E. John Thawley, III
May 1, 2001
Contributers: E. John Thawley, III

Step By Step

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Like the Saleen wheels and Pirelli tires? Saleen sells its base wheel/tire package for $2,535.99. Chrome and tire upgrades add to the price.

If there ever was a problem with the fabulous S351 that Saleen discontinued last year, it was that the supercharged Windsor standout outshone its stablemate. The tire-melting road-rocket was a natural for the spotlight, garnering story after cover after shootout. But all the while Saleen has been selling truckloads of a wonderful sportswear: the modular-engined S281. The shame was, it didn’t get the press it deserved.

That’s all changed for 2001, though. The S351 reached the end of its emission road last year and has driven off to collector-car status. In the meantime, the positively super-atmospheric S7 spaceship has landed at Planet Saleen. At $375,000 a go and 200 mph, the mid-engine S7 is over the financial and performance moon for all but the elite. But interestingly enough, by its Pantheon status the S7 isn’t a threat to Saleen’s affordable line of S281 Mustangs, as was the $60,000 S351. So the mainstream S281 Saleen Mustang has finally entered center stage in the press—the place it’s always been in the real-world marketplace.

Befitting its sales leadership role, two versions of the S281 are being headlined here. Available naturally aspirated, or fitted with Saleen’s high-torque roots supercharger for approximately $4,000 more, the S281 offers the prospective Saleen Mustang buyer an interesting conundrum—naturally aspirated or blown?

The 2001 price break between the two is right where real people make hard decisions. More specifically, our red S281 tester is relatively bare-bones by Saleen standards, what with stock front brakes, no blower or other options, and a $31,999 sticker. Optioned only with Saleen’s lightweight hood—the steel Ford part is stock at Saleen—we arrive at our car’s $33,749 as-tested price. Yes, that’s a stretch for many a Mustang enthusiast, but it’s quite a car as you’ll soon see.

Meanwhile, the silver blower car offers all that an S281 can carry: blower, brakes, chrome wheels, Saleen hood, leather seating—the works. It stickers at $37,399. That’s $5,400 more than ol’ red, and in a price range that has nearly all of us calculating pay stubs versus house payments. Furthermore, with the long option list, the silver car bottom-lines at a heavy $43,133. Are the blower and all the options worth the money? We aimed to find out.

Seeing Red or Silver

Stroll up to our brace of S281s and you can identify the silver car as the big boy by looks alone, but you have to take a second to make the call, and therein lies the master’s touch. Steve Saleen is the talent when it comes to dressing cars for every occasion, and he’s massaged the S281 line so even the base machine is far above civilian versions in looks and presentation. Our red tester is 100 percent Saleen, looks the part, and won’t leave the buyer feeling like he bought on price or didn’t get enough car. In fact, it’s just the opposite, as the standard S281 and upgraded blower car are nearly identical in exterior appearance until you get down to badging or the optional chrome wheels. Both have the slender, trademark Saleen C-pillar treatment, both have the Saleen five-opening lower front fascia, the same graphics package, the same sophisticated Saleen look. In fact, the only place we found the standard S281 aesthetically lacking was inside the front wheels; there the stock brakes look lonely in their 18-inch Saleen wheels.

Inside, the standard S281 is also transformed to Saleen specifications. While they may not be the first visible improvement, the Saleen seats are a major step up from Ford’s 2001 offerings, which are overstuffed with a seat cushion that’s bolstered on the sides, leaving all but the smaller framed feeling pushed up against the headliner and constrained in the saddle. Saleen’s seats are well upholstered but less confining, and they offer more ergonomic support. The white-faced Saleen instruments are looking better than ever, thanks to markedly improved dash lighting, while Ford’s new sound system display and controls have a fresh look to jaded Mustang observers.

Between our red and silver testers, the shiny blower car’s major interior difference is the gauge pod atop the dash. It houses the blower boost and intercooler temperature instruments. While the informa- tion is useful and the pod adds some needed pizzazz to the overall interior design, as usual with these units there’s something of a tacked-on appearance when examined closely. Still, we find the idea of the gauge pod useful and a welcome relief from the ubiquitous pillar-mounts. It’s also becoming something of a Saleen trademark, much like the center-of-the-dashpad GT350 Shelby tachometers.

The naturally aspirated option not only has the bang-per-buck equation in its favor, but it’s also attractive.

Radar Results

OK, so the naturally aspirated and supercharged S281 Saleens are great-looking sisters. But how do they go? First driving impressions were gained in the naturally aspirated red car, and they were good. Between Ford’s ’99 power increase and Saleen’s electronic and gearing massage, the naturally aspirated car was surprisingly lively from the first throttle squeeze out of the driveway. There’s definitely a special urgency in the throttle, with a willingness to pull from the bottom right to the top of the tach. The vaunted modular engine smoothness is there in spades, and the pull is definitely in the entertaining league. In short, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the red car ran. If there is a downside, it is only that the low-rpm response—just off idle and slightly above—is not as snappy as we V-8 fans were raised on, but that’s just the smallish 281 ci talking. With any sort of normal rpm on the clock, the S281 is off and running.

Slipping into the supercharged car’s driver seat gives surprisingly the same feel, the same personality, but plenty more of it. Smooth as a salesman’s close, the blower car ramps up from an off-idle squeeze with 3 pounds of boost by 2,000 rpm, and starts pulling hard to a 9- or 10-pound peak. Typical of a Roots blower, there is ample boost as soon as the throttle is fully open and at least some rpm is showing. Rev it all the way in First and traction becomes an issue. But typically you forget to switch off the traction control, and the power is nosed over by the electronic watchdog anyway.

Dropping the throttle from a Second-gear roll interjects considerably more violence, as then the ample torque punches in with unmistaken authority rather than ramping up quietly. Interestingly, as with all Roots and screw blowers we’ve driven, while the boost is typically labeled “instantaneous” under such throttle-slapping conditions, there actually is a slight but perceptible lag, and you won’t have the last pound of boost until 3,000 rpm or higher. None of this is a worry or even a performance deficit, but it is a mentionable characteristic of the blower type.

At the test track, the naturally aspirated car did even better than our street experience suggested, due largely to the blower car’s greater difficulty with off-the-line traction. Both cars’ Pirellis proved slippery on our pebbly Camarillo airport test surface. Still, the results show the naturally aspirated car was faster all the way to 50 mph and was only 0.27-seconds behind at 60 mph! By then the blower power was asserting itself fully, as shown by the more than half second gain the blower car made from 60 to 70 mph, then the full second gain by 80 mph and so on.

Experimentation showed the best runs were obtained with the stock traction

control switched off and geriatric 2,100-rpm launches, which is how our numbers were obtained. Left on, the traction control is too invasive for ultimate numbers, reducing power more than was absolutely necessary on our dry track surface. Had the blower car gripped a bit harder, then the tale would be different, but in the real world, that’s how they ran.

Turning the Wheel

Sliding through the slalom cones and pushing on the brake pedal until we

thought the headliner was the windshield proved what you’d guess: A pair of S281 Saleens—one blown, one not—would likely handle one like the other. That is to say, both are stable, tail-planted go-getters that carve a line with the sort of confidence lesser Mustangs only dream of.

Cornering is flat, with just noticeable body roll and little understeer. Still, there is a reassuring stability in the current Saleens, which proved not as tail-happy as we thought going into the test. This is especially true of the naturally aspirated red car; the blown silver example had enough torque to upset itself if abused. In the slalom test, the silver car’s torque was an asset and the real reason why it clocked the faster time. For while the red car was the better handler of the two, if just, the blower car had the beans to accelerate through the last couple of cones and finish in a burst of power. The red car, by contrast, handled well enough that Second gear was too low through the slalom and Third gear too high, which cost it whatever sprint to the finish it may have otherwise had. Its reduced front-axle weight was a help, however.

Interestingly, our braking test had a presidential sameness in the results. Both cars dove like attack subs fleeing aerial attack, with the silver car giving a high-frequency wiggle that wasn’t a factor or worth correcting for, but definitely there. The red car had no such motion. While the skidpad at our test site was unavailable during our day there, the slalom alone showed Saleen has the S281 as balanced as possible given the Mustang’s nose-heavy posture.

What Would We Buy?

Now, which one do you buy? Cost no object, the blower car. If money is a factor—and the difference here is clearly worth accounting for—then the naturally aspirated car would make us happy indeed. Even after testing the two back-to-back, we would rarely feel as if we hadn’t gotten the real thing.

That said, after 14 years of testing Saleens, the blower car definitely fits the Saleen persona more closely. We’ve come to expect American power from Saleen, and that means a healthy punch of torque followed by a sharp top end, all wrapped in enough chassis to safely use the power. The supercharger better fulfills that promise. To the daily driving Saleen owner, the difference will show only during the special trips to the hills, the weekend slalom, the open track, or whenever a short, hard shot of acceleration is demanded in town. But that is the stuff enthusiasts crave.

Horse Sense: When the exotic S7 debuted, the worry was Mustang fans might think Saleen had left them behind. Hardly so, as the S281 Saleen Mustang continues to anchor Saleen production and engineering.