Tom Wilson
July 1, 2005
Photos By: E. John Thawley III

While Ford has not failed to mention the '05 Mustang is the first truly all-new Mustang (sort of), let's not forget the same is true over at Saleen. There, the all-new Mustang posed fresh challenges for the small manufacturer, as well as offered a power upshift into a new realm of sophistication and market appeal for its Mustang-based line.

Of course, the basics of building a Saleen Mustang are still in place. Saleen buys its raw material-complete GTs-from Ford, takes them substantially apart at either its Irvine, California, or Troy, Michigan, plant, reassembles the cars with new Saleen parts, then sells them through Saleen dealers throughout the U.S, Canada, and Mexico. A combination of Ford and Saleen warranties protect the buyer's investment, financing is offered from all the usual outlets, and the buyer enjoys the legitimacy of a serial-numbered, certified specialty car.

What has changed with the latest Saleen S281 Mustang is not immediately apparent, but in a word, it's quality. It starts at Ford, where new tooling, procedures, and controls have transformed the Mustang from passable but hardly outstanding build quality to the current car's more Lincoln-like fit and finish. We've been saying the new Mustang is as if BMW had designed and built a ponycar, and that analogy carries through to the Saleen version. Ford's distinct improvement in build quality is now coupled with an impressive increase in design, manufacturing, and assembly capabilities at Saleen to produce-if not the fastest Saleen Mustang ever-the best Saleen Mustang yet.

This improvement is obviously born from the business world's improve-or-perish culture, coupled with Saleen's 20-plus years building Mustangs. But the more complete view includes bringing the S7 supercar to fruition, along with assembling Ford's flagship, the GT. Those exotic and premium-level cars have demanded the most from Saleen, and the expertise gained is evident in the Mustangs as well.

As we've previously reported, Saleen's '05 Mustang offerings continue its traditional three-step arrangement. Starting off is the $38,000 naturally aspirated S281 Three-Valve, followed by the expected best-seller, the approximately $47,000 S281 SC supercharged car, and topped by the S281 Extreme, with its internally upgraded, hand-assembled engine and suitably elevated, but as yet unspecified, price (think 60 large-since the initial announcement, Saleen pricing has gone the only way pricing goes, but not by much). Thanks to apparent industry-wide development headaches with Ford's electronic throttle, the delivery date of the supercharged SC has been slightly delayed. But that hard work was mainly behind Saleen's in-house engineering team when we slid behind the wheel for this article, and it should be long over by the time you read this. While we're not sampling the Extreme for this story, it has not been delayed. Given its more extensive engine development, its release has always been scheduled for mid-2005.

The S281 Three-Valve continues Saleen's tradition of minimal powertrain modifications coupled with nearly all the cosmetic and chassis improvements on its entry-level car. That's the Three-Valve story, except that now even the base car receives underdrive pulleys, a reflash of the computer, an admonition to pump premium fuel into the tank, and a high-flow air filter. These are minimal modifications by hot-rod standards, perhaps, but enough to bump the power rating up to 325 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. If that seems too large an increase for pulleys and premium fuel, we have to say it's within a connecting rod's throw of our dyno findings on hot-rod tuning the new Mustang. Ford's knock sensor allows about 5 additional horsepower simply by burning premium fuel, and Dearborn also left a fair amount of top-end ignition timing on the table for the electronic tuning to pick up. Toss in the pulleys and you've added a notch of oomph underhood.

In the wheelwells, the S281 line benefits from Saleen-spec springs, shocks, and sway bars front and rear. Saleen developed its own shocks for the new Mustang, and the springs are now liner-rate instead of the less-predictable variable-rate units of the previous car. Urethane jounce bumpers cushion the suspension as it fully compresses and effectively make the spring rate progressive as it approaches the stops. Saleen calls the resulting suspension tune "athletic...yet supple."

In case you're wondering whom the fundamental good guys are in the suspension, credit springs mounted concentrically with the front struts and acting directly on the rear axle instead of the control arms, similarly direct-acting sway bars with ball joint (not bushed) end-links, a solid mounted steering rack, and a 31 percent increase in chassis stiffness. These are all Ford-supplied improvements, but they carry through into the Saleens as well.

Braking remains stock Ford on the S281 Three-Valve and SC, meaning 12.4-inch vented front and 11.8-inch rear discs. Two-piston calipers are used up front, and the usual ABS and vacuum power assist are standard. Helping match the S281 SC's blower power are optional 14-inch front discs-slotted and vented, and fitted with four-piston calipers. These calipers feature a muted-silver finish that is particularly gorgeous to behold.

Early on, Saleen's S281 wheel package started with but one seven-spoke, 20-inch wheel design for all S281 models. That wheel remains the standard offering as shown on our test cars. The Three-Valves and SCs employ a 9-inch width all around, while the Extreme is slated for a 10-inch-wide rear wheel. This wide rear wheel is optional on the other two S281s, if the look appeals to you.

As we went to press, Saleen announced a 19-inch wheel option. Yes, these days the optional wheels are smaller diameter. The main reason for the 19-inch wheel is to open the tire options, as 20-inch tire fitments are limited. Saleen has specified the flypaper Pirelli Corsa dry weather tire on the optional wheel-Pirelli does not offer this excellent tire with near race-quality rubber in a 20-inch diameter

Otherwise, the stock tires on the S281 Three-Valve are 275/35ZR-20 high-performance Dunlops. For a few dollars more, optional ultra-performance Pirelli P-Zero Rossos of the same size will be fitted to the same wheels. The Rossos are the standard tire on the SC and Extreme, with the Extreme using the same wheel and tire in front and 275/40ZR-20s (or a corresponding 19-incher) in the rear. And, yes, the SC or Three-Valve receives the larger rear tires if the 10-inch rear wheel option is selected.

To boil all that down, if looks are the main attraction, go for 20-inch rolling stock. If performance-or ride-is key, the 19s are the answer.

Saleen's SignatureIf you're getting the idea that the Three-Valve is mechanically similar to the SC except for the supercharger, you are getting the idea and won't be surprised to learn our pair of Saleens share similar looks inside and out. What may be surprising is just how much Saleen has changed the basic Mustang styling-one glance shows these are handsome, sophisticated-looking cars, but it can take a bit of studying to realize just how Saleen accomplished that.

Starting at the front, the only Ford parts forward of the cowl are the front fenders, and on the SC, the hood. The grille, headlights, turn indicators, bumper cap, lower valance, and on SCs, the composite hood, are all Saleen specific. As expected, a "five-hole" Saleen front fascia gives the family resemblance, while the open mesh grille is a new, ruggedly handsome element. Perhaps not immediately noticed is Saleen's use of two headlights to Ford's four. And on the Three-Valve and SC, the headlights can be upgraded to HID lamps on both high and low beam, thanks to a single element and a moveable shield. The Extreme uses the HID lamps as stock.

Fairly discrete rocker panels with small vents front and rear anchor the Saleen's profile, and on the SCs, the triangular quarter windows feature a small panel with accent marks. But the real action is at the rear, where Saleen has lengthened the profile and definitely increased interest with an extended bumper cap and taillight surround. On Three-Valves, this cap has a nicely turned-up ducktail, while the SCs add a rather thick wing on top of that. Personally, we enjoy the clean ducktail look without the wing, and we suspect that if you do too, you could special-order your SC that way.

Inside that rear bumper cap are a host of details. One of the stock Ford taillight panels has been covered by Saleen's grille-insert, and the Ford faux gas cap is gone as well. The treatment adds considerable interest and is set off by the lower valance with twin elongated oval, center-exit exhaust outlets.

Inside, Saleen has changed a surprisingly large number of items, including all the leather upholstery, instrument faces, shift knob, and floor mats, as well as added a dash-top twin gauge pod to the SC and a steering wheel emblem. The gauge pod houses boost and aftercooler water temperature instruments-later, the water temp may be superceded by an air-charge-temp instrument

Combining the interior styling with the exterior and even the treatment on the SC's supercharger intake tract means the Saleen design cues run bumper-to-bumper, inside and out. Viewed as a whole, the new S281s are the most integrated, sophisticated Mustangs yet from Saleen. We especially enjoy the masculine grille, and after eyeballing the Saleen's rear treatment, the standard Mustang's rump just sits there like cereal in a bowl. Panel fit is excellent, as is paint integration. These are handsomely turned out cars.

Not Just A Pretty FasciaWith its minimal changes, the Three-Valve engine provides a hair more urge than a stock Mustang GT. The huge 20-inch wheels and short-sidewall tires often make standing start launches more difficult, so the increased power is offset by either bogging or slipping tires in something as technical as the 0-60 sprint. In the real world of rolling starts, the Three-Valve should run a hair better than a stock '05 GT.

But it's the supercharged SC engine that'll attract the 5.0&SF reader's attention. The basic long-block is stock Ford, topped with Saleen's latest supercharger. The twin-screw-style blower packages more tightly and produces more power with less boost than Saleen's previous superchargers.

The fundamental change with the new Stage VI integrated twin-screw supercharger has been to move from a 1.6L to the 2.3L Lysholm screw blower. The larger blower produces the same boost as the smaller unit at a lower rpm. That means less heat in the charge air, and thus a smaller aftercooler can be used. Taking further advantage of this, the blower can be pullied for less boost, with even less charge air heat as well. This results in cooler, more efficient boost.

The packaging improvement comes from Saleen casting its own blower housing, which incorporates the air inlet, supercharger, manifold, and water-to-air aftercooler. The result is a smaller package with much straighter, tunnel-ram-like intake runners said to increase airflow an impressive 50 percent. On the blower's often overlooked intake side, the redesigned inlet tract is now constant volume and less restrictive to airflow, while the entire system now has only two sealing surfaces-down from four last year. By removing only eight bolts, the inlet lifts off for easy blower servicing, not that it should need much, if any.

Bottom line under the SC hood is the Three-Valve engine sees 6-7 pounds of boost and makes 400 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Last year's Two-Valve V-8 lived on an 8-pound boost diet and made 375 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque.

We'll have to report on the Extreme engine after it debuts, naturally, but expect the E-engine to boast a hand-assembled long-block using all sorts of expensive, high-durability parts, along with a high-boost version of the Saleen supercharger. The power target is 500 hp and 520 lb-ft, which ought to be, as the man from Rolls Royce said, "adequate."

Transmissions are stock Ford on the Three-Valve and SC. We assume the Extreme will receive a gearbox upgrade-the six-speed T56 Tremec would seem a given-but we won't know that until it is announced. Rear axle gearing is stock Ford, as is the Traction Lok. Optional is Saleen's MaxGrip speed-sensitive limited slip, as was fitted to our test SC. It uses a clutch pack with a self-contained hydraulic pump to provide lock-up pressure as necessary. It seems a benefit, as it doesn't promote understeer in midcorner, yet drives hard on corner exit or during all-out straight-line acceleration.

Rubber, Meet RoadWe drove both the Three-Valve and the aforementioned pre-production prototype SC in preparation for this article. Because Saleens are well-equipped in stock form, there are few options. Our SC tester, however, was wearing Saleen's brake upgrade, which features beautifully finished four-piston calipers, along with the HID headlights.

Shy people should not buy an S281, as these cars attract major attention, the most we've seen in awhile, and much more than a new Ford Mustang engenders. We're not sure all these folks really knew what they were looking at, or if they could identify the elongated shape or unique front and rear treatments, but we're positive they enjoyed the experience. The press conferences worth of cell phone cameras pointed our way from the cars alongside, as well as the generous thumbs-up and "nice car" comments at traffic lights proved that.

From the driver seat, we were ready to give a couple of thumbs-up ourselves. We spent most of our time in the SC, but save for the extra power, our comments can be shared with the naturally aspirated Three-Valve as well. We also have to note that we were driving the first SC, more of an early production prototype than a 100-percent-completed car. That said, there was little different from the upcoming run of production SCs. The gauge pod was present, but not yet hooked up, and the engine was still undergoing final calibration work.

Generally, the new Saleen impressed us with its sense of completeness, its wholeness. From the moment you walk up to the driver's door to when you switch off the key, the Saleen feels like a Saleen-not a Mustang with stuff hanging on it, but a car unto itself, in balance and complete. These are solid, buttoned-down production cars, not some squeaky kid's toy with noisy mufflers.

Our next impression was not as positive: the ride. On smooth roads the ride is stiff and busy, but enthusiast acceptable. It's a different sort of hard than we normally associate with firmly sprung Mustangs, and it took us a minute to sort out the firmer but reasonable spring and shock rates from the 20-inch tall wheels and punishingly short tire sidewalls. Too stiff for heaved rust-belt roads, the Saleen ride would no doubt benefit greatly from a shorter wheel and taller tire, but the more compact 19-inch combination was not available during our drive time. If you live in rough-road country, you should testdrive both options before deciding.

Normally, when a car rides this straight-kneed, we figure we're in for spine-compression on the first big square-edge hole we hit, but not so. The springs and shocks are slightly stiffer than Ford's, but they seem reasonably plush in the big hits. Body roll is not pronounced, but it is there, so the sway bar and spring rates haven't turned the Saleen into a bouncing buckboard, yet the ride is full of road grain jiggle.

Grip was good on the Rosso tires (and must be glue-like with the 19 inch Corsas), the steering is lovely, and again, on smooth roads the new Saleen gets and sticks. Ultimately, when trying hard in the SC, meaningful but not annoying understeer signals the limit. Precious few drivers will approach this limit on the street, and hopefully only in the slowest corners. The fastest track day aficionados-and we admit there are precious few of those at 50 grand-will be familiar with it, however. Lift off the gas while the front is pushing and the Saleen tightens its turn, but only after a moment. These new Mustangs are heavy to begin with, and the weight of the supercharger and intercooler hasn't helped (although the SC's composite hood no doubt has). The lighter Three-Valve front end is faster to respond, naturally.

Our whining aside, thanks to a longer wheelbase, much improved weight distribution, and chassis rigidity, handling the new Mustang and Saleen is so far ahead of last year's counter-parts that no comparison is worth making. With its slightly firmer suspension and taller wheel, the new Saleen is that much ahead of the new Mustang, especially in fun street driving where you push it, but not necessarily to the limit.

Of course, many owners will never explore the outer limits of their S281's handling because that limit is so high and to many owners, power is key. For them, we have a happy story, with the naturally aspirated Three-Valve ahead of the stocker GT on the stopwatch, but not overly so from the seat of the pants. The SC, though, pulls from the bottom to the top, with no lag or hiccups, and strongly all the way to the top at that. We have to say the inherent weight of the new Mustang makes itself felt, and in its own way, the quiet and solidity of the new SC, along with its smooth engine's liquid rush of power, detracts from the immediacy of the speed rush. In other words, at first it may not feel so rocket-like, but when you look down, ooops, you're doing 100 when you think it's 70. No worries here, the SC is plenty quick. And don't forget this is through real-world, certified mufflers and cats, not some raspy, race-only tin cans.

Rowing any new Mustang's rubber-mounted, remote linkage shifter is not a celebration of precision, and the Saleens don't materially improve on this. They use a shorter-throw shifter, which helps the throw while raising the effort. With rubber still in the system, our SC's shifter was dead quiet, but a disappointing combination of rubbery vague and sticky action, although a nearly new transmission probably wasn't helping any, either.

Clutch action was firm and pleasingly short. Stock, in other words, and definitely good for street driving-including the inevitable stop-and-go-the clutch ought to please the standing-start set with its quick reaction.

We found the brakes pleasantly weighted and with good feel for a vacuum-assisted system. Our tester was equipped with the optional front brake upgrade, and it worked great on the street with no noise and endless hard stops. Heel and toe spacing is good, too.

Thankfully, the Saleen Mustang runs about as quietly as its Ford counterparts. Yes, the exhaust is slightly more forceful, and on the boost, a combination of blower whine and exhaust makes enthusiast music. Off-boost, just running around town, the blower gives a distant gear growl and occasionally whistles and whines softly. You might say it adds a bit of aural background texture. But even so, the Saleen retains the civilized composure of the donor Mustang, which is saying a lot.

Some of this is due to Saleen's trick, dual-outlet mufflers that keep the exhaust sound definitely in the socially acceptable range.

Normally the exhaust exits the expected center exit exhaust, but when high back-pressure exists, vacuum-operated valves open up, diverting some of the exhaust through a second set of shorter, less restrictive tailpipes for some extra power. From inside, our ears could barely discern when these special valves opened, but Saleen says they help the S281 pass noise requirements in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

The other aural consideration is the stock Ford Shaker 500 sound system used in all S281s. It's good stuff, although we'd say it could use more midrange presence. Good to know is the six-disc, in-dash CD player accepts home-brewed MP3 discs using the original folders.

Saleen has done a wonderful job with the newest Mustang. It's a traffic-stopping beauty in the steel, and judging from our pre-production prototype, Saleen has about nailed the driving part. Keep in mind that while Saleen was bringing its three S281 Mustangs to market, it also heavily rearranged the furniture under the S7's engine lid to make room for twin turbos, and it lightly updated its N2O Focus and brought Ford GT production on line. That's a lot of success for a small company, and we fully expect continued improvement in the already outstanding S281 Mustang line.

Passing The TestWith two cars, three tire and two wheel options, more rain than Noah saw, and the pre-production nature of Saleen's test cars, obtaining apples-to-apples comparison between the Three-Valve and SC Saleens was a challenge.

Our Three-Valve numbers were obtained by our usual test gang at Motor Trend magazine, while the SC numbers were taken from internal Saleen testing that we attended. Both tests were run at California Motor Speedway in Fontana, California, but on different days. Furthermore, Motor Trend reported some powertrain issues with the Three-Valve car, and we were unable to retest that car before deadline. Everything considered, we'd say the Three-Valve numbers are quite optimal. We'd add a tenth of a second to the acceleration figures from the Three-Valve car. The other way of looking at it is the Three-Valve car is up 25 hp from a stock Mustang GT, so it will run a bit better than stock.

Both Saleens wore the optional upgraded rolling stock: 19-inch wheels with 285/35/ZR-19 Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires. This is grippy rubber, but still not enough to hang on to the SC from a standing start. It took many trials to arrive at the 12-second quarter-miles with the SC using clean asphalt instead of the rubbery starting line at the dragstrip. The SC backed up the 12-second readings numerous times, and we have absolutely no reservations in calling the SC a 12-second car off the showroom floor, but due to typical dragstrip traction woes, you could have trouble duplicating this performance on test and tune night. With the Three-Valve and SC running the same times until after 40 mph, the numbers show how the SC is grip-limited until the top of Second gear. The acceleration numbers are corrected for altitude.

Handling and braking are nearly identical with either car, as they use the same wheel and tire. The greater front end weight of the SC is the one meaningful difference. Understeer predominates at the limit with either car.

ACCELERATION
MPH THREE
VALVE
SC
0-30 1.9 1.9
0-40 2.8 2.8
0-50 3.9 3.6
0-60 5.0 4.4
0-70 6.7 5.8
0-{{{80}}} 8.4 7.1
0-{{{90}}} 10.3 8.4
0-{{{100}}} 12.8 10.3
QUARTER-MILE (SEC/MPH)
13.5 at 12.8 at
103.9 114
Braking
100-0 317 ft n/a
60-0 115 ft 113 ft
HANDLING
{{{600}}} ft slalom
69.9 n/a
mph  
SKIDPAD
n/a 0.97g
FIGURE 8
24.9 at n/a
0.74  
TOP GEAR AT 60 MPH (RPM)
1,{{{900}}} 1,900

5.0 Tech Specs

ENGINE AND DRIVETRAIN
S281 Three-Valve SC
BLOCK
Stock Ford Stock Ford
CYLINDER HEADS
Stock Ford Stock Ford
INTAKE MANIFOLD
Stock Ford Saleen cast aluminum, tall runner w/blower and aftercooler
CAMSHAFT
Stock Ford Stock Ford
POWER ADDER
None Saleen Series VI Twin-Screw supercharger
EXHAUST
Saleen after-cat Saleen after-cat
TRANSMISSION
Stock Ford Stock Ford
REAREND
8.8-in 8.8-in
MANUAL
3.55:1 3.55:1
AUTOMATIC
3.31:1 3.31:1
LIMITED SLIP
Standard Traction Lok, Standard Traction Lok,
Optional Saleen MaxGrip Optional Saleen MaxGrip
ELECTRONICS
ENGINE MANAGEMENT
Saleen Powerflash tuning Saleen Powerflash tuning
IGNITION
Stock Ford Stock Ford
GAUGES
Saleen white face Saleen white face, plus gauge pod

Suspension And ChassisFront Suspension SpringsSaleen Racecraft linear rateStrutsSaleen RacecraftWheelsSaleen 7-spoke 20x9TiresStandard P275/35ZR20Brakes12.4-in vented disc, dual-piston calipersRear SuspensionSpringsSaleen Racecraft linear rateShocksSaleen RacecraftWheelsSaleen 7-spoke 20x9TiresStandard P275/35ZR20Brakes11.8-in disc