Jim Campisano Editor
November 4, 2005

Few names in the Mustang hobby evoke as much emotion as that of Steve Saleen. He has been building modified Mustangs with his name on them for more than two decades and to the faithful he is the late-model hobby's Carroll Shelby, the winner of numerous racing championships and the purveyor of the finest, most beautiful stallions east or west of Laramie. Go to any major event where Saleen is scheduled to appear and the line for his autograph will be so deep it takes an hour or more to get near him.

To his detractors, he's selling overpriced ponycars with gaudy body kits, oversized wheels and tires, and more style than substance. Some feel they can do it themselves for less, and most of his competitors are envious of the success he enjoys.

Regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on, there is no such thing as a boring Saleen Mustang. These cars elicit a passionate response from all who see them. For 20 years, the company out of Irvine, California, injected plenty of excitement into Fox-based Mustangs and now it has turned its attention to the S197 model, better known as the '05 Mustang. As this is the finest, most refined, Stang ever to roll off a Ford assembly line, Saleen had its challenges, but as we all know, our friends in Dearborn have yet to build a Mustang that couldn't be improved by a wide margin. Oh, they are sporty cars to be sure, but they are not true sports cars.

Saleen makes it one. This much was evident after 10 days with the S281 Supercharged. As luck would have it, the 400hp Saleen arrived while we were sampling a pair of stock Mustang GTs, a coupe and a convertible. This put us in the enviable position of being able to directly compare the S281 to the car on which it is based. The differences were shocking, and in ways you may not have expected.

The first shocker was, naturally, the price. With a base of $49,059 and an as-delivered sticker of $56,711, there was no shortage of folks gasping for breath, 400 hp or not. That's $13,000 more than a base Corvette, or, to think of it another way, enough to purchase both a base Mustang GT coupe and convertible. Of course, few sniffing around at the local Saleen dealer will be cross-shopping at the Chevy store. All they want to know is if the S281 SC will kick the Vette's ass. More on this later.

Certainly, you are getting a lot for your $56,000. This is essentially a re-engineered Mustang. Every S281 SC built gets Saleen's Racecraft suspension. This gives you N2 struts with linear rate coilover springs and a 1.38-inch tubular swaybar with urethane pivot bushings up front. In the rear, Ford's three-link-plus-Panhard-bar setup is enhanced with Saleen linear-rate coil springs, N2 shocks, and a 0.79-inch antiroll bar.

Standard rolling stock is 20x9-inch wheels all around with P275/35ZR20 Dunlop Sport tires. Our test vehicle had the optional ($2,469) 20x10-inch chrome Saleen wheels with Pirelli PZero Rosso rubber, sized P275/35ZR20 up front and P275/40ZR20 in the back. Helping put the power to the pavement is the speed-sensitive Saleen Max Grip limited-slip differential, which we've found to be beneficial in slalom and road course maneuvers in the past.

While the S281 SC uses production Mustang binders at all four corners, you can order yours with a set of 14-inch slotted and vented front discs. Our test machine had these, too, and while they are not inexpensive ($2,055), they proved their worth on the 1.3-mile, 13-turn MM&FF handling course. This venue is brutal on front brakes, but the Saleen never ran out of them, despite our many aggressive laps. With the power this thing makes, you'll need them no matter where you drive.

Which leads us to Shocker No. 2: The Saleen rode beautifully, 20-inch rolling stock and all. It actually soaked up bumps as well as the stock Mustang--some felt it even rode better than stock. We're talking on New Jersey's washboard pavement, not Southern California's billiard table freeways. Very little harshness makes its way into the cabin, even on the choppiest roads.

Incredibly, this supple suspension came with no tradeoff in grip--quite the contrary. On the MM&FF Road Course, the S281 SC was 2.47 seconds a lap faster than a stock five-speed Mustang GT coupe and 3 seconds a lap faster than the convertible.