiler and taillight lenses are also unique to the Cobra, as are the tiny, snake medallions that grace the fenders behind the front wheels.

Each all-aluminum Cobra engine is hand-assembled by one of 12 two-person teams in Ford’s Romeo, Michigan engine plant. This engine generates a tad over 300 horsepower. Nudge the throttle and it responds like a thoroughbred that can’t wait to get out of the barn. Give it free rein and it gallops through the gears quickly. SVT’s technical data indicate 60 mph comes up in 5.9 seconds, and that the top speed of 152 mph is attained in fourth gear, rather than fifth, which is an overdrive. Some mid-range grunt is sacrificed in the name of fuel economy, which is why the rear axle ratio is a 3:27.

Clutch effort was noticeable while waiting through stop lights, but it engaged smoothly in concert with a gearshift linkage that felt lighter and more precise than any Mustang I have driven.

SVT retunes suspension for a more compliant ride, which results in better handling because the wheels stay in contact with the pavement. It seemed to me, however, that rear axle of the test car seemed jumpier than other Cobras I have driven in prior years. The revamped 1999 Cobra is rumored to have an independent rear suspension that should cure the problem.

Inside, the SVT Cobra has white-faced gauges and sport bucket seats that were covered in black leather in our test car, which was painted Bright Atlantic Blue, a new color for 1998. While the seats have good lateral support, the backrest never quite felt right to me because the upper part of the seat seemed too far from my neck and shoulders.

The rest of the interior is basic Mustang, and it is starting to show its age. The radio is due for replacement because it uses an old, small-button design. The cupholders are not very convenient. The back seat is small, but that is par for most muscle cars.

But let’s face it, the folks who buy this car don’t care about the back seat except as a place for their briefcase or grocery bags. What they want is what they get: neck-snapping acceleration, sharp handling, excellent brakes and sharp looks for a reasonable price. The next-generation Mustang is just around the corner, and it will address many of this model’ idiosyncrasies.

Price

The base price of our test car was $25,630. Options included leather seats, anti-theft system, Mach 460 stereo and rear spoiler.

The sticker price, including delivery, was $27,390.

Warranty

The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The Mustang Cobra is delightfully energetic, has a slick-shifting five-speed and handling that is responsive without being harsh.

Counterpoint: The interior is beginning to show its age and the back axle hops around on rough pavement.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 4.6-liter, V8

TRANSMISSION: Five-speed

WHEELBASE: 101.3 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,391 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $25,630

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $27,390

MPG RATING: 17 city, 26 hwy.