Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsCar Reviews
American Road Smashers
Apples and oranges, or a fair comparison of two supercharged performance Mustangs? You decide.
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Mustang lovers know there are mild mustangs, wild Mustangs, and also a few highly tweaked "factory" Mustangs that just plain rip. These top-shelf Stangs come with OE quality, but with Pro Stock power. Best of all you can buy one of these ponycars fresh off the Ford showroom floor, wind it up, turn it loose, and beat up on just about any Corvette or M Series on the highway.
The players are named Saleen S281 and Roush Stage 3, and the cars come with speed, comfort, improved handling, braking and eye-popping impact. But while the Saleen S281 supercharged and the Roush Stage 3 (also supercharged) may seem similar, there are surprising differences.
For starters, Mr. Saleen's version is listed as a manufacturer's vehicle--as in manufactured by Saleen. Why, you ask? Technically speaking, Saleen is a manufacturer, not a "tuner," and therefore, his cars are listed as being produced by Saleen. (Even though all new Mustangs are sprung from cages in Dearborn, Mich.)
Nevertheless, Saleen Mustangs are sold through Ford dealerships (80 of them to be exact), but with a Saleen window sticker. To enable Saleen to use its own sticker, Saleen puts forth a huge financial and labor-intensive effort and therefore Saleen does not like to be lumped in with what he calls "tuners." However, according to Joe Thompson of Roush, "We also comply to all the governmental testing, including CAFE, noise and emissions, just like the Saleen. Our cars come with a Ford window sticker," Thompson added, "but also with two additional Roush stickers.
"And in 2002 we'll be doing that [adding a Roush window sticker], but it's not an indication that you are a manufacturer."
Like Saleen, Roush sells his cars through Ford dealerships, though Roush has a base of 250 dealers and four assembly facilities to support the 13 major markets.Saleen feels comparing his cars to anyone else's is simply an apples vs. oranges proposition, but you, the readers, have been begging for this comparison since the Stage 3 was introduced. Even if it is apples vs. oranges (and we're not sure it is), the fact is the cars compete for the same customers and are often sold side-by-side on the same dealership floors. They are priced similarly and the average Joe will lump them together anyway.
The reality is that both Steve Saleen and Jack Roush have extensive resources and knowledge of building high-performance Ford vehicles. Each has closets full of racing achievements including hundreds of race wins and championships. And today they both produce a variety of excellent Mustangs for the masses.
Call them what you will, but in many ways the Saleen S281 and the Roush Stage 3 are equally impressive (read: both run 12s), especially if you consider the Fox-4 unibody platform traces its roots to a '78 Fairmont and the car is powered by a tiny 281 cubic inch V8 engine. But it is that little engine that makes either car a worthy road warrior. Both builders have re-engineered the SOHC engine to accept an intercooled positive displacement supercharger. Boost levels are 6 psi and that really does wonders for torque and throttle response. Along with the power upgrades, Saleen and Roush have attacked the handling and styling in their own ways and we're quite pleased with both.
Readers and journalists want to know which car is better. But first we must define what better really is. To some, better means quicker; for others, it means having the handling and braking advantage, while some guys would simply use either tool as a babe magnet. Does that really work?
Ultimately, we found "better" difficult to define. Still, we didn't want to be vague, and we certainly didn't want to leave you hanging. After all, we drove the cars and we have an opinion of each. So, the analysis of the Saleen vs. Roush report is based on track numbers, as well as our own subjective reviews. Read our staff's evaluations of both cars, then go out and get one. Either way you won't be disappointed.
The 2001 Saleen Mustang sure got my attention right from the start. The giant chrome wheels and body modifications really separated it from the rest of the bubbles on the road. I was extremely impressed with the road handling capabilities given its solid axle configuration.
The seats and additional gauges help justify some of the price, but the one thing that the performance car was missing was an accurate shifter that was to my liking.
Engine-wise, the low-end torque is absolutely a blast. Never do you have to wait for the power to come on. Even in the wrong gear, the supercharged engine pulls hard.
Roush Stage 3
Two words come to mind when I think of the Roush: refined and classy. Our test car came in slippery black, which is one of the reasons it didn't stand out like the Saleen. Blatant badging is left to the S281, as Roush opted for an understated appearance. The interior of the Roush had some nice seats and unique luminescent gauges, however the lack of a boost gauge was a little puzzling, and, like the Saleen, an appropriate shifter was absent.
Both Mustangs have similar supercharger configurations and therefore exhibit comparable throttle response, but as our drag tests proved, the Stage 3 has a few more oats.
When it comes to the overall feel of the cars, they are quite different. The Roush does not have as firm a ride as the Saleen, but don't assume that it lacks in handling. Quite the contrary, the Roush seems to have a perfect blend of parts, and rather than feeling like a modified Mustang, it gives you the impression that it has been manufactured at a completely different level altogether. Steve Baur, Associate Editor
Saleen S281 Supercharged
Having driven every Mustang in the universe over the past decade, including R models, Saleens, tuner cars, non tuner cars, street freaks and road racers,I probably have more opinions than most about what constitutes a great Mustang and these two testers rank with the best I've sampled. Oh, I've driven some that were faster and some that may have handled better, but none that combined the combination of speed, power and most importantly, driveability as these two.
The S281 supercharged wins the appearance contest. The Roush may look meaner, but the Saleen is cleaner. The Saleen's Recaros feel more like what a seat should be in a proper sports car.
Handling on the S281 was good, much improved over stock, but the tail felt a little floaty in tight turns when I sampled it at Button Willow Raceway. On the street it was definitely firmer than the Roush, but not to the point of harshness.
As far as straight-line acceleration goes, the S281 supercharged definitely gets with the program. It started quickly, idled smoothly and throttle response was instantaneous. We spent a lot of time with this car and over that period of time it became quite obvious why Saleen sells 1,000 S281s a year (blown and naturally aspirated combined). The refinement, performance and build quality was the best we've sampled from the Irvine, Calif., company.
Roush Stage 3
One of the biggest differences between a Roush Stage 3 and a Saleen S281 is the way they are ordered. Get the base Stage 3 Mustang and its $17,060 over the cost of a GT. You get the trick supercharged engine, the bodywork, 4-piston Brembo disc brakes with 13-inch rotors and 17-inch wheels. If you want the 18-inch wheels, you pay extra.
Also, if you want the Stage 3 suspension, 18-inch argent wheels, interior decor group with electro-luminescent gauges and machined pedals, you have to order it as an option group, one that adds $4,550 to the tariff. And then there are more options after that, like chrome wheels and Alcon 4-piston brakes at all four corners. Get them all, like our tester, and you have a near $50,000 ponycar.
At first this seems shocking, but I like the fact that you can select your level of enjoyment. Someone at Saleen told me that having options proves the Roush is just another tuner car, but gee, you can get different options on any car. Is Ford not a manufacturer? It offers a variety of packages on all its vehicles. I'm so old I remember the days when you had to order everything on your new car, including the radio.
We can't imagine the Stage 3 without the suspension and brakes. They bring the level of handling and stopping to another plane.
The steering is sharper than the Saleen's and the grip is higher. As for the brakes, they ain't cheap (at $1800), but they'd be right at home on one of Mr. Roush's Winston Cup cars.
The seats in the Roush were comfortable, though I thought less sporting, but the Stage 3 had the better gauge lighting. Jack Roush told me they were looking for a place to put the boost gauge that was both 50-state legal and did not (in his words) "look tacked on." Roush engineers are also checking out aftermarket shifters; there will probably be one in the car for '02.
I was somewhat surprised by the quarter-mile acceleration test. The Stage 3 felt a lot stronger, especially at part throttle, but the clocks don't lie. The Stage 3 engine was viceless and the entire car had a remarkable OE feel--as well it should since Roush does much of the engineering for Ford on the Mustang.
I have a hard time swallowing the idea of a $50,000 Mustang, but as you can read elsewhere in this issue Saleen is about to hit the $60,000 mark with the S281 Extreme. (Am I the last poor person in America?) As a wise man once said, "Ya pays yer money and ya makes yer choices." Jim Campisano, Editor
If you think about it, both cars are very much the same, but with subtle differences. They both come with a potent supercharger under the hood and both can handle turns with some of the very best sports cars on today's market.The custom ground effects on the S281 are just what you would expect from Saleen headquarters, and without a shadow of a doubt, Jack Roush's designers hit the nail on the head with the appearance of the Stage 3.
The S281 is a tremendous Mustang and I love the styling of the body and the interior. The huge 5-star wheels add to the terrific lines of the car and the tight feel of the leather-wrapped seats made me feel like I was driving an Indy Car. I was, however, not exactly happy with the feel and appearance of the shifter handle. The Stage 3 had a more conventional leather-wrapped knob that I found better suited my comfort level. Other than that, I couldn't find one thing wrong with the S281 Mustang.
The 281 supercharged was a blast to drive and the cornering and acceleration of the package was a very big hit and a sure reason to purchase this Mustang.
Roush Stage 3
Overall, the Roush Stage 3 Mustang was a little more to my liking. It felt slightly better (by that I mean tighter, if you will) out on the road. The power of the blown overhead cammer was breathtaking, and the styling and ground effects were an instant hit with me. With the exception of the shifter knob in the Saleen coming loose (and, I know, that's a small problem), I think the two cars are equal to one another, but, if I dare choose a weapon, It would have to be the Roush Stage 3. But that decision would be a tough one to make.
The Roush took no time at all to get used to and the lines of the car are perfect in my opinion. The Saleen was a handling marvel and the attention that you get while driving it is totally cool. But, if I dare say so, my decision still falls in favor of Jack's machine. John Hedenburg, Assistant Tech Editor
Saleen Performance has been preparing high-performance Mustangs for 18 years and in doing so has built quite a reputation in the market. If there's one department where Saleen rockets ahead, it's in styling. I absolutely love the S281 offering, mostly because the body additions don't look like additions. The Mustang looks to be born with Saleen's sexy lower chin, side skirts, rear valance and subtle aft spoiler. If I could change any one thing I'd raise the lower edge of the rear valance to expose a pair of muscular 3-inch stainless exhaust pipes.
After taking the controls I found that the Saleen-spec. Recaro seats were supportive, but not as comfortable as the Roush buckets for day-to-day driving. This area of evaluation is highly subjective though, as every driver is of different shape and size. Still, I like the Roush seat better. Roush gets a point.But overall I feel Saleen offers a better interior package. It has proper gauges that give the driver a look at boost pressure and intercooler coolant temperature, in addition to the standard oil, water and volt meters.Saleen also finishes each S281 cockpit with a performance shifter that is manipulated with a Momo knob. Nice, but a car of this level should have a real shifter like a Pro 5.0.
On the highway, the Saleen is a big hit. Power is right on, though it didn't feel quite as strong as the Roush's blown 281. For what it's worth the Saleen is engineered in Southern California where the roads are smooth and the Roush is engineered in Detroit, the only place in the country that has worse roads than in New Jersey.
Perhaps this is why the others found the S281 a bit harsh when compared to the Roush, but I tend to disagree. The ride in the S281 was just fine as I found the balance between handling, braking and power to suit my style.
Roush Stage 3
When I first laid eyes on the black Roush Mustang I wasn't that impressed, I now admit begrudgingly. Its body kit looked mean, angry almost, but not super sexy or sleek. I like the bold front fascia, especially the large opening for the intercooler; however, I'm not sold on the side skirts that incorporate the side exhaust, and I can do without a wing that's right in my line of vision.
And black? Not the best color if you plan on pointing a camera at a car.
Am I done complaining? You bet.
After slipping into the Roush and rolling the key to the start position, a whole new world greeted my senses. The exhaust rumble is tough and the soft Roush seats hugged me at just the right angles.
I like the white-face gauges, but for the money something was missing from this front office. Roush designers should consider a few interior upgrades, ones that make the driver feel like he or she is wheeling around in a $45,000 machine, because if you buy a Roush Stage 3 you will be wheeling around in a $45,000 machine.
What the Stage 3 lacks in interior accoutrements it makes up for in horsepower and torque. Power is plentiful, and makes you realize where most of the Roush engineering dollars were spent. On that note, I must commend the engine calibrators at Roush and Saleen because neither car showed a hint of detonation under any conditions.
Our Stage 3 tester was rated at 360 horsepower and could spin the 150-mph speedometer into the triple digit zone in a hurry. The supercharged and intercooled 281 SOHC engine is backed by a Tremec 5-speed with a stock-style shifter.
What gives, no Pro 5.0? Like the Saleen, rear axle is Ford stock with 3.27 gearing and is just not enough for the drag strip, but is OK for accelerating up a twisty road.
Considering all the characteristics, which include handling, braking, acceleration, styling and price, I think I'd pick the Saleen. I loved the power of the Roush, but I'm sold on the S281 looks. Ejs, Tech Editor
HEAD TO HEAD
Roush Stage 3
- Base Price: $39,500
- As Tested: $48,975
- Horsepower: 360 @ 5250 rpm
- Torque: 375 @ 3000 rpm
- Race weight*: 3650 lbs
- Quarter-mile: 12.831 at 107.36* With 160-lb. driver
Saleen S281 Supercharged
- Base Price: $37,399
- As Tested: $49,399
- Horsepower: 365 @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 400 @ 3000 rpm
- Race weight*: 3770 lbs.
- Quarter-mile 12.951 at 105.96 (12.70 w/slicks)
* With 160-lb. driver