Whoever named the latest Roush-tuned Mustang the "Classic" nailed it. Without going back to a pushrod 5.0-liter and rear drum brakes, this car offers up all the traditional pony car driving experience you could hope for in an ’03 model, with all the improvements in that experience that nearly 40 years of development would lead one to expect.
It is, at heart, a Mustang GT—live axle and single-overhead cam modular 4.6-liter V8, rather than the Cobra’s independent suspension and twin-cam—but with upgraded horsepower thanks to a Roush-engineered Roots-type supercharger and intercooler system. Behind the belt-driven supercharger, the induction system uses a Roush manifold, modified airflow sensor with greater range, Bosch injectors and a BBK throttle body. The air-to-liquid intercooler has its own electric water pump, the fuel system is upgraded to deliver greater flow and a lighter, aluminum flywheel replaces the standard one. (Opt for an automatic and Roush provides an auxiliary cooler for it.) The powerplant is just like that in Roush Performance’s other models, the 380R and Stage 3. That means you get serious performance, with the factory quoting test figures of 4.3 seconds to 60 mph and a 12.6-second quarter-mile at 111 mph. But where the 380R and Stage 3 are hot-rod flamboyant and put the emphasis on all-out performance, the Classic is meant more as a daily driver, with less flashy looks and more comfort oriented trimmings. The bodywork is subtler, the suspension is stock Mustang GT with bigger 17-inch wheels and tires to improve grip, and the brakes are 13-inch front/10.5-inch rear discs, cross-drilled and with dual-piston PBR calipers up front (stock calipers in the rear).
The Classic’s body kit enhances the standard Ford shape and draws cues from many elements of the model’s history, without going over the top. It borrows the front fascia, hood and rear wing from the Stage 3. The standard wheel is a chrome Roush model, with 18-inchers optional, both wearing Z-rated Goodyear Eagle tires. They were 245/45-ZR-17s on this one (which, as it turned out, is Jack Roush’s own car), the chrome rims set off nicely against the silver-gray paint.
Inside, there are "this is something special" reminders like a Roush white-faced gauge package with Jack Roush’s signature ("Jack Roush, USA") on the tach, and Roush logos also on custom leather seats and floor mats.
If over the top is what you want, Roush can do that for you—we drove an all-out Roush 380R with a wake-the-neighbors exhaust system and even louder appearance package just before we got into the Classic. It was fun, but it was one of those fun-in-short-bursts numbers, the droning exhaust and stiffer suspension making an urban commute more chore than a joy. Those descriptors are reversed in the Classic. At least for those of us of modest dimensions—the tall guys had a problem with either the Roush seat or its mounting, which seemed to limit rearward travel. Those standing over six feet tall all said they were in pain while driving the Classic. Those under that mark preferred this seat to the stock equipment, or didn’t even notice much difference in the seating position.
What we all noticed was the Roush-badged aluminum shift lever with a backward bend to it like a drag racer’s favorite Hurst model. We have long complained that the shifter is mounted too far forward in the current Mustang—this backward bend addresses the problem, at least superficially, and we suspect it would do so for even tall drivers, had they been able to find a comfortable position. The downside, though, is that in second and fourth gears, the lever winds up pretty much parallel to the console with the indented-ball knob at the forward cupholder. You have to lift up on it to get third or fifth. Takes some getting used to, it does, and while we’d easily adapt our driving style for Saturday night bracket races, if your weekend fun came in the form of auto-cross or road-course action, you’d want a different lever.
In either circumstance, the Roush short-throw action is an improvement on the one offered in both the stock GT and the SVT Cobra, with a nice narrow gate and firm, easily detected detents without crossing the line into notchy feel.
You want that, because this car runs hard, with a character that reflects Jack Roush’s own drag racer turned road-racer priorities. The supercharger and engine tuning yields bunches of torque without lots of revs, emulating a bigger displacement pushrod V8 without surrendering the high-end power delivery that overhead cams allow, and you don’t want a balky shifter spoiling the fun. If you turn the traction control off, you’ll find the power-oversteer easily managed, but still stay alert. Leave the TCS turned on, and you find it allows a bit of throttle-steer fun, much like the programming on the Cobra…regard the TCS button as a set of bicycle training wheels that let you test your sense of balance without falling over, and provide a margin of safety in road use.
Okay, you’re saying about now, so it’s a soft rod for baby boomer execs who have always wanted a hot Mustang but don’t want to punish their aging bodies to get it now. Given the price disparity here, if you’re in that crowd, you’re probably not wondering: Should I get a Callaway Camaro or a Roush Mustang Classic? It’s more likely that you’re thinking, why would I want this Roush over an SVT Cobra?
Here are the deciding factors, to our way of thinking: First, the Roush delivers nearly as much power, but at lower rpm. Specifically, the Cobra’s dohc supercharged mill is rated at 390 hp at 6000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm. The Roush yields 380 lb-ft but peaks 900 rpm lower than the Cobra. The 379-hp peak output comes at 5250 rpm, or 750 rpm lower than the Cobra’s. Granting that the Cobra factory figures probably understate the engine’s real output, those same figures may understate the rpm at which the output peaks. The on-the-road feel of the Roush is a more accessible, more immediate punch in the back, and as we said earlier, the shifter action, despite the lever, is friendlier.
You’ll offset that with the GT’s live-axle rear suspension, a factor most often evident when encountering a bumpy corner. This is, though, classic pony car behavior, and there are lots of ways to improve on it—some of them in Roush’s own catalog—without going to the Cobra’s independent setup.
You’ll also note the Roush’s somewhat higher price in excess of $40,000 (depending on options selected), vs. the SVT model’s mid-to-upper $30,000 range. You can option a Cobra up near $40,000, but you can option a Roush up to a Corvette-like $50,000, which might also have you looking at other specialist Mustang models, like Saleen’s. Then there’s the exclusivity factor to consider. With 10,000 units a year annual output, the SVT Cobra isn’t exactly commonplace, but Roush plans only 50 copies of the Classic. It is sold through 145 Ford dealers who peddle other Roush cars.
It’s your call, as ever. For our part, we’ll say that there’s a really sweet balance to this car’s mix of performance, composure and comfort that had our staffers—both the mature and the young (well, the shorter ones, anyway) wishing they could keep the Roush Classic Mustang around for a much longer time. The Mustang platform is going to change in the not-too-distant future, but this one will rank high in our pleasant memories of Fox-platform Mustangs. It is, in that well-chosen word, a Classic.
Tis article was written by Kevin A. Wilson.