2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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Story and photos by Russell Purcell

What is SVT?

Ford’s SVT program was set up 10 years ago to offer fans of the blue oval the chance to order a number of limited edition factory ‘tuner’ specials, the first and foremost being the Mustang Cobra. The cars that emerge from this factory division represent a spearhead for the parent company’s marketing arm, as they are over-built, high-performance dream vehicles designed to appeal to the enthusiast buyer who wants something a little more special. These vehicles also provide the company with heaps of research and development data which they can use to design components for their entire model lineup.


2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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With 390-horsepower readily available, you will be tempted to wring the neck of this beast and as fun as that sounds, there are several things to consider. Firstly, this car is as close to a track car as you can get without building one yourself. As a result, it is temperamental and needs to be exercised with respect. The meaty Goodyear Eagle F1 tires do an outstanding job at keeping the Cobra in touch with the road, but add a layer of water or spilled fluid to your path and this rear-wheel drive monster may bite.

Gentle throttle use on rain soaked streets is a must, as too much power whilst cornering may overpower Ford’s traction-control system and bring this car’s tail around. While this looks cool when the WRC boys do it in competition, it is going to get you into serious trouble on a busy city street or introduce you to a barrier or tree.

On the other hand, when the streets are dry, this car begs to be taken to the track. The Cobra’s power comes on instantaneously if you punch the throttle, so you have to be careful or you will be eating tires at an astounding rate. The super stiff clutch and dog-leg 6-speed shifter let you know that this car is equipped to play. Gear selection is notchy, but this gives it an authority usually reserved for race cars. A shift light illuminates to remind you when to shift up, but the system selects shift points based on maximizing economy, not maximizing performance.

Trust me, you will know when to shift this car by the booming exhaust note and rumble of the engine as you work your way up the power band. A large tachometer will help you make full use of the seemingly endless power, while a boost gauge will let you know when the super-charger is lending a hand. The aforementioned traction control can be switched off at the touch of a dash-mounted button, but this would be unwise unless you’re properly trained and on a closed course.

Cobra Styling

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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Many of the standard Mustang GT styling cues are present, however, a revised competition-type front air dam with twin round driving lights and big air intakes give the car an all-business visage. Sleek dark tinted headlamps peer from beneath the Cobra’s signature, lightweight hood, complete with a revised centre to make room for the blower as well as twin cooling nostrils.

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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A sculpted rear spoiler rests on the lightweight trunk lid, and ‘COBRA’ is embossed into the bumper shroud. Subtle SVT and Cobra badges hint that this is not a garden variety Mustang, but the muscular hiss of this snake as it rumbles down the street will let bystanders know this long before the car is in view.

The SVT Cobra rides about a 1/2-inch lower than a standard Mustang GT and comes fitted with attractive 17-inch, 5-spoke Cobra wheels and Z-rated Goodyear F1 performance radials. Cobra branded brake calipers peak through the wheel openings ready for action.

Ownership of a Cobra is a heady proposition, as every car buff that spots it on the street or in a parking lot will no doubt bombard you with questions – the favourite being simply “How much horsepower does it have?” Luckily the car blends in nicely – on first glance it can pass for a regular GT, unlike the over-the-top 2000 Cobra R with the tall wing and huge chin spoiler that came before it.

Interior ergonomics

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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Mustangs are very well laid out on the inside, as switchgear and controls have all been thoughtfully placed and are low key. Controls for the power windows, locks and mirrors all reside in the traditional door mounts where they should be. My only complaint would be the position of the manual shifter, as it may be a long reach for some, and when thrust forward, blocks the stereo and HVAC controls.

Mustang fans will quickly spot the addition of a boost gauge in the instrument cluster, allowing the driver to keep tabs on what the big Eaton supercharger is doing. White-faced SVT gauges are easy to read due to bold black markings and red needles and at night they glow a soothing green.

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
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The thick padded steering wheel is well-designed for a performance application and comes equipped with cruise control buttons on its face.

The front articulated sport seats grip you like enormous hands, and the driver’s unit features a multitude of power controls to customize the fit, including extra switches for the lumbar support and thigh bolsters. While these seats provide outstanding support, I still felt as if I was sitting too high and too close to the wheel, even when dropped to the lowest setting. Mind you I am a little larger than the average Mustang buyer. The seats themselves are covered with an attractive combination of leather facings with integrated suede inserts, complete with a menacing Cobra motif. Rear seats are small, but cozy, and feature the same leather treatment minus the logo and adjustable headrests.

The Mach 460 stereo system features a 6-disc in-dash CD-changer that offers excellent sound, and is powerful enough to drown out the noise of the car’s motor. But of course who would want to do that? That would be silly.

Ride and Handling

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra
Click image to enlarge

When Ford closed the door on the limited-production 2000 Cobra R, few complained, as the car wasn’t practical as a daily driver and was very expensive. It was much lauded for its race car handling, but overall ride quality was unbearable over long periods due to the super stiff suspension settings. The 2003 SVT Cobra rises to the occasion as it arrives with more power than the Cobra R, but offers a suspension setup slanted more towards street use than track duty. The Cobra’s chassis is designed to handle as well through twists and turns as it does barreling down a drag-strip, no doubt aided by the new independent rear suspension.

This past summer I had the opportunity to ride along with a professional race driver in a SVT Cobra while attending the CART event in Portland, Oregon. The car was basically stock, although it had been equipped with a roll cage, dedicated racing seats, 5-point harnesses and Bridgestone racing radials so that it could safely handle its duties as one of the series’ pace vehicles. After four laps around Portland International Raceway at speeds in excess of 150-mph and with a Lemans veteran behind the wheel tossing the snake over PIR’s tall FIA curbing and through the Festival Curves, I realized how capable the Cobra really is.

The kick of the supercharger compensates for the Cobra’s additional weight, and body roll is minimal. The grippy tires keep you planted as you toss the car from turn to turn, choosing the straightest line you can to maintain your speed as you blast through whatever course has captured your interest. The lightly assisted steering maintains just the right amount of resistance and transmits road feel to the driver like no other. The ride quality is hard-edged enough to keep the enthusiast driver happy when at play, while remaining soft enough to offer acceptable comfort for everyday use.


The addition of an extra helping of power and a few more pounds meant that SVT engineers had their work cut out for them with regards to keeping things under control. The Cobra now features big Brembo vented discs front and rear. Pedal feel is excellent and its placement in the foot well allows for proper heel-and-toe operation. The ABS assist kicked in seamlessly when needed, and throughout my ‘play’ time with the Cobra I never felt a hint of fade, which is important for driver confidence in a car with this much performance potential.

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Surprisingly, the Cobra only rides on a 17-inch wheel, but they come wearing ultra-wide (275-section) tires in place of the previous car’s 245s. This means the car feels more surefooted and sticks to the road like glue, unless of course you encounter rain or slick surfaces.


If you want a track-ready car with gobs of tire-blistering performance and a full factory warranty the SVT Cobra may be the perfect car for you, but if you plan to use it as an everyday commuter, this car may be overkill as its stiff clutch and thirst for premium fuel are not urban traffic friendly. On the other hand, as a limited production model of one of America’s favourite automotive icons the SVT Cobra should hold its value. Especially when it represents the last of its kind, as Ford moves the Mustang to a new platform for 2004, based on a shortened version of the Lincoln LS.

Technical Data: 2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

Base price $46,655
Price as tested $47,650
Type 2-door, 4-passenger coupe
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 4.6 litre V8, DOHC supercharged, 90-degree V8
Horsepower 390 at 6,000 rpm
Torque 390 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm
Transmission TTC T56 six-speed manual (Ratios: 2.66, 1.78, 1.30, 1.00, 0.80, and 0.63:1)
Boost 7.5-8.0 psi
Brakes 13-inch Brembo vented discs, PBR twin-piston calipers (front); 11.65-inch vented discs, single-piston calipers (rear); four-channel ABS
Curb weight 1662 kg (3,665 lb.)
Wheelbase 2573 mm (101.3 in.)
Length 4661 mm (183.5 in.)
Width 1857 mm (73.1 in.)
Height 1334 mm (52.5 in.)
Trunk space 308 litres (10.9 cu.ft)
Fuel consumption City: 14.4 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.7 l/100 km (29 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km, powertrain 5 year/100,000 km

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