Chevy Camaro SS Vs. Ford SVT Cobra- Two Of America's Premier Performers

The '96 Cobra Mustang and SS Camaro prove that American performance is alive and well into the next century

Johnny Hunkins Feb 1, 2006 0 Comment(s)
0602gmhtp_01_z Chevy_camaro_ss_vs_ford_svt_cobra Camaro_cobra 1/1

If we didn't know any better, we could have easily thought we were in some bizarre parallel universe, dream world, or alternate reality, where the oil embargo, the EPA, the K-car, and Ralph Nader never, ever happened. The American public never lost its love for (or faith in) Yankee engineering. The national speed limit was never 55. The Red Sox won the World Series. (Well, maybe that's stretching it.)

In this dreamland, the Chevrolet Camaro SS and the Ford Mustang Cobra evolved through the '70s and '80s, gradually building up more power, more style, more...well, more. And the laws of the physical universe are changed in this dreamland as well. More power equals better fuel mileage. Greater performance comes with a better ride. Concept car safety features, such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, and energy-absorbing structures are as commonplace as tires and motors.

But this is no alternate reality. Two of America's premier performers really do have (at least) 305 hp, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, dual airbags, fantastic fuel economy, stellar handling, squeaky-clean tailpipe emissions, and (in our case) spiffy red paint jobs. The fact that the Camaro SS and the Cobra Mustang exist is even more amazing given that we really did (or in some cases, still do) have the oil embargo, the EPA, the K-car, Nader, 55 mph, and a disenchanted, disenfranchised buying public.

When viewed against the backdrop of the last 25 years in the U.S. auto industry, these cars are jewels of engineering. Yet, the SS and the Cobra need no excuses; the hostile environment in which they were created made them even meaner, leaner, and cleaner.

So maybe you're thinking that these two ponycars are the Bobbsey twins. Forget about it. The Cobra no more resembles the SS than Danny DeVito resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Twins. This is neither bad nor good, just different. If any disappointment is warranted at all, it's that Detroit's two ponycar founders have such an alarming difference in their definitions of "ponycar." (So what's new? Can you say Boss 302 and ZL-1 Camaro?).

What this does mean is that, naturally, there are winners and losers in different arenas of comparison. Whereas the Camaro reigns supreme at the drags or on the road course, the Mustang is the hands-down favorite for anything more than a jaunt to the grocery store. The Cobra is the straight-A student, the SS the schoolyard bully.

Whatever your opinion of these two evolutionary steeds, one thing is absolutely certain: Both cars are exactly, precisely what their makers (read: engineers) intended them to be, and that's good news for anybody who's ever gotten bleary-eyed listening to the national anthem. Ingenuity, creativity, flexibility, and determination are alive and kicking in Rock City.

SVT CobraFord's Special Vehicles Team has cut through layers of corporate bureaucracy to create a great all-around performer in a European tradition. A high-tech, fuel-injected, dual-overhead-cam, 4.6L, all-aluminum V-8 employs dual intake runners for each cylinder. Primary runners are tuned for torque below 4000 rpm, at which point the second set of runners is activated by a sophisticated EEC-V powertrain control module to push the horsepower into the stratosphere.

Power comes on smoothly and unobtrusively, thanks to a vastly improved (over the old 5L OHV engine) accessory drive, engine block, lightweight valvetrain, precision-balanced reciprocating mass, and cross-bolted main bearings. Power peaks at 305 hp and 5800 rpm, and torque maxes at 300 lb-ft and 4800 rpm. Built on a niche line by quality-conscious two-man teams, the four-cammer would be equally at home in a BMW or Mercedes. (The Cobra's aluminum block is poured in Italy by a company that casts components for Ferrari Formula One cars, and the crankshaft is forged in Germany.) Performance aside, this engine looks like a million bucks with its wide alloy valve covers, smart-looking plenum box, and purposeful ignition wiring.

But the Cobra isn't just a box for the space-age modular engine. Just when you thought the Fox platform's modified MacPherson strut/four-link suspension couldn't be improved, it was, but not with the traditional aftermarket mentality. Softer suspension settings-rather than harsher ones-provide better driver feedback and more forgiving manners than any late-model Mustang before it.

Large anti-lock disc brakes (13-inch fronts, 11.65-inch rears) at all four corners stop the serpent like an arresting hook on an aircraft carrier, and look good while doing it. The machined, raised Cobra lettering really stands out on the cast dual-piston front calipers as they peek through 17x8-inch five-spoke alloy wheels.

From the outside, the Cobra's styling differs slightly from the run-of-the-mill GT Mustang. A twin power-bulge hood (non-functional) hints at the quad-cam powerplant beneath, and Cobra snake emblems replace the standard 4.6 GT fender badges. Polished five-spoke TRX-style 17-inch Cobra rims are a carryover from the '94-95 Cobra, with the exception of gray, rather than black, accent trim.

The steering feel has also improved on the '96 Cobra, thanks in part to a revised steering rack and large BFGoodrich 245/45ZR17 Comp T/A tires. The driving position is commanding, yet comfortable, and pedal feel (clutch, brake, and gas) is light and well-modulated. The new Borg-Warner T45 transmission handles 375 lb-ft of torque (up from the old T-5's 300 lb-ft) and shifts with a smooth touch.

Staff members who drove the Cobra noted two faults: When pushed to the limit, the seats were very unsupportive, allowing the driver to slide around unfettered under hard cornering. Otherwise, they're quite comfortable. A modicum of control could only be maintained by gripping the steering wheel for dear life. We also felt that an improvement could be made to clutch engagement. On a half-dozen occasions, the 2-3 shift was met with an unpleasant grinding noise, as if the gears were engaging without the benefit of a clutch. When we asked about the problem, SVT said the pilot-line car we tested did not contain a recent clutch assembly upgrade scheduled to be made on all production units.

Refinement is the key word in describing the Cobra. Poise, nimbleness, comfort, and responsiveness are combined to endow the '96 Cobra with very European characteristics. Though some might maintain that the Cobra's lack of an independent rear suspension keeps it from being truly world-class, one must keep in mind that it is a $25,000 domestic ponycar, and not a $50,000 BMW. Indeed a hard thing to remember given the Cobra's overall sophistication.

Camaro SSRather than choosing to build the SS Camaro in-house, Chevrolet turned to the aftermarket tuning experts at Street Legal Performance. SLP, the brainchild of drag racer Ed Hamburger of Hamburger Oil Pan fame, transforms ordinary Z/28 Camaros into fire-breathing monsters at its own Montreal-based facility, and then ships them back to the F-body plant for shipment to dealers.

More evolutionary than revolutionary, the pushrod LT1 engine seems very satisfied to make gobs of torque the old-fashioned way. Although many technological upgrades to engine management have been lavished on the iron-block 5.7, it still employs knuckle-dragging, cam-in-block, rocker-arm, pushrod engineering. The sensation of 335 lb-ft of torque coming on at 2400 rpm is primal-as in primal scream.

As such, the torquey big-block feel really endears itself to hot-rod types. Unlike the cammer Ford, there's nothing svelte or subtle about the LT1; it comes on about as tactfully as Andrew "Dice" Clay at a NOW rally. SLP has upgraded its horsepower output to 305, but our testing bears out a number substantially higher, around 340. SLP would like to keep a lid on this number; backlash from the insurance industry and GM's Corvette group are among the strongest reasons for doing so.

The stock 285hp LT1 is basically left alone during SS conversion, with a few important exceptions. The stock air inlet plumbing is yanked for an unrestricted cold-air package that pokes through the hood just above the intake manifold. The original cast-iron exhaust manifolds are stripped in favor of ported stock pieces. The factory oil fill is drained and replaced with a low-friction synthetic. An optional low-restriction exhaust system ($499) is also available to bump power another 5 hp or so.

Handling-but not ride quality-is improved through a larger-diameter front antiroll bar and revised rear track bar. ZR-1-style 17x9-inch rims with SS callouts and BFGoodrich 275/40ZR17 tires show off the stock Z/28 four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (10.7-inch fronts, 11.4-inch rears). Our test car also had the optional sport suspension package ($999) with Bilstein shocks and heavier progressive-rate springs.

Whereas the Cobra driver walks up to his seat and sits down, the SS pilot slips into his cockpit and wears it like a fighter jet. The seats are supportive enough for all but the most grueling competition, and the steering wheel has a beefy Corvette-like heft that inspires driving at the brink. Our test car was also equipped with the $349 Hurst shifter option. To a man, everyone enjoyed its precise, short-throw gear selection and rock-solid feel. Likewise, all agreed that it should've been standard equipment.

Cosmetic changes are limited to a new hood (featuring an NACA-style air duct) and a revised decklid spoiler. Modest SS badges adorn the front fenders (in place of Z/28 emblems) and rear bumper (in addition to Z/28 emblems). Also, the SS is available only in Bright Red, Arctic White, Black, Polo Green, and Bright Teal. To get the SS, a customer must order a Z/28 with the R7T code (the SS option), the QLC tire option (to get the 150-mph speedo and non-speed-limiting ECM) and the GU5 axle package (automatics only). SS Camaros may not be ordered with the NW9 acceleration slip-control traction control.

The basic SS package adds $3,999 to the cost of a Z/28 (in addition to the required QLC and GU5 options). Otherwise, you may option the SS just as you would any other Z/28. SLP also offers a Torsen torque-sensing limited-slip differential and an aluminum rear axle cover ($999) for improved traction on less-than-ideal road surfaces; otherwise, the stock 7.5-inch rear comes with the standard Auburn unit and 3.42 gearing. Rounding out the SS option sheet are competition tires and wheels ($1,899), a custom car cover ($159), premium SS floor mats ($99), and performance lubricants ($79).

Behind the wheelCasual observers of these high-performance ponycars might say that the scales tip in favor of the SS Camaro, and by traditional standards of dragstrip and road course performance, that would appear to be the case. These benchmarks are certainly important (we'll get to them later), but life's road is, fortunately (or unfortunately), not a race track. Potholes, expansion joints, rumble strips, speed bumps, tar dribblings, and gravel roads are all too frequent (especially in the Northeast).

When all is said and done, the Cobra makes its stand on the day-to-day battlefield called the daily commute. Considering the price of these so-called ponycars (both more than $25,000), the Cobra's road manners are more compatible with folks who have the financial disposition to own one of these machines: the over-35 crowd.

In defense of the Camaro SS, it is one of the baddest cars to ever roll off an assembly line. It's every 18-year-old's dream-and that's what it will remain to the majority of people who desire it. But that leaves a small, yet very important group: those who are young at heart (and tough of kidney) who also have the monetary wherewithal to buy Chevy's ultimate boulevard basher.

We arrived at New Jersey's Wall Stadium at 5:30 a.m. on Halloween morning. Our mission was to photograph both cars at the crack of dawn and get in some serious track time before the rain marched in. Editor Richard Lentinello, Associate Editor Evan Smith, and I alternated between the SS and the Cobra on the third-mile high-banked oval. After getting acquainted with each machine, we leaned a little harder to better discover their vices and virtues.

What we found was interesting, but predictable. The Cobra, which was everybody's favorite drive-it-to-work-everyday car, became twitchy and overly sensitive to steering input. Body roll, brake drive, and rear squat were much greater than in the SS, which even challenged the driving skills of Evan Smith, a Track Time Driving School graduate. (We did note that anti-squat was considerably improved over that of last year's Cobra.) Exacerbating the situation in the Cobra were the elevated driving position and unsupportive seat, which caused the steering wheel to become a stressed member.

The harder we pushed the SS, the more we appreciated its race-prepped handling. Although the Cobra was a competent performer, the SS inspired much greater confidence when it was pushed to the edge. The SS is forgiving at the limit and telegraphs its status to the driver with little ambiguity. But the forgiving nature of the road-race suspension was short-lived as we departed for Englishtown for some quarter-mile drag racing.

Following behind the SS Camaro in the Cobra, we could observe the rear tires launch into the air 2 inches on every one of Route 18's expansion joints. The loud clanking of the SS's optional sport suspension package could be heard, even in the wonderfully isolated confines of the Cobra. Yet, the same undulation elicited only muffled thumps from the Cobra's suspension.

Our arrival at Englishtown Raceway Park was greeted with the downpour that had been threatening all morning long. As a result, we were unable to drag test both cars side by side, but we did have previous dragstrip test sessions and our own driving experience to draw from.

Just a week before our comparison, we tested the very same Camaro SS and came away with a best ET of 13.31/107 on radial tires. Our sister publication, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords had also tested a nearly identical Cobra Mustang the week before and went 14.09 at 100 mph. The Cobra, owned by 5L drag legend "Nitrous" Pete Misinsky, was later treated to a set of 3.73 gears (more on this later) and managed a 13.80/103 with radials on the quarter-mile at Atco, New Jersey. MM&FF had tested a Cobra engineering mule at Detroit Dragway earlier in the year and came away with a 13.62/100 using Mickey Thompson 26x8.5-inch slicks and the stock 3.27 gearing.

One of the more niggling faults we found with the Cobra under drag-race conditions is that it went through the lights in Third gear. Any drag racer worth his salt knows that the only way to get a good ET is to keep the engine in its powerband, something the SS does quite well with its 3.42 gearing, superior torque, and six-speed transmission. As you can see from Misinsky's otherwise-stock Cobra, a set of modest gears pays handsome dividends.

Incredibly, SVT officials openly admit that original plans called for at least a 3.55 gear in the Cobra. When a worst-case build scenario was considered (a convertible, wouldn't you know), fuel economy considerations blew the gearing out of the water. Ironically, once economy testing was completed on the Cobra, Ford engineers discovered that they had more than ample mpg leeway for a convertible. Maybe next year.

If we give the Cobra the benefit of its best ET and mph (with slicks and gears, a 13.62 at 103), it's still behind the SS Camaro's radial-tired best by three-tenths of a second and 4 mph. Although both cars are rated at the same horsepower, we're seeing that the SS Camaro is substantially stronger than the Cobra. We can't put any better face on it than that. The Camaro SS/Cobra dragstrip matchup has all the allure of another Tyson vs. McNeely fight.

This leads us to two possible conclusions: As we indicated earlier, the SS Camaro is definitely making more than its allotted 305 hp. That's great in our book, but what if SLP later decides for cost reasons to make SS Camaros that actually turn out only 305 hp? That would hardly be fair to those who bought one after reading this story. More than one staffer had the strong opinion that our SS was a factory wringer. (We're always suspicious when the numbers don't jibe with the performance, be they higher or lower than advertised.) However, we'll reserve judgment until we drive a production unit not provided by SLP.

The other conclusion (which we hope is the case) is that all SS Camaros will have 340 hp like ours did. This seems to bode ill for Ford lovers, but we can't count them out just yet. The Ford aftermarket is strong and competitive. If the 5L market is any indication, the modular engine will soon have a large array of go-fast products at reasonable prices.

We fully realize that regardless of our unbiased opinion, there are still Blue Oval guys and Bow Tie guys, and never the twain shall meet (except at the stoplight or a dragstrip). Both camps can hold their heads high in that they've succeeded in making (and buying) arguably the best ponycars ever. HTP will be watching with great interest how this new ponycar battle unfolds, so stay tuned for further updates.

Points of ViewJohnny Hunkins, Technical Editor:I've been a Ford guy all of my adult life, but when it comes to these two ponycars, I'd have to go with the SS Camaro. The bottom line is, I want to go as fast as I can, and it doesn't matter what badge is on the car. (If Chrysler's Neon went 13-flat, I'd be raving about it instead!) The Camaro SS has unbelievable power for a ponycar; you've got to feel it to believe it. Squish down on the loud pedal in First or Second gear, and the rearend gets loose and the engine wails.

Everything about the SS says, "Race me." It begs to be driven, no, beaten, to the limit. The leather-embossed Hurst shifter and T56 trans powershift like butter, and the hydraulic 11-inch clutch is as smooth as silk. On the negative side, the whole dash on our 9,000-mile tester creaked, the suspension rattled, and the ride had me running to the head every 15 minutes.

My feelings are mixed on the Cobra. It's not a 5L LX Q-ship strip burner, but a GT that's gone to finishing school. Although it's a pleasure to drive on the open road, it doesn't satisfy the Mad Max in me. Sometimes you just don't want quiche, pate, and Chardonnay. Give me steak, fries, and a cold Bud!

Richard A. Lentinello, Editor in Chief:The more time I spent at the Cobra's controls, my feelings for it grew more positive, my desire to own one more intense. All of this is due to that marvelous four-cam aluminum beauty. With its powerband perfectly matched to the T45's five speeds and that rev-em'-high 6800-rpm redline, it provides a driving excitement very much like one would experience in a BMW 325is. It's that refined, that much alive.

The Camaro SS, on the other hand, is more of a brute. But for V-8 traditionalists, its shortcoming in the refinement department is happily overshadowed by its mega-spewing torque and pinned-to-the-seat power. And the baritone growl from the exhaust in combination with the six-speed gearbox, which forces it to maintain a lengthy high octave, adds a level of sound delight that keeps you smiling-a fun quotient that's unsurpassed.

On the road, the Cobra is the better driver. Its suspension is far more compliant and softer sprung than the SS's truck-like ride. The Camaro is so stiff it rides like my old Schwinn with the solid tires. And that's uncomfortable. But throw the SS into a corner at speed and it plants itself firmly, sticking like glue throughout. The Cobra gets a little nervous in a bend if it sees too much speed. At Wall Stadium's banked third-mile oval, the only way the Cobra could maintain the Camaro's pace through the corners was if it was hooked to a towline. On the other hand, the Cobra's cornering ability for real-world driving is above and beyond what even most seasoned sports car drivers can handle. It really is that good.

Aesthetically, the Camaro is the sharper-looking car with its more contemporary, aero-styled design. But, the Cobra's view from the cockpit is unbeatable. With its protruding twin bulges, the hood has an erotic style to it, as if Raquel Welch was lying down sunning herself. Very pleasing.

So which would I choose? Well, that all depends on where I'm living: for the more highly populated city areas I'd take the Cobra, due to its better visibility and easier demeanor. But out in open-road suburbia, the SS is the hands-down favorite. Just soften the suspension, please.

Evan Smith, Associate Editor:Some wars just never seem to cease, but that's not always bad. Take the one between Ford and Chevy, for instance. It's been going on for years, and though each has carried the crown at times, it's horsepower that prevails. That's good.

For 1996, both nameplates have upped the ante (and the price). From a hard-core performance standpoint, the Cobra can pitch the heat right down the pipe, and the SS can take it deep, deep to center field, thanks to the hopped-up LT1 350. Its quarter-mile times are impressive, and the handling is good, too. The SS has torque-what I want, what I like, and when I want it. Give me this car with slicks and 4.11s, and I'm laughing my way into the 12s. So the ride on the way to and from the track is a bit harsh. I can deal.

On the other hand, the Mustang, though not a strip or corner burner by the Camaro's standards, still offers a wonderful driving experience. The Cobra is punchy and feels very light, which makes it easy and fun to drive. However, driving at the limit is not for the inexperienced. The smooth-running four-cam, 281-cube engine is certainly different to handle, as it likes to be pushed up the 6800-rpm limit. This engine needs a steeper rear gear, say 4.10s or even 4.30s, to better take advantage of its high powerband. With 10s or 30s, the Cobra enters the acceleration world of the Camaro, but that's for another day.

If both keys were on the table and I had to choose one, I think I'd go with the Bow Tie and its bottom-end torque, despite the harsh, thumpy ride. The Cobra, though more refined, lacks the raw acceleration that I love and expect from Ford's $26,645 hot rod.

Data File

  CAMARO SS SVT COBRA
Base price $24,119 $24,810
Price as tested $27,064 $26,645
Optional equipment Hurst shifter, sport Package 250A:
suspension, Torsen CD player, Mach 460
diff., performance sound system, PATS
exhaust system, anti-theft system,
floor mats leather seating
Engine 5.7L OHV V-8 4.6L DOHC V-8
Rated horsepower 305* hp at 5500 rpm 305 hp at 5800 rpm
Rated torque 335 lb-ft at 2400 300 lb-ft at 4800
Brakes (F/R) 10.7/11.4" vented 13.0/11.6" vented
Steering Power-assisted Power-assisted
rack-and-pinion rack-and-pinion,
14.4:1 ratio 14.7:1 ratio
Axle ratio 3.42:1 3.27:1
Suspension
Front Dual-wishbone SLA Modified MacPherson strut
Rear Torque arm/Panhard Four-link/quad-shock
  CAMARO SS SVT COBRA
Tires/wheels BFGoodrich Comp BFGoodrich Comp
T/A 275/40ZR17 T/A 245/45ZR17
17x9 cast aluminum 17x9 cast aluminum
Transmission T56, six-speed T45, five-speed
Trans torque rating 440 lb-ft 375 lb-ft
Gear ratios
First: 2.66 3.37
Second: 1.78 1.99
Third: 1.30 1.33
Fourth: 1.00 1.00
Fifth: 0.74 0.67
Sixth: 0.50 N/A
Fuel economy: 17/26 18/26
(hwy./city) (hwy./city)

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