DANVILLE, Va. P Virginia International Raceway is an ideal place to safely sample the added horsepower of Ford's SVT Mustang Cobra, now supercharged for 2003. Ford invited a few automotive writers to take laps on this renovated road-racing track, and it was an eye-opening experience.

The 2003 SVT Cobra pumps out a conservative 390 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque. A six-speed manual transmission has been added, and the independent rear suspension that is specific to this Mustang has been beefed up with a tubular cross brace.

Mustang hot rodders often turn to supercharging to get more power from the 4.6-liter, DOHC V-8, but now the factory has done it for them. Remarkably, the price is $34,750 for the coupe and $38,995 for the convertible. SVT marketers say there is not another car with this much horsepower that is priced under $50,000. Chrome wheels, at $695, are the only option, and they won't be available until later in the year. Buyers can also specify that the rear spoiler be deleted at no extra cost.

The supercharger's added boost pays dividends all across the power range. It fattens low-end punch so that throttle response is nearly instantaneous. Maximum torque is generated at 3,500 rpm, and that gives it plenty of grunt all the way to its maximum engine speed. In the everyday world, the engine's flexibility makes it easy to drive sedately. On the track, it enables the driver to power through turns by squeezing the throttle at nearly any speed. The six-speed gearbox is extremely robust, and the linkage quite stout. Shifting was often a bit notchy, especially when driven quite hard, and shorter drivers will find the lever is located a bit far forward.

The added weight of the supercharger increases weight on the front tires, which should be detrimental to handling. SVT engineers have done an excellent job of retuning the suspension so the car feels balanced in turns. Stiffer springs are used both front and rear. Those on the convertible are softer than those on the coupe because of the difference in body structure. Seventeen-inch wheels are shod with Goodyear Eagle F-1 tires that play a major role in the car's grip.

Added power calls for strong brakes. The front discs are 13 inches, while those in back are 11.65. Anti-lock is standard, as is traction control. No vehicle stability program is offered. Styling changes include a new front fascia with larger lower air intake, fog lights and cooling ducts for the front brakes. The hood has vents that allow hot air to escape from the engine compartment. New side sills and a trunk spoiler are smooth and understated. The Cobra name is now stamped into the rear bumper cover.

Interior changes include new instruments and new seats. The light-faced instruments are now luminescent so they can be read in low light conditions, such as sundown or sunrise. The seats have deeper padding, better back support and leather covering all over, not just on the seating surfaces.

The convertible top, made from the same fabric that is used on Jaguars, is more durable and provides better sound insulation, Ford said.

The SVT Cobra is sold only through a network of 600 select SVT Ford dealers. Call 800-FORD-SVT, or check www.svt.ford.com, to find a dealer.

Price
The base price of the coupe is $34,750, while the convertible is $38,995.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

There is no At A Glance box because this is not a regular test drive of a production vehicle.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 4.6-liter, 390-hp V-8
Transmission: Six-speed Rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 101.3 inches
Curb weight: 3665 lbs. coupe, 3,780 lbs. convertible
Base price: $34,750 coupe, $38,995 convertible
Mpg rating: not yet available
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