By on June 8, 2015

cobrastory3

As a child, I was told that it was impolite to mention religion or politics at the dinner table, because such discussions tended to elicit irreconcilable differences between guests who would otherwise be perfectly compatible. Many years later, as an itinerant observer of the Midwestern street racing scene, I learned that there was a dinner topic that combined the worst aspects of religiosity and partisanship in its prospective combatants, and that topic was known to all and sundry as “Ford vs. Chevy”. It’s the third rail of car-guy discourse, and you’ll touch it at your peril. People take this stuff seriously; the bowtie and the blue oval were common tattoos back in the days before every size-12 Millennial female womens-studies graduate and her bewildered, low-testosterone life partner routinely got full ink sleeves as a way to ensure that they were exactly as different as everyone else.

It’s no surprise, then, that when I posted a reasonably popular article on the R&T website about driving a new-in-box 1995 Mustang Cobra R on a racetrack for the first time, my casual use of the phrase “Z28-killer” to describe said 5.8L, 300-horsepower ponycar caused hundreds of Facebook commenters to lose their collective minds. In short order, I was roughly e-Educated on the fourth-gen F-body’s clear and present superiority by people whose collective amnesia regarding things like Optispark wouldn’t be out of place in a Fifties-era Moose Lodge discussion of Executive Order 9066. Some of these people threatened my life. Worse still, they’re wrong. The ’95 Cobra would smoke a stock ’95 Z28 around a road course. Duh.

But that was just one battle in a long ponycar campaign that has raged since before most of us were born, and with additional violence since the “Cobra” name was first put on a Mustang. What follows, therefore, is a highly opinionated recap of this war without end. We’ll pick a winner for each battle, and we’ll skip the Sixties and Seventies – this isn’t Collectible Automobile – starting instead with the Year Of Our Lord 1993.


Round One: 1993 “Fox” Cobra vs. 1993 Z28
cobra4

“The mood is BMW”, C/D enthused regarding the 1993 Cobra, but the mood – and the rear discs, a long-overdue upgrade over the prehistoric drums on the “5.0” GT – didn’t make up for the massive deficit in power and pace between this and the new-for-1993 Camaro Z28. It wasn’t the first Cobra on this platform – that would be the 132-horsepower 1979 Cobra Turbo – and it wasn’t the first “special vehicle” on this platform – that would be the legendary Mustang SVO, also a four-cylinder turbo – but it was the debut vehicle for the re-imagined Special Vehicle Team. Had it arrived in 1992 to face the automatic-only 5.7 Z28, it would have been a superstar. Against the LT1 fourth-gen, however, it was an also-ran. A very limited-production Cobra R added big brakes and bespoke suspension but had no additional power, making it easy meat for the Chevrolet anywhere but the autocross course. Advantage: Camaro

Round Two: 1994 Cobra 5.0 vs. 1994 Z28

94cobra

The “mod motor” was well established in full-size Fords when the “SN95” Mustangs reached showrooms for the 1994 model year, but the first two years of SN95 production used the beloved five-point-oh for reasons that were never clear to me even though I was an employee of Ford Credit at the time. The Cobra, too, used what was basically a carryover engine from the previous year, mildly bumped to 240 horsepower. It wasn’t enough and the extra weight of the new platform didn’t help at all. C/D confirmed that yet again the Cobra couldn’t run with a stock Z28.

The Cobra R, on the other hand, had the ability to run thirteens in private hands and a suspension that was well beyond anything that General Motors could offer. I enjoyed the heck out of the one I drove last month, I’ll tell you. Still, it cost twice as much as a plain Z28, making it more of a Corvette competitor. Advantage: Camaro

Round Three: 1996 Cobra 32v vs. 1996 Camaro SS

mysticcobra

I was a Ford salesman when the 32-valve Cobra appeared. It seemed like the perfect weapon to avenge three years’ worth of humiliation at the hands of the fourth-gen Camaro, and the optional “Mystic” color-flipping paint was just the icing on the cake. (I blush to admit that I wanted a Mystic Cobra so badly back then that I ended up buying a MusicMan JP6 Mystic Dream earlier this year just out of nostalgia for the car.) Unfortunately for Ford fanatics, Chevrolet had the pumped-up SS – and when C/D performed an unusually thorough comparison between it and the Cobra using champion drivers at a drag strip, an SCCA-Solo-II-style autocross course, and Michigan’s Grattan Raceway, the Camaro smoked the Mustang on all three fronts. Oh, the humiliation! But the margin of victory was much closer than it had been in 1994, so if you liked the Mustang’s superior driving position, park-ability, and quality control, you could put the Cobra in your garage and not feel too guilty about it. Advantage: Camaro

Round Four: 2001 New Edge Cobra vs. 2001 Camaro SS LS1

cobra5

The Mustang was revamped into the so-called “New Edge” for 1999. The Cobra got an independent rear suspension and a 320-horsepower version of the 32v 4.6. Unfortunately for Ford, the engine didn’t make the advertised power and in the resulting kerfluffle the Cobra was discontinued for 2000. When it returned in 2001, it was able to match the Camaro SS in all performance categories despite the Camaro’s upgrade to a Corvette-sourced LS1 aluminum small-block. The price difference was about ten percent in the Chevrolet’s favor, but the addition of IRS emphasized the Mustang’s real-world superiority. A 385-horse big-bore variant, the Cobra R, was priced against the Corvette but couldn’t match it for pace. Advantage: Tie game.

Round Five: 2004 Terminator Cobra vs….

cobra6

The supercharged SVT Cobra, nicknamed “Terminator” during development, ran a 12.9-second quarter-mile. And it handled, after a fashion. And it looked bad-ass. It was arguably the best Mustang since the original Shelby GT350. The Camaro SS, preparing to depart the market without a successor, had nothing for it. Advantage: Cobra, by a knockout.

Round Six: 2013 Shelby GT500 vs 2013 Camaro ZL1

8893

To my immense dismay, the successor to the Terminator Cobra was badged as a Shelby for reasons of pure and simple marketing. The first iron-block GT500 was a pretty good car and if you’re interested in watching low-res footage of spectator-shoe heel-and-toe you can watch my old video of one at MSR Houston. The 662-horsepower “Trinity” Cobra, however, was a high-water mark in ponycar history, a nearly perfect blend of power and poise and charisma. It impressed me beyond all words – okay, I came up with a few words – and, along with its Boss 302 sibling, put an exclamation point on the end of the retro-Mustang era.

The Camaro ZL1 was the HHR to the Shelby’s PT Cruiser. More refinement, more visual drama, delivery to market about four years after the car that inspired it. Our friends at Car and Driver preferred it to the GT500, citing its superior composure on track and more comfortable ride while sniffing that the Mustang was “over-the-top brutish”. Since that is precisely what is required in a big-bore ponycar, that over-the-top brutality, I have no trouble calling this one Advantage: Cobra.

Round Seven: ?????

lifestyle-2015-rs

What does the future hold for the Cobra vs. Camaro rivalry? Will there be a counterpart to the GT350? Will both manufacturers field another supercharged V-8, or will Chevrolet attempt to build a sort of hybrid of the Z/28 and ZL1 that competes directly with the new Shelby? Will the lighter and smaller 2016 Camaro play the role of Fox-body to the 2015 Mustang’s third-gen Camaro, using a weight and dimensional advantage to capture reviewers’ hearts? I have no crystal ball, but I can offer one piece of advice: Don’t be in a hurry to buy a ponycar, because ever since 1979 there’s always been a better one around the corner.

Unless, that is, you have an order slot for a GT350.

You can go ahead and get that. And if you’d like to see how it compares to a 1995 Cobra R around a racetrack, you know how to reach me, right?

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47 Comments on “Cobra vs. Camaro: A Brief Recap Of The Modern Era...”


  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    The Camaros were usually faster as they all had more displacement from 1993 and onward. There, it’s been said. I think though there’s more to a car than straight line acceleration.

    The F Bodies felt incredibly junky from that era, I knew several brand new buyers of those cars and all of them had an incredible amount of issues brand new out of the box. Add in the strange styling and plastic hoods and trunks that never looked right. The Mustangs just seemed like a more upscale ride.

    I’ll never understand why though Ford couldn’t have just made the Mustang have a version of their 351 and just basically take that off the table. How much more would it have really cost Ford to have put a 351 instead of a 302 V8? My guess is it was probably some CAFE nonsense they had to comply with that was balancing out another part of their fleet.

    Where Ford really dropped the ball were the early years of the 4.6 on the regular GT model. Those were absolutely pathetic, 6 banger Camaros were running with those.

    Regardless, buyers didn’t seem to care as much as the Mustang handily outsold the Camaro/Firebird models.

    • 0 avatar
      kefkafloyd

      “plastic hoods”

      The hoods on all 4th gen F-bodies (along with the rear quarter panels) were steel. The rest of the bodies were Saturn Plastic.

      Not disagreeing with the rest of your comment, as I am a recovering fourth-gen Trans Am owner.

      • 0 avatar
        jacob_coulter

        My mistake, it was everything but the hood was plastic?

        I don’t know the science of paint and body, but for whatever reason, you could totally tell it was plastic under that paint. It just didn’t look right, I could never put my finger on it.

        I knew a guy that bought a brand new z28 in like ’96 and he had all sorts of paint issues from the factory.

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          I worked with a guy who had one of the last convertible Z28s. It was an epic POS. You know you have an unreliable car when you are bumming rides home frequently from the guy driving the 20+yo diesel Peugeot.

          Oh, and the dude was a drummer in a band and had a mullet, so at least the car was a perfect fit for him! I.T. by day, party by night!

        • 0 avatar
          kefkafloyd

          Yeah, the hood and rear quarter panels (fenders above the rear wheels, near the hatch) were steel. A tap of the magnet would show you the metal versus plastic areas. I would not want to do body work on those cars. My personal car never had paint issues but I know guys who had the famed “orange peel”

  • avatar
    ajla

    Pontiac existed too dammit!

    • 0 avatar
      kmoney

      Always had a soft spot for the trans-ams from that era. My neighbour had a white Firebird WS6 — interior by Rubbermaid, but great handling/driving/sounding car otherwise.

  • avatar
    Dirty Dingus McGee

    O boy, Imma need some popcorn for this ‘un.

  • avatar
    Willyam

    I read the R&T article, loved the pictures, and was kind of amazed at the passage of time. Thanks again for allowing us to ride along on these adventures when we don’t have the connections to find a 500-mile-Cobra and a track to put it on. Couldn’t make the comments work on my browser, but it’s probably just as well.

    I just got back from the Leake auction this weekend, and the interiors from 79 to 2001 or so just did not last like their 60’s counterparts (the plastic seemed to degrade upon first exposure to sunlight), but the picture of the “disposable” interior on the Cobra is stunning. Mousefur, ill-fitting panels, and all. Was there actually an airbag in the thing under the cover?

  • avatar
    KrohmDohm

    My best friend had a Gen 3 F Body in high school. Fast? No since he had the v-6. But I do remember the poor visibility, bad seating position, acres of creaking plastic and drooping mouse fur headliner. Yet I was completely jealous since it was cooler than my car!

  • avatar
    kefkafloyd

    I used to own a 1997 Trans Am, the year before the LS1s came out. The fourth-gen F-body is truly an example of form over function. The cars still look great; fourth gen Trans Ams especially aged better than the Camaros. The Pontiac interiors looked nicer than the Camaro interiors (I preferred the pontiac gauge setup and vents and radio stack) but they’re just as janky and rattly. They still look like cars you could buy today. Super stylish body, dent-proof panels, T-tops or a vert, what’s not to like?

    Well, a lot. The LT1 cars had critical flaws, like the water pump weep hole placed exactly above the optispark (and of course that water pump would be weeping because of Dex-cool eating up the inside of your coolant system). The notorious nine-bolt diffs that would grenade if you looked at them wrong. Decarbon shocks that were lucky to last past 50K miles. If you were unfortunate enough to get an automatic model, you had dumb design decisions in the 4L60E like using hard aluminum valves in soft aluminum valve bodies that would wear out the valves that controlled things like the torque converter lockup, resulting in premature wear. God forbid you need to do a tuneup, cause the engine is halfway underneath the cowl! And then let’s not forget the requirement of CAGS that was heaved on to the manuals. The brakes on the LT1 cars were kinda wimpy too.

    Granted, a lot of this stuff was fixed in the LS1 cars, along with better suspensions, but it was too late. Plus, you STILL had dumb shit to deal with, like underpowered window motors (whodathunk that a window motor for a Cavalier would be insufficient for an F-car?), headlight motors that would grind when they wore out prematurely, terrible visibility, the wingspan of a 747, a dash that would crack in half (though this was more of a Camaro problem than a Trans Am issue). Leaky doors, seat bolsters that wore out if you looked at them wrong… the list just goes on.

    All that said, I still loved that car. It looked and drove like a badass. I don’t miss it as my daily form of transportation, though. Maybe some day I’ll buy a used example to have as a weekend car.

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      My former college roommate bought his new wife a 96 or 97 Z28 in maroon red. T-tops, auto. You aren’t kidding about the nine-bolt…She commuted maybe five miles across a small town, and the rear-end let go before a thousand miles.

      My last F-body was an 89 GTA, and seemed better-built. Every cruise night I still wanted that Camaro, though.

      • 0 avatar
        OneAlpha

        I always thought that Pontiac named that car the GTA to celebrate the fact that the third-gen Trans Am was perhaps the most stolen car of the 80s.

        GTA indeed.

      • 0 avatar
        nrd515

        There’s an ’88 350 GTA for sale near my house, and I want to buy it so bad. It’s black with black interior and looks good, and a friend drove it and said it’s definitely got a cam in it, along with headers and a flowmaster exhaust. It has the awful looking snowflake wheels (my opinion) most of them came in, painted black on the center sections. I think they came that way. No T-tops (The cars were much less creaky without them) and supposedly everything works. I don’t, and haven’t have the cash to spare or I would probably have bought the candy apple one that was for sale about a year ago. It had an LS engine and transmission transplant, with a Ford 9″ rear end to make it pretty much bulletproof. He wanted $7500 and it sold very quickly.

  • avatar
    Chopsui

    Jack, now that you write for the big boys, won’t you be getting to drive the GT350 before any of us mere mortals?

    How do you guys pick who gets to review which cars anyway? Lottery? Blackmail?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I know who is going to the GT350 launch for the magazine — regrettably, it isn’t me :)

      • 0 avatar
        Chopsui

        Doh! Well I’ll be getting one. Scheduling hasn’t begun yet so I don’t know exactly when but hopefully before the new year. Perhaps you can do a story, “How to Properly Break in a New Car (On a Racetrack)” or something to that effect.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick 2012

        Unrelated, but the “Porsche 911 re-imagined by Singer” story was fantastic. I’d retire from auto writing after an experience like that. I was between Weathertechs and another brand for floormats on a second vehicle, but am going with WeatherTechs because Dan MacNiel is awesome.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        To bad, I would have enjoyed your perspective on the car. I almost wished I would have socked away some more money and waited for the GT350 as a performance car it looks like a good deal (GG Tax and Destination make it pretty much 51k despite Ford talking about its 48k price tag) but to get one nicely optioned, well as nice as the 2015 GT I recently purchased would have pushed the GT350 into the 60k+ price range.

        Hopefully some of the nicer bits show up in Ford’s performance parts catalog though like the rear brakes and some suspension components.

      • 0 avatar
        Domestic Hearse

        Rats. I would’ve loved to read about the Baruth v Lieberman, R&T v MT showdown. That is, assuming MT would let JL anywhere near a legitimately fast car on a track.

  • avatar
    Numbers_Matching

    Is this still a relevant topic among the mainstream of car enthusiasts today? Or is it confined to the backwater and fly-over region’s mobile home communities?

    • 0 avatar
      Preludacris

      Maybe if you’d ever visited one of those places, you’d understand. So many car guys drive Camaros and Mustangs in the American Midwest that it’s relevant to the whole country.

      • 0 avatar
        TMA1

        20-inch wheels make the Camaro pretty relevant in the cities as well.

        • 0 avatar
          nickoo

          Yes, and the urban buyers who buy the camaros and challengers (mostly challengers, camaro is second, mustang is distant third) STILL replace the good looking factory 20s with shitty as **** looking 22s. Some people, I tell you what…

          • 0 avatar
            nrd515

            I see a nice Plum Crazy Challenger with really sad 22″ wheels on it once a week or so. A friend of mine was riding with me and when we pulled up next him, he said, “Nice car, but those wheels just suck!”. The guy had a meltdown, and started screaming at us. We just laughed and took off when the light went green. Those ridiculous wheels just make the car look stupid, and slow it down too. What a bargain!

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    The 93′ cobra was and quite possibly still is my unicorn…

    Slower than the Camaro? Sure. Way more reliable and easier to work on and modify than the F body of that era though.

    The after market folks long ago figured out how to make even the most pedestrian of 5.0 fast (er).

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Every year they hold a benefit Mustang show in Smithfield VA and you would have drooled over a 93 Cobra there about two years ago, it had less than 1000 miles on the clock IIRC and the only mod had been the addition of a Vortech Supercharger. I think the guy paid around 20k for the car.

      • 0 avatar
        87 Morgan

        Yes, I would have drooled. I can’t explain my irrational love of the 93′ Cobra. I will take mine in black or red though, the teal blue just doesn’t work for me. In a pinch I may reconsider.

        At some point I may have to hunt one down and use it as a DD for a bit and get it out of my system once and for all.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    That was a great R&T article. When I worked at Ford driving spreadsheets, an intranet site listed various evaluations or focus groups any employee could participate in. One involved testing a 4-point harness that had some sort of pneumatic constant tensioner that sounded like a high-speed heart/lung machine.

    This was all installed in a Terminator Cobra convertible mule that had about 30k miles of abuse and was as rigid as the USS Thresher. After lugging it around, I had to be coached to actually test whether the seatbelts held you in place, and a blast up I-94 then down the offramp onto Telegraph Road made quite the impression on my 23 year old self. I also became convinced an “M” plated car is invisible to law enforcement.

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    I don’t have an order slot for the 2016 GT350/GT350R, they are only making 137 of those. 2017….we’ll see.

    • 0 avatar
      Chopsui

      That’s not correct. They’re only making 137 for the 2015 model year. (Because of the 50 year anniversary) The 2016 and 2017 model years will be normal production numbers.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        Yes, you are correct. I mixed up model years. 100 GT350s and 37 GT350Rs for 2015. After the initial launch it’s on demand production.

        I am waiting for someone to call me about a 2016. I’m expecting to wait for awhile. I am pondering waiting for a Coyote upgrade to the GT and just order one of those.

        • 0 avatar
          Chopsui

          Yeah it’s kind of hit or miss out there right now. Some people are getting their orders in while others are still being told that their dealer can’t yet order. Should be cleared up in a couple weeks when Ford starts to schedule the 2016 production.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            My dealer has a list of people that want to order. Some may have gotten in already. Like you said, it’s kind of a bottleneck right now. I’m not in a hurry, so whenever they get to me is fine. They’ve ordered cars for me before and the process should be about the same.

            There are a bunch of people that want the super loaded version though. I didn’t check an option box at all. 900A with nothing else. The order guide said “limited demand anticipated”. I have “limited funds anticipated” compared to most people that are buying the GT350.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Wait until the FB crowd founds what a current V6 Camry would smoke…

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Mostly Mustangs and Camaros from the 70’s on up into the 90’s after that I doubt the Camry could muster much of a challenge. The 2015 3.5 in the Camry is rated for 268 horsepower even the base V6 in the Mustang and Camaro now has around a 40 hp advantage. Although the Camry is a fairly light (well light for 2015) at around 3500 pounds. 8
      If M/T’s acceleration figure is on point the Camry would give a foxbody 5.0 a good race as its a mid 14 second car these days.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Hell hath no fury like a GM fanboy scorned.

  • avatar
    a1veedubber

    I like, and have owned, both. The Pontiac was my favorite though :)

  • avatar
    Numbers_Matching

    Can’t beleive how many people are crapping on the 80’s and 90’s ‘F’ cars. Were they really that bad? Or did the first generation of owners tend to abuse them?

    I always thought the 3rd gen F cars were a very clean and fresh design. So maybe the execution was not the best?

    Trivia Question: Which year ‘Mustang COBRA’ was powered by a 119 hp V8?

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      “Can’t beleive how many people are crapping on the 80’s and 90’s ‘F’ cars. Were they really that bad? Or did the first generation of owners tend to abuse them?”

      I’ve owned 3 4th gens and I can say it’s a combination of both. They were good competitive cars for their day, but they didn’t age well. The LT1 cars certainly had their quirks like the Opti Spark but I never had one die on the 5 or so LT engined cars I’ve had. I have changed them on others though. Once you install the updated design, they’re pretty reliable.

      The interiors did tend to fall apart on them, most notably the center console arm rest breaking, dash pads cracking and other random bits falling off. The power window motors really did suck too. Overall, it’s not at all uncommon to see high mileage ones still running around as the powertrain was relatively solid. No, the rear axle did not withstand a lot of abuse on modified cars or many hard launches in manual trans cars.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    I really like Jack’s prose and agree with many of his opinions, but the fapping to most things FoMoCo by both he and Bark gets old.

    Ford, like most automakers, has some good, okay and bad vehicles, but the okay and bad ones are rarely spoken of by either Maruth brothers, and even the “good” FoMoCo vehicles are hyped beyond reality by them often.

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