ROSAMOND, CA - The engineers behind Ford Motor Co.'s newest Mustang continue to quash any notion of an ongoing horsepower war with its archrival, the Chevrolet Camaro. And with good reason: Camaro for years has consistently kicked the Mustang's now-awkwardly angular derriere in terms of raw, straight-line power. Diehard Ford fans have been left scratching their heads in wonderment at the motives for yielding such monumental bragging rights to the bowtie-ers.

Regardless, Special Vehicle Team (SVT) engineers haven't ceased honing their competitive edge in other equally important arenas.

The arrival of the hotly anticipated independent rear suspension (IRS) on Ford SVT's Mustang Cobra - the first such move in a segment that, until now, has been defined by solid axle rear-drivers - raises the stakes of the whole pony car game in ways no enhancement in displacement or output alone could (see related story, p.47). IRS, in many ways, makes Chevrolet's $10,000-pricier Corvette the more judicious comparison over the suddenly ancient Camaro.

Like the C5, the IRS's all-wheel-independent ride allows the driver to make more effective use of the available power - and getting at it a helluva lot of fun.

The new suspension architecture makes itself apparent as soon as the Cobra's generous tire patches hit the track here at Willow Springs International Raceway. Through turns and in the straights, the IRS transmits an amplified feel of the road without the jitters that often appear with the solid axle still found under lesser Mustangs. And the way the car hunkers down during heavy and sustained steering maneuvers imparts a sense of confidence lacking in the old setup.

The IRS particularly shines in its forgiving demeanor. It's markedly deft at preventing the less-than-adept driver from taking a quick visit to the sand, especially when that certain driver lifts her foot off the throttle too eagerly after committing to a turn. It doesn't take long to realize the car can easily out-perform my pluck.

The Cobra's looks, however, disappoint, and not solely owing to the redesigned sheetmetal. The Mustang's new skin seems to garner - at most - an ambivalent response, with most agreeing its styling takes a more retrograde than evolutionary step. But the fact that the Cobra possesses few styling cues to distinguish it from the more pedestrian GT version verges on reproach. Only the round fog lamps, unique wheels and yellow rear turn signal lenses really stamp the Cobra as different from its brethren. The dedicated ground effects hold barely discernible differences. Even the rear bumper is stamped merely with "Mustang."

While on-center feel seems improved, steering effort remains a smidge too stiff. And the power seat switch is nearly unreachable, questionably placed on the front of the seat between the driver's knees. With the steering wheel in its full tilt-down position - combined with my particularly short-legged, airbag-in-the-face seating position - the switch might as well reside in the trunk.

The Cobra gets standard traction control, a feature now also available across the Mustang lineup. It combines braking and engine control, with engine torque reducing first, followed by cylinder cut-off. If the electronic control unit senses too much undesired wheel slippage, it then kicks in individual braking to regain control, feeding off inputs from all four antilock brake sensors to monitor individual wheel speed to transfer torque to the wheel with a grip.

Aware that the typical Cobra aficionado fancies a bit of wheel spin (read: the occasional smoky burnout), not only can the driver manually disable the traction control, but a feature SVT calls Power Start allows for aggressive, straight-ahead dry pavement standing-starts without activating the traction control system.

Only certified SVT dealers will get the 1999 Cobra, including 590 in the U.S., 22 in Canada and seven in Mexico, says Ford SVT marketing manager Thomas Scarpello. And Ford only plans to build about 8,000 of the exclusive models. Production should fall at 55% coupe and 45% convertible, says Mr. Scarpello.

An all-new Mustang and accompanying Cobra isn't due out until at least 2001, and it's still unclear whether the redo will sit on the overbudgeted, oft-delayed DEW98 platform shared by Jaguar's just-unveiled S-Type and the soon-to-be released Lincoln LS sedans. Until then, the IRS-equipped 1999 Cobra makes for a more-than-satisfying segue to the ponycar of the 21st century.