Car reviews - Ford - Mustang - Cobra convertible
Excellent V8 performance, Mustang image
Room for improvement
Poor driver ergonomics, some quality quibbles
17 Aug 2001
FORD asks a little more for the convertible version of its new Mustang, but the extra cash is well spent if you like being revived by a waft of fresh air on the way home after a particularly hard day at the office, or if the idea of a slow cruise on a warm summer's night has some appeal.
The Mustang belongs at the upper end of the soft-top market where it does battle with the likes of BMW's 330i, Volvo's C70 and Saab's 9-3 - but it does tend to excite a different part of the nervous system to the Europeans.
Like the coupe, it has the raw, blatant punch of the most powerful Ford V8 in the country. It also tends to portray a glitzier image than its highly refined competitors. Forget your climate-controlled air-conditioning, stability control systems and silky five-speed automatic transmissions - the Ford makes do with mere air-conditioning and comes only with a five-speed manual gearbox.
But it has personality enough to visually out-dazzle the rest. Kids stop and ogle, adults gaze admiringly even if they're not sure exactly what this blatantly sexual piece of machinery actually is. If making a statement is the true essence of any car, there's no question what this rorty new convertible is saying.
What Ford is saying is that the Mustang will help revive the sagging image of the company in Australia. It is intended to show that local executives do have some red blood flowing through their veins, that there is still some excitement to be had behind the Blue Oval.
As the first factory Mustangs to arrive in Australia since the 1960s, the new convertible must be judged as a deserving recipient of the galloping horse badge.
To be sure, not many of the Mustangs created by Ford in North America since the mid-1970s were anything to get excited about. Under pressure from a world economy that indicated things were going to get tougher as oil reserves dwindled, Ford designers floundered around trying to figure how to keep the Mustang relevant.
The car became progressively blander, both in looks and in performance. Even four-cylinder versions were offered, while the looks were more like those of an early Hyundai coupe than an American pony car.
Just in time, in the mid-1990s, Ford made the decision to keep the nameplate going and introduced the Mustang that we know today. Far from being a return to the original styling themes, it was nevertheless a clean, contemporary-looking car free of the blandness that had all-but neutered the name for the better part of 20 years.
Today the Mustang still looks good, if a little dated, and makes a satisfactory basis for bringing the nameplate back to Australia. Even more satisfactory is the decision to bring in only the top-specification Cobra version, complete with a rousing 4.6-litre alloy V8 engine, plus a reworked suspension capable of keeping it all in check.
The Mustang is a captivating car, but there's no doubt it will fail to suit every performance car enthusiast.
Its strengths lie in its image, its superb all-alloy V8 - one of the best performance engines to be seen here for a long time - and, perhaps surprisingly, its dynamic qualities.
Its shortcomings lie basically in its American heritage and in some of the unavoidable compromises that result from changing from left-hand to right-hand drive.
But first, let's talk about the strengths.
Undoubtedly anyone driving a Mustang for the first time will be captivated by the engine. The alloy V8 has a deliciously broad powerband that, although it tends to favour the top-end and that 6800rpm redline, still delivers handsomely at lower speeds.
With maximum torque developed at 4750rpm it is no stump-puller, but neither does it fall into a hole if revs are allowed to drop below this.
However, if you've driven the slightly lighter (by 60kg) and structurally tauter coupe version the convertible will feel as if it's lost a small edge off performance, while also introducing the evils of scuttle shake. It's not bad in this context as far as four-seat convertibles go - there is no such animal as a really tight-feeling open-top four-seater - but quite different to the hardtop.
Like the coupe, the convertible's V8 rumble is relatively unobtrusive at low speeds, but transforms into a sharp-edged, crackling roar as speeds rise. The acceleration remains spectacular, but not quite as spectacular as the hardtop. Even so, any car able to carve into the 14-second mark over the standing 400 metres couldn't exactly be described as lethargic.
Again as with the coupe, the all-independent suspension does a good job. The body may not feel as rock-solid, but the convertible still feels well planted and secure on the road, with no suggestion of lurking oversteer or understeer waiting to catch the driver out.
The rack and pinion steering is nicely weighted and responsive, transmitting a good sense of solidity to the driver's hands.
The ride isn't bad, either, with plenty of built-in compliance available to take the sharp edge off bumps, while keeping the car planted securely if the surface roughs up further. The downside is that a rough road impinges more on passenger consciousness through scuttle-shake and other more subtle but audible squeaks and jiggles.
The braking system, with Brembo front discs and four-channel anti-lock, is very reassuring, clawing the car down from high speeds with a comforting assuredness. The traction control system is more than just a simple, engine output-limiting device and works through the ABS braking system as well. The limited-slip differential helps in putting the power down cleanly too.
The flip side is that while all this is going on, the driver will most likely be fighting a battle to find a perfect, comfortable position behind the wheel.
The relationship between seat, steering wheel and floor pedals feels all askew, and no amount of fiddling with the power driver's seat is likely to find the perfect driving position. The wheel adjusts up and down only, in a series of pre-set positions, and the driver's left shin will take a battering from the steering column shroud.
Even though Tickford has done an excellent job of reengineering the Mustang in so many ways, there are certain things it has not been able to correct fully.
The general comfort factor, apart from the driver ergonomics, is contrastingly fine, with good support from the suede and leather-clad seats and good legroom - at least in the front. In the back the encroaching roof mechanism means there's not a lot of shoulder room but then again we'd be hard-pressed to find a four-seat convertible that has more. The boot also suffers from the need to provide space for the folding roof so it must be packed with care.
But these are familiar sacrifices to be made in the name of kerbside appeal. The Mustang convertible might not be as practical as a Mazda 121 Metro, but which keys would you make a grab for if given the choice between a Japanese shopping trolley and a red-blooded American soft-top?
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