Tom Wilson
June 19, 2006

Mustangs are all about being special. The first Mustangs were a flood of options, from economy-car powertrains to musclecar excesses and Rally Pacs to tissue dispensers. Carroll Shelby upped the ante with his line of limited-issue Mustangs, and all told, for the last four decades, it is a rare person who hasn't been able to find their own unique happiness in a Mustang.

For your own place in the sun, there is the most special of Mustangs, the Saleen. Built, certified, and serial numbered by Saleen with the company's own blend of performance, comfort, and styling options, these are the last word in Mustang exclusivity.

Saleen's rear styling is masterful. An exciting and unique rear treatment also lengthens the car's profile. The license plate pulls down to access the trunk lock, although in practice, the key-fob remote release is usually used.

To sample the latest of the breed, we visited Saleen's Irvine, California, headquarters for a tour and saddled-up this extroverted, yellow convertible. It's squarely in the middle of Saleen's three-tier Mustang offerings; the S281 Three-Valve (3V), S281 Supercharged (SC), and the released-by-the time-you-read-this S281 Extreme (E). All models are available as coupes or convertibles, and the convertibles have a Speedster option that includes a three-piece tonneau cover that folds over the rear seats to form a two-seater.

With a base price of $42,281 for the coupe, the 3V is the basic Saleen Mustang. Starting with a Mustang GT, Saleen rebuilds it, improving every aspect of the car. Starting underhood, the 4.6L engine-management computer has a Saleen Powerflash recalibration, Saleen center-exit exhaust, Saleen underdrive pulleys, and a harmonic damper to arrive at Saleen's 330hp rating.

Saleen's supercharger and intake assembly is compact and fits under a stock hood. It's also thoroughly integrated into the Saleen design; for example, the series of small, rectangular depressions is replicated on the seating treatment.

While the transmission remains stock other than Saleen's short-throw shifter, manual transmission 3Vs are fitted with 3.73 final drive gears in the 8.8-inch rear axle; automatic cars use 3.31 gears. Saleen's MaxGrip limited-slip differential is optional for $1,653 and uses a small pump inside to put a hydraulic squeeze on a clutch pack.

Ford's standard GT brakes supply enough whoa for the 3V Saleen's go, but at $2,055, the S281 Supercharged's 14-inch front brakes are an option for those wanting to fill up the 20-inch wheels.

Saleen's interior treatment is classy and plays to the late-model Mustang's heavy reliance on heritage cues. The Saleen dash plaque is now understated black plastic mounted to the far right of the dash.

The suspension is definitely not Ford. A set of higher-rate gas struts, linear-rate coil springs, and tubular sway bars are grouped under Saleen's Racecraft name. Dunlop Sport tires, size P275/35ZR-20, on satin-finished Saleen 20x9-inch forged-aluminum wheels are standard, and a Pirelli P-Zero Rosso upgrade on chrome wheels is an option for an estimated $2,400. The Pirelli upgrade also includes 20x10-inch rear wheels wearing P275/40ZR-20 tires. They take the tires right to the edge of the fenders, so there are no unsightly gaps.

Inside, Saleen makes the Ford interior its own with leather upholstery and plenty of Saleen signage. A six-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support is on hand, and Saleen is sure to employ the MyColor feature allowing custom instrument colors on the main cluster, which has Saleen calibrations and faces, as well as a 200-mph speedometer. Props to Saleen for bucking the now-tiresome white-faced instrument trend, instead using handsome black backgrounds. Other Saleen interior bits are floor mats, a steering-wheel badge, some rather businesslike pedal pads, a clean sill plate, and an aluminum shift knob. Of course all the usual power windows, locks, and other GT items are on hand. Ford's GT sound system continues as standard with an optional Shaker 500 system available for $665.

All S281 supercharged coupes and convertibles carry a gauge pod atop the dash. Boost pressure is presented at left; charge cooling temperature at right. The driver rarely sees these instruments move. The boost pops up whenever charging hard, of course, and the charge temps are often lower than 100 degrees, the lowest reading on that dial.

But for all that, it's outside where Saleen's capabilities are fully brought to bear. Both the front and rear are totally redesigned, so the roof, doors, fenders, and cowl are the only stock Ford bodywork. Easily the most integrated and cohesively styled Saleen Mustang in Saleen's two decades, the current S281 line is aggressively handsome. Expect excellent fit and finish when scoping out one of these cars.

All Saleen Mustangs use the same basic front and rear treatments, although the Extreme features a solid panel instead of the fastback windows. This look doesn't need dressing up, but of course, there are a handful of options for just that purpose. The most popular is Saleen's own high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, both high- and low-beam. Our test car had this $1,080 option, which really set off the front end. Saleen's palette of custom paints is also available. These finishes require many layers of unique materials and plenty of skilled labor to apply; the $15,000 price offers a clue to their exclusivity.

On this visit to Saleen headquarters, we slid into this yellow S281 Supercharged convertible. In addition to the 3V's features, the Supercharged coupes ($51,102 base price) and convertibles ($55,989) sport the 14-inch front brakes and MaxGrip differential as standard in addition to the supercharging system, as well as 3.55 rear gears for manual-transmission cars.