Steve Baur
Former Editor, Modified Mustangs & Fords
June 1, 2008
Photos By: Courtesy of Saleen

As automotive editors, we're often invited to press conferences and meetings where car manufacturers speak about their new products. There's usually a snazzy video presentation and some sort of unveiling-which is cool and all-but every now and then a manufacturer steps up and, rather than talk about the vehicle and show you someone driving it at the limit, actually puts you behind the wheel and lets you hang the tail out all on your own. That's exactly what Saleen did with the launch of its most powerful Mustang to date, the S302 Extreme.

El Toro Marine base in Irvine, California, was the site of our test. Saleen luminaries such as CEO Paul Wilbur, CTO Chris Theodore, General Manager Marques McCammon, VP of Dealer development Tom Ryan, as well as a host of engineers and other Saleen employees were on hand to answer questions and facilitate the day's activities, which centered around sampling the S302 Extreme's abundant horsepower and torque, while navigating a rather intricate yet lengthy autocross course.

Truth be told, Saleen also allowed us to sample its new Heritage H302 model on the same day. The H302 is patterned after the widely popular Parnelli Jones edition Saleen from 2007, featuring a naturally aspirated, bored and stroked 4.6L modular powerplant with a healthier 302 cubes and 390 hp. As much as we like the H302 and all it has to offer, the horsepower junkies in us were ready to savor the purported 620hp S302 Extreme Mustang, and your author was in the first run group to get their hands on both a black and silver S302.

Saleen has expanded its product lineup, offering several Mustang and truck models. The S302 in the foreground is the company's halo production vehicle and an industry standard with regard to high-performance American sports cars.

The previous-generation S281 Extreme Mustang featured a 4.6 engine that was fortified with forged internals. For the S302, Saleen pulled no punches with the new powerplant. Starting with the standard 4.6 block, the eight holes were bored out, for a displacement of 302 ci. Forged pistons, a crankshaft, and connecting rods provide a solid foundation on which Saleen set a pair of CNC-ported cylinder heads with performance camshafts.

Both Extreme Mustangs feature Saleen's Series VI supercharger system, but the S302 benefits from an upgraded, heavier-duty, dual-stage air-to-water intercooler to further cool the intake charge. With a Power-flash performance calibration and 2.5-inch stainless steel exhaust system, the S302 thumps out an '09 Corvette ZR1-matching 620 hp at 6,300 rpm, and 600 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. The Saleen engineers were hinting around that final power figures may be even a little higher once the cars hit the production line, but 620 is more than enough to handle most anything the current competition has to offer.

Your author prefers this rear-wing-delete model S302 for its sleek and uncluttered look. The five-spoke wheels are forged-aluminum pieces measuring 20x9 up front and 20x10 at the back.

The typical Saleen customer isn't neces-sarily worried about who's carrying the big-gest stick in the alley, however, as handling and ride quality are also extremely important. The S302 doesn't disappoint, as we sawed through the sea of autocross cones with great ease and control. The Racecraft suspension does a superb job of planting the mountainous torque and horsepower, where most aftermarket buildups with that kind of power leave the driver in a scary position of tail wagging.

Both the H302 and S302 Saleen Mustangs share the company's Watt's link-style rear suspension, which replaces the factory Panhard bar used for locating the rear axle side to side. The Watt's linkage uses two separate links that pivot off of the rear differential cover. The problem with the Panhard bar is that as the rearend moves through its range of travel, its side-to-side position changes through the course of its arcing motion. The Watt's linkage keeps the axle centered no matter what the range of motion. This translates into more surefootedness and a better ride quality. We also believe Saleen's Watt's linkage and suspension calibration are partly responsible for allowing the S302 to hook up the majority of that 620 hp. In addition to the Watt's linkage, Saleen's Racecraft suspension components complete the rest of the underpinnings with sport-tuned coil springs, sway bars, and custom-tuned N2 shocks and struts.

Six hundred twenty horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque never looked so stock. All of the good parts are on the inside, with the exception of the Saleen Series VI twin-screw supercharger.

Carrying over from the S281 Extreme is the close-ratio six-speed manual transmission and high-performance clutch assembly. While the S281E utilized a 4.10 ring-and-pinion ratio, that steep of a gear was just not needed with the power output of the S302, so a set of 3.73 cogs reside in the 8.8 axlehousing.

Balancing the performance in a car like the S302 requires upgrading all areas, and the braking system was not left untouched. Up front, you'll find pizza pan-sized 15-inch, slotted and vented brake rotors and six-piston Saleen calipers to clamp down on them when you hit the center pedal. The rearend braking duties are handled using slotted and vented 11.8-inch rotors with the stock calipers.

At the press launch, Saleen's own test driver, who's name was concealed, set the benchmark times for both the S302 and the H302 vehicles. Home-field advantage certainly played a factor as the El Toro Marine base is located literally in Saleen's Irvine, California, backyard.

Obviously, putting 620 hp to the ground without removing a significant amount of rubber from the tires is a tall task, but one that Saleen accomplishes with relative ease through a combination of suspension and Pirelli PZero Rosso tires. Departing from other Saleen offerings, the S302 sports a quartet of unique, five-spoke forged wheels measuring 20x9 inches up front and 20x10 inches in the rear. The Mustang's tire-pressure-monitoring system remains intact, and Saleen's cast-aluminum, seven-spoke chrome-plated wheels are available as a no-cost option.

Our day at El Toro provided us with three autocross runs in both the H302 and S302 vehicles. With the number of journalists in attendance, we didn't get much time to poke around beneath the hood or in the interior-the extensive sea of cones garnered the majority of our attention. The interior does come appointed with Saleen leather performance driving seats, a six-gauge instrument cluster with 200-mph speedometer, twin gauge pod with boost and air temperature instruments, a short-throw shifter, performance pedal covers, various Saleen badging, and a Rockford Fosgate sound system that we never turned on. To be honest, the exhaust note was all the music we needed.

Externally, the S302 is mildly updated from the S281E, and for 2008 you can now get a glass roof-or ditch the roof altogether and go for the speedster drop-top model. It's also available in all of the current Mustang colors.

Saleen's Tom Ryan seated each of the attending journalists in the pair of S302s prior to autocross departure. He also offered some tips after reviewing our previous runs.

On the autocross course, the S302 was immensely powerful, as the internal G-meter told us the twin-screw supercharger provided plenty of low-end torque. Amazingly, the S302 stuck like glue under acceleration, through the turns, and under braking. Oftentimes performance like this comes with a sacrifice in ride quality, but the S302 rode softly until we leaned the car into the turn, where it planted itself firmly. We did notice a bit more understeer in the S302 versus the H302, but we imagine the added weight of the S302's supercharger assembly may have set the weight balance a little farther forward. The minimal amount of understeer, however, was easily corrected with the throttle.

The S302 Extreme was definitely a blast to drive, which really is the goal behind a company's halo car, and the '08 Saleen S302 should be on dealer lots by the time you read this. Saleen is planning on building only 100 of these bad boys per year, and when combined with the $79,995 price tag, this should keep all 620 hp in the hands of a few.

We left the Saleen vehicle launch impressed by the S302 Extreme and the company in general. Saleen now offers a well-balanced lineup of high-performance vehicles, with something for everyone, whether it's a car or a truck. Knowing that Steve Saleen has left the Saleen stable, one may wonder where the company is now headed, but we can tell you there's an enthusiastic group of talented individuals at the helm who are directing the reawakening of the Saleen brand. Vehicle production will be moving to Saleen's Troy, Michigan, plant, and the company is expanding its Speedlab performance parts division along with its aftermarket installer network and dealer accounts. If the S302 is a sign of things to come, Saleen is headed in the right direction.