The Mustang lineup includes three models. At the entry end is the basic Mustang, powered by a 3.8-liter V6 that provides good torque and satisfactory performance for those who want Mustang style but aren't obsessed with zero-to-60 mph times.
Each model level is available as a coupe or convertible. If you like fresh air motoring, the Mustang convertible has higher quality than most. It's remarkably free of rattles, the top mechanism works very well, it includes a glass rear window and the top boot cover is easy to install, fits neatly and is nearly flush.
However, if you're interested in extracting the last ounce of performance, coupe versions are a better bet--better body rigidity and about 200 lbs. less curb weight. Because of the extra structure needed to compensate for the absence of a steel top, convertibles invariably weigh more than their coupe counterparts.
There aren't many options for the Cobra, which is well equipped as is. Our test car was fitted with Preferred Equipment Package 250A ($1335), which included an anti-theft system, leather seats and a premium AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system. The only other available option is Mystic Clearcoat Metallic paint, an irridescent finish that seems to change color depending on viewing and/or light angles. Ford thinks this is very snazzy indeed; we don't agree, particularly for $815.
The functional standard equipment list for the Cobra includes antilock brakes, limited-slip differential and 17-in. aluminum alloy wheels mounting 245/45ZR-17 high performance tires. The transmission is a 5-speed manual, natch, and there's no automatic transmission option.
Like the rest of the running gear, the huge brakes--13.0-in. vented rotors front, 11.65-in. rear--are designed for high performance.
The Cobra also has different suspension tuning, including a slightly smaller front antiroll bar and a slightly larger bar in the rear, a combination designed to reduce understeer--the tendency for the car to go straight in hard cornering.
One thing the Cobra isn't is cheap. Base price for this model is $24,810. Our test car was $26,270. Add destination, taxes and license and you've clobbered 30 grand.
On the other hand, you'll be in a car with some pretty serious go-fast credentials. The 4-cam (two cams per cylinder bank) V8 is a genuine sweetheart. The tachometer needle seems directly connected to the driver's right foot.
Unlike typical American V8 engines that run out of wind at higher speeds, the Cobra V8 cranks hard all the way to the redline. It has that high-revving, spirited feel we've come to know and love in high performance engines from Germany and Japan, and it's an absolute treat to operate.
With big tires, wheels and brakes, the cornering and stopping capabilities of the Cobra are up to the high standard set by the wonderful engine. In the sense of absolute handling limits, the Cobra is hampered slightly by its chassis design, which dates to the old Ford Fairmont. However, if the handling distinctions between the Cobra and the Camaro Z28 might be measurable--in tenths of seconds--on a racetrack, it would tough to find any difference on public roads.
Ford engineers went to a lot of trouble to give the Mustang a decent interior, and they've largely succeeded. Fairly tall drivers will find room for head and legs, and fairly short drivers can adjust the seat for adequate reach to all the controls. The seating position is also generally more upright than the Camaro and Firebird, which is generally more comfortable for extended periods of driving.
On the other hand, the Mustang interior feels a little dated with its relatively tall, narrow dimensions, and some of the control locations could be better. Sound system controls, for example, are directly ahead of the shift lever, the fog lamp and headlight switches are on opposite sides of the steering wheel and the small center console has only one cupholder, which is awkwardly placed.
Like almost every other sporty coupe, the rear seat is suitable for briefcases and/or a load of Chinese takeout food--not for people. If rear seat space is important to you, you're in the wrong class of cars.
Trunk capacity, on the other hand, is not bad. A big plus is that the shape of the trunk provides some vertical space, so you can load the tall variety of paper grocery bags without crushing the potato chips. The trunk will also take a couple of golf bags, and should handle luggage for two.