EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

With the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird becoming extinct after the 2002 model year, the Ford Mustang, the sole surviving “pony car” from the 1960s, may get a new lease on life. Likely the Mustang will be feeling lonesome, as that sacred burial ground already contains the corpses of the Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger, American Motors Javelin and the Mercury Cougar (sorry, the current front-wheel-drive Cougar doesn’t count).

The good news is that the people who design and build the Mustang take this responsibility seriously. Though Ford has saddled the Mustang (pun intended) with an ancient platform on which to build the car – cost considerations currently prohibit an all-new Mustang – engineers have worked hard to keep it fresh.

The freshest is the 2001 SVT Cobra, which rejoins the market after a year off to remedy engine and exhaust issues that prevented the 1999 Cobra from generating the promised 320 horsepower. There’s little question this ’01 model has 320 horsepower, and possibly then some.

Worth noting: SVT, Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, keeps to its own schedule – while the 2002 Mustang has been on the market for months, the 2002 SVT Cobra won’t even be shown until the Chicago Auto Show next February.

The Special Vehicle Team’s job is to identify models within the Ford lineup that would benefit from a high-performance treatment, modify that model, and market it through 600-odd Ford dealers approved to sell SVT products. SVT’s other current product is the Lightning, a hot-rodded F-150 pickup truck, and soon it’ll be selling an SVT version of the Ford Focus.

But SVT’s flagship has always been the Mustang. Though the team’s mission is to make the car go faster, its secondary goal has been to do it with little sacrifice in comfort and utility. With the SVT Cobra, the team succeeded.

It’s plenty fast, but it’s also as comfortable as any Mustang (of course, that’s close to damning it with faint praise). And with fuel mileage of 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, it matches the 260-horsepower Mustang GT on the highway, and gets 1 mpg less in the city.

As are all SVT products, the Cobra comes only in a well-equipped package. Standard equipment includes interior leather trim, a premium stereo with a compact disc player, air conditioning, cruise control and full power features.

The only options were floor mats ($30), a modest rear spoiler ($195), and polished aluminum wheels ($395), which brought the bottom line to $29,825. It is to SVT’s credit that it resists decorating its products with outrageous body skirts, huge spoilers or paint jobs. The average SVT customer is not a kid, but an adult, and most prefer to run under the radar.

The Cobra remains the only Mustang with an independent rear suspension, introduced on the 1999 model.

Rather than using the trucklike straight axle that Mustangs have always used, the Cobra’s rear wheels are able to move up and down independently. T hough this is no advantage on the drag strip, and less an advantage on a road-racing course than you’d expect, it makes the SVT a much better around-town ride. Potholes you hit with one rear tire no longer make the whole vehicle jump to one side. SVT has done a lot of work on the Mustang’s suspension, choosing springs and struts that offer very crisp, flat cornering, without giving a brutal ride, despite the low-profile P245/45ZR-17 radials. Steering is precise and brakes are excellent.

Complaints: Although the five-speed transmission shifts well and has properly spaced gear ratios, the Cobra could use a six-speed manual, which the V-8 Camaros and Firebirds have had for years. (Fans of those cars will also cheerfully point out that both are available with 325-horsepower engines, five more than the Cobra.)

And the clutch on the test car was among the stiffest I’ve driven in a street car – not bad in normal driving, but in a traffic jam, no fun. The test car’s clutch was even s fer than the one on the last Cobra R race car I drove, so I suspect it was just this example, as other street Cobras I’ve driven were not this extreme.

Also, though the driver’s side front seat has plenty of side bolstering and lateral support, some people could get comfortable in it, some couldn’t. I could, after about a half-hour of tweaking the six-way power adjustments.

I’ve liked every SVT product I’ve tested, and this one is no different. SVT markets its products with a four-word mantra – “Performance, Substance, Exclusivity and Value” – and the team has nailed all four with the 2001 Cobra. For less than $30,000, this is a lot of car.

Base price: $28,605

Price as tested: $29,825

EPA rating: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway

Details: Sports coupe; 4.6-liter, 320-horsepower V-8 engine and five-speed manual transmission.

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