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.