The 1996 Frod Mustang ushered in a new engine era when, after nearly 40 years, Ford retired its overhead-valve small-block V-8 and bolted in the overhead-cam "modular" V-8. This basic engine had been introduced five years before in the big Lincoln Town Car.
There were two versions of this 4.6-liter (281-cubic-inch) V-8, one for GTs, the other for Cobras. GTs used a single-cam iron-block iteration with two valves per cylinder in aluminum heads. It didn't look like progress, claiming the same power and torque as the 302. And straight-line performance was down a bit, C/D netting 6.6 seconds 0-60 mph and a quarter-mile of 15.1 at 92 mph. But the "mod" would rev faster and higher, made similar torque at low rpm, and was smoother and quieter. More pointedly, it was able to meet future emissions standards; the old pushrod V-8 couldn't.
The largely hand-assembled Cobra version looked more exciting, sporting twin cams, four valves per cylinder, and a special cast-aluminum block. With 305 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 300 pound-feet at 4800, Mustangers no longer needed to fear stoplight encounters with GM pony cars.
After testing all three, C/D ranked the Cobra behind a top-power '96 Camaro SS but ahead of a similarly optioned Firebird Formula. "It's the best daily-driver muscle car," C/D asserted. "Its DOHC 32-valve V-8 is the smallest but highest-tech of the engines here. It convincingly makes as much horsepower but less torque than the 5.7-liter powerhouses, [yet the Cobra] turned in darn near the same performance, thanks to its lighter weight. True, it was slower than the Camaro and only marginally quicker than the Firebird in several areas, but it [was] the one car we would most want to drive home at the end of a long day." Some things never change.
Other things did. Because the "mod" engines were taller than the pushrod V-8, Ford had to redesign the front chassis crossmember, reposition the steering rack and lower front suspension arms, change engine mounting points, and devise a more compact brake booster.
Slightly sprightlier handling was a happy benefit of these changes to accommodate the lighter engines. Attaching the alternator, A/C compressor, and power-steering pump directly to the blocks reduced underhood clutter. The "mod" V-8s also introduced modern "coil-on-plug" ignition with no distributor, improving efficiency and reliability.
Elsewhere for '96, Mustang's V-6 received a stiffer block and 10 more horsepower for 150 total, plus the new V-8's platinum-tipped spark plugs, designed to last 100,000 miles. Transmissions were ostensibly the same, but the five-speed manual was exchanged for Borg-Warner's beefier new T45 unit, and the AOD automatic was swapped for Ford's latest 4R70W transmission with more sophisticated electronic controls.
Outside, the pony grille emblem got a mesh backdrop, and the horizontal taillamps gave way to three-element vertical clusters, which made the car look narrower to some eyes.
A sign of the times was a new "passive anti-theft system" (PATS) for GTs and Cobras. Optional for base models, this used a special ignition switch that required a matching coded key for starting. In the event of a hot-wiring attempt, the ignition system shut down altogether.
Despite the new V-8s, Mustang sales for '96 dropped a steep 27 percent to 135,620, of which 10,006 were SVT Cobras. For 1997, Ford offered a thoroughly modern Mustang, but sales continued to slip. Keep reading to learn about the sales woes of the '97 and '98 Mustang lineups.
Want to find out even more about the Mustang legacy? Follow these links to learn all about the original pony car:
- Saddle up for the complete story of America's best-loved sporty car. How the Ford Mustang Works chronicles the legend from its inception in the early 1960s to today's all-new Mustang.
- The Fox generation of Mustangs got a new lease on life with a 1987 restyle and further refinements into the early Nineties. Learn all about it in 1987-1993 Ford Mustang.
- Ford's ageless pony car was rejuvenated one more time for 1999 with "New Edge" styling, more power, and many key refinements. Read 1999-2004 Ford Mustang to learn about the fastest, most roadable Mustangs yet.
- Ford muscle cars were among the top performers of the muscle car era. Check out profiles, photos, and specifications of some tough Ford muscle cars.