Ford’s SVT Cobra is a high-energy Mustang, but now, thanks to an independent rear suspension, it will kick up its wheels a little less often.

The SVT Cobra comes from Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, an in-house hot rod shop whose job it is to massage mundane cars until they become the kind of road gobblers coveted by driving enthusiasts. SVT produces three limited-production vehicles: the Cobra, the SVT Contour and soon, a Lightning pickup truck. Only a few thousand of each are built each year, and sold only through authorized SVT dealers. Balanced performance is their specialty, and as such SVT products have to stop and corner as well as go fast.

Turning the Mustang into a Cobra starts with the installation of a dual-overhead-cam version of the 4.6-liter V8 found in the GT. This engine has 320 horsepower, versus 260 in the GT. Those extra 60 horses have about the same effect as adding white lightning to the gas tank. This engine loves high rpm, and you really notice its added power when you hold the pedal down and let it rev.

Cobras, which come in both coupe ($27,995) and convertible ($31,995) versions, are offered only with the 5-speed manual transmission, which makes sense since they are targeted at enthusiast drivers. The meaty shift lever takes a deliberate hand because the linkage is fairly stiff. Clutch action is pretty light while under way, but it was noticeably heavy while sitting through stop lights.

In past years, the Cobra’s ride could be rather wild and woolly on any pavement that wasn’t billiard-table smooth, but this year Team Mustang engineers went to great lengths to design an independent rear suspension that would bolt up in place of the solid axle installed on other Mustangs. The new unit even uses the same mounting holes as the solid axle.

The beauty of an independent rear suspension is that it allows each wheel to react to bumps individually, rather than bouncing the whole axle off the ground. According to Ford, the rear track is 1.2 inches wider and each wheel has more available travel. Weight distribution is better, too.

So, does all this new stuff under the back end work? Absolutely, although the difference is not as pronounced as one might expect. On smooth roads, such as freeway exit ramps, it seemed the back wheels gripped the road tighter. On bumpy turns the back wheels were much less likely to skitter, especially when the power was applied.

So why isn’t this axle on all Mustangs? I would guess that the solid axle is cheaper. If you want to retrofit your current Mustang, the new suspension will bolt right up.

This year, a traction control system is standard for added control in bad weather. A unique feature, called Power Start, allows wheel spin from a standing start when it senses the driver is asking for maximum takeoff. I guess a pony car just wouldn’t be a pony car unless it was able to peel out now and then.

The Mustang was one of the original muscle cars, and this is its 35th anniversary. The body style was reworked this year, but to my eyes, the sharp-edged redesign looks less cohesive than the previous model.

In spite of the outside being changed this year, the interior remains the same. It is dominated by a twin-hump instrument panel that looks a bit overstated and out of date. The dash and console have numerous seams between pieces and not all of them fit together well. Our test car even had some rough edges on the door panels.

The front bucket seats provide excellent lateral support, but I would prefer more padding closer to my shoulders.

The back seat, by comparison, is small and best left for kids or pets.

But practical items such as these are not likely to be an issue for Cobra buyers who revel in fierce acceleration and agile handling. They will delight in the sure footed handling provided by the new suspension and the knowledge that they are driving a very special Mustang.

The base price of the obra is $27,995, including freight. The only option is a rear spoiler for $195, and our test car was so equipped.

Its sticker price was $28,190.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The Cobra’s new rear suspension does a good job of soaking up bumps and allows better use of all 316 horsepower.

Counterpoint: The interior looks a bit dated and some of its panels didn’t fit as well as they should.

ENGINE: 4.6-liter, V8
CONFIGURATION: Rear-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 101.3 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 3,446 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $27,995
MPG RATING: 17 city, 24 hwy.

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