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.

Get Us The Engine Room
The S281 SC comes with a special domed and vented hood to clear the Saleen-spec, twin-screw supercharger and its integrated long-runner intake manifold. The Series VI supercharger pushes 2300 cc of air per rotation versus 1600 cc for last year's Saleen blower. According to Saleen, the supercharger turns slower for equivalent boost, producing lower stress and lower air charge temperatures. This allows for a smaller, lighter, and more compact intercooler with virtually zero pressure drop from inlet-to-outlet side.

The supercharger also features an integrated bypass for low-speed operation, which reduces heat buildup in the engine, and the intake produces more torque and better low-end driveability. There is a free-flowing air filter and specific tune in the computer for the blown Saleen.

Helping on the exhaust side is a trick muffler system that is shared by all S281s, supercharged or not. The two mufflers (with center-exiting tips) have vacuum-activated valves that open above a specific backpressure. Essentially, think of them as factory-installed dumps. When the baffles are closed you get a nice rumble; shove your foot into it and you get a rambunctious note that will scare small animals and get the attention of any John Q. Laws in your vicinity.

All this is rated at 400 hp at 5,800 rpm and 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 at a 91-octane friendly 3.5 pounds of boost. Why so little boost? That's all it took to reach the 400hp bogey.

Based on its trip to the Crazy Horse Racing chassis dyno (South Amboy, New Jersey), Saleen is being rather modest with its rating system. Shocker No. 3: Our example almost made 400 hp to the rear tires--390.6 to be exact. That's probably around 450 to the flywheel. Torque checked in at 387.9.

And you need every bit of this at the strip, as weight (with driver) checked in at a Crown Vic-esque 3,880 pounds. Welcome to the world of 2-ton Mustangs.

At said dragstrip (Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey), the Saleen was quite capable. Test pilot Evan Smith kicked things off with a conservative 12.81 at 109.22 mph. After a brief cooldown, he blistered the tarmac with a 12.508 at 110.42. He backed that up with a 12.654 at 110.43. That was as good as it got. No amount of changes to the shift strategy or launch techniques would improve on the 12.50. This puts the S281 Supercharged right in '03-'04 SVT Cobra territory, acceleration-wise, a sizable improvement over the 300-horse '05 GT.

Serendipity struck again as we were able to test an '05 Corvette coupe with an automatic transmission and full aftermarket exhaust a couple days earlier (with near identical weather conditions). Despite being hamstrung with 3.08 gears, it still stopped the E-town clocks at 12.314 at 113.80. Our guess is that if you run into a six-speed Vette with 3.45 gears, you'll need to swap blower pulleys if you want to keep up. On the road course, the Vette and Saleen were neck and neck, with the S281 SC registering the best lap time by 0.22 second.

Having driven both cars at the road course, it was remarkable how similar their tendencies were. Whereas the stock '05 Mustangs plowed miserably on the tight course, the Vette and Saleen were incredibly neutral. Oversteer could be induced at will with the introduction of throttle; the steering and brakes inspired confidence. Both the plastic Chevy and S281 felt more like race cars that coddled you in luxury, while the stock Stangs were decent handling, fun-to-drive street cars that would absolutely frustrate the driver during athletic maneuvers.

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There are a number of upgrades to the Saleen interior, the most notable being the reupholstered seats with louvered headrests. Not only is the leather richer than stock, but the bolstering is far more in line with a car of this sporting nature. With the stock Stang, it was all you could do to stay in your seat when carving corners. With the Saleen, you just planted your left foot on the supplied dead pedal and turned the steering wheel--no muss, no fuss. While the higher side bolsters make ingress/egress more difficult, it's a small price to pay for the increased comfort and functionality. The pedals are also covered in the S281s for better heel-and-toe driving.

All Saleens come with an upgraded 200-mph speedometer and 8,000-rpm tach. The Supercharged has a pair of gauges mounted to the center of the dash, one to monitor boost, the other to measure intercooler fluid temp. It's a great idea that would work a helluva lot better if the gauges were angled toward the driver, instead of pointing straight back down the middle of the car. The brushed aluminum shift knob is a taller than stock, a nice touch that alleviates the problem shorter drivers have with smashing their right elbow on the arm rest when banging gears, but the shifter itself was rather recalcitrant.

Overall, we like the changes made. The main gauges, especially, are easier to read, but there's an awful lot of cheap Ford plastic in here for a $25,000 car, let alone a $56,000 one. And the wavy louvers in the headrests didn't scream quality, either.

The exterior treatment was quite polarizing. From the S7-inspired front fascia to the '70 Plymouth 'Cuda-like tail treatment and stacked wing, this is the most controversial-looking Saleen to date. The seven-spoke wheels, the Eleanor-style parking lamps and rear-quarter glass treatment all inspired debate in our office. No one, absolutely no one, liked the whale tail wing on top of the decklid. The rear three-quarter view of the standard S281 treatment is the most appealing from a visual standpoint, and it comes with a molded-in spoiler that extends from the edge of the decklid. The extra wing drew universal criticism.

Shows you what we know, however. The general populus went ballistic over it. Wherever we took the blown S281, people freaked. More than one person whipped out a digital camera on the highway to take a picture of the Saleen while we were driving it. Every gas stop was an invitation to play 20 Questions. Most telling was the fact than many people didn't recognize it as a Mustang. Whether that was the intention at creation, we can't say, but it was definitely the end result.

On the downside, there were quality concerns with the S281 SC. The side skirts were too long, extending past the wheel openings about at least a quarter of an inch--both at the front and rear. The hood didn't latch tightly. At highway speeds you could see it rising from the fenders; it also rattled a ton. With the car parked, you could actually grab the leading edge of the hood and shake it up and down. Lastly, the Saleen emblem that covers the Mustang logo on the steering wheel fell off. Oops.

No question, the latest S281 Supercharged earns the chevrons it proudly wears on the doors. For those whose personal Mecca is Irvine, it is a revelation. It's fast, powerful, and has razor-sharp reflexes. And if you're looking for a new supercharged Mustang, it's the only game in town until the Shelby Cobra GT500 appears a year from now.

We only wish it came at a more affordable price. And without the wing.