Mustang convertibles are fun enough, but throw in a 305-horsepower V8 and the fun quotient takes a giant leap.

This 305-horsepower convertible is the SVT Mustang Cobra, a high-performance, limited-production model engineered by Ford's Special Vehicle Team (SVT), an in-house boutique that turns out some of the most driver-friendly vehicles at Ford.

SVT production is limited to 7,500 Cobra coupes, 2,500 Cobra convertibles and 5,000 SVT Contours. These exclusive products are targeted at discriminating buyers who are driving enthusiasts, and the limited availability is part of their appeal.

SVT's changes to the standard Mustang go well beyond cosmetics. Starting with the most obvious, the engine is Ford's dual-overhead-camshaft (DOHC) 4.6-liter V8 similar to that in the Lincoln Mark VIII. Not only does this hand-assembled, aluminum-alloy engine have 95 more horsepower than the stock Mustang GT, it also gets a bigger radiator and larger fan to handle the demands of those who might use it on a race track. It breathes through four valves per cylinder, and most of its power is felt at higher rpms.

Put in on a track and it hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, with a top speed of 152 mph.

In normal driving, the

Cobras are not just for tire-spinning acceleration. SVT's mandate is to bring balanced performance to the cars it modifies, which includes better braking and handling than the stock vehicles. In this regard, the Cobra convertible is much better than the standard Mustang GT.

The ride is more compliant than the GT, although it is by no means soft. Bend it into a turn and it scribes an arc as cleanly as a draftsman. Even though it has a front-engine, rear-drive configuration, it only gets tail happy when you are imprudent with the throttle. The huge, 17-inch diameter alloy wheels have Goodyear GS-C tires that provide excellent traction in both wet and dry conditions.

Like the Cobra coupe, the convertible demands your undivided attention if you intend to explore its performance envelope. The clutch is heavy, and gets tiresome sitting through stop lights. The five-speed manual gearbox (no automatic is offered) has a linkage that is somewhat notchy but very direct.

Inside, the interior closely resembles that of the standard Mustang GT. The back seat is snug, for sure, and best suited to kids or pets. Some cowl shake can be felt through the steering wheel over bumpy pavement, but that is not something specific to the Mustang. Most convertibles these days are the same.

The twin-hump dashboard recalls vintage Mustangs. In front of the driver sits a simple array of basic instruments done up with white faces and black numbers. This Euro-look color scheme is appealing, but at twilight, when the gauges begging to reverse colors for night lighting, the numbers can be hard to read.

The heavily contoured front bucket seats provide good lateral support for vigorous driving, but the seat backs are cu rved in such a way that the headrests cannot be adjusted up close to your head.

The leather trim is both comfortable and aesthetically appealing.

Putting the top down is a snap, which is great because that encourages open driving at every chance, and why have a convertible if you don't drive with the top down?

Aside from the heavy clutch and tiny back seat, the other major complaint centers on the outdated stereo which requires way too much attention to use. This is one of the last few Fords with a push-button stereo, so it will be changed one of these days.

Oh, and one other thing. The cupholder folds out of the console between the seats, and it is not only flimsy but gets in the way of your elbow.

Compared to other cars in the segment, the SVT Cobra convertible is one of the best domestic high-performance ragtops. And, despite its limited availability, it is priced reasonably. Trouble is, there are not very many, so you have to act quickly.

Pr e

The base price of the convertible is $28,660. Our test car's only option was the Mach 460 AM/FM stereo and compact disc player. It's sticker price was $29,995.

Warranty

The basic 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: Couple the fun of a convertible with a 305-horsepower V8 and European-style handling and you have an excellent recipe for fun.

Counterpoint: A tiny back seat, heavy clutch and a stereo dominated by ambiguous push buttons are the only drawbacks.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 4.6-liter, V8

TRANSMISSION: Five-speed

WHEELBASE: 101.3 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,581 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $28,660

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $29,995

MPG RATING: 18 city, 26 hwy.