Tom Wilson
June 19, 2006
Saleen's major change to the primary instruments is a 200-mph speedometer. It's sure to wow the troops, but it's more difficult to read since the needle moves only a small range for normal driving.

Likewise, handling has improved to unrecognizable heights. Yes, the new Mustangs are sumo-like (see sidebar, page 38), but given their huge tires and the limitations of the street, the newest Saleens are a pleasure to drive. True handling buffs should stick to the coupes as their extra rigidity pays off in crisper steering response and more composure over bumps and at speed. At the very limit--which is plenty high--a Saleen Mustang coupe gently gives up front grip, so understeer is noticable, but only when really letting it hang out on highway cloverleafs or other long, tight turns.

S281 convertibles should be considered spirited tourers, everyday drivers, and special-trip specialists that can hold a rapid pace for hours on end, yet pack a massive supercharged punch when it's time to pass that truck. Because they inevitably twist more than the coupes, the drop-tops are not the last word for open-track or slalom action. Our test car's rear axle was more apt to slow down than the coupe's ultimately understeering front end. On bumpy secondary roads, the convertible's chassis seems to wiggle and bump more from the rear than the front, and that was the limit for us. More rear shock dampening would help, but at the expense of ride quality. We agree with Saleen's dampening choices: We'll take the plushly controlled ride over a beat-you-up rearend any day.

So, we have the top stowed and the engine fired up. There's no visible shift pattern--Saleen pilots know that sort of stuff without being told, and it takes a bit of muscle to work the stubby shifter into gear. Like all late-model Mustang shifters, it's rubbery thanks to its mounting on both the transmission and the chassis, but it's tight enough, and the clutch action is smooth and medium weight. The engine takes up the load smoothly like a luxury car, and aided by the remarkably tight turning, maneuvering out of parking spaces and around tight lots is easy. Only more rear visibility would help, but such is the price of the fashionable rear wing and hulking rear quarter-panels.

Twin, parallel assembly lines for S281s and S331s are used at Saleen's Irvine plant. As the gleaming floor shows, the facility is clean, and cars roll through as work allows instead of at the pace of a mechanized line. Besides building Mustangs, Saleen's Irvine headquarters is also home to S7 supercar and S331 truck production.

Not Your Dad's Saleen
It's obvious that with the all-new Mustang in 2005, there were also all-new Saleen Mustangs. Not so obvious is that behind those exciting new Saleens, there is essentially a new company.

Saleen's recent growth has occasionally been highly visible--the S7 supercar is a hard one to miss--and nearly imperceptible to the public at other times. For example, Saleen was refinanced and restructured a couple of years ago. The company has probably been cataloged as reliably supplying Saleen Mustangs but without much thought to anything else.

Well, yes, the Saleen Mustangs have been coming off the assembly line, but so have the S7s; the N2O Foci, until last year; Ford's GT at a new Saleen facility in Troy, Michigan; and the just-announced Saleen S331 Sport Truck. Today, Saleen's two assembly plants, one at its Irvine headquarters and the other at Troy, give the specialist builder an immense capacity compared to just a few years ago.

After assembly, all Saleens are protected during indoor storage and are transported to dealers in enclosed, specialized trucks, as they have been for years.

Last year, Saleen produced well over 2,000 Saleen Mustangs and could have sold a third more had they been able to buy more from Ford. Typical Saleen sales since 2000 have hovered around 900 cars per year, so it's clear the newest Mustang is a major-league winner for Saleen. Ultimately, Steve Saleen sees the potential for 3,000 cars per year. Furthermore, those two facilities house numerous additional in-house engineering and manufacturing capabilities undreamt of by Saleen just five years ago, and the development pace is only increasing.

There's financial horsepower behind Saleen, both through its owners and the increased business brought on by the cars rolling off the assembly lines, and that money is translating into exponential growth. What's more, there is an air of increasing urbanity at Saleen. The new Saleen Mustangs are "a little less boy racer, more sophisticated," says Steve Saleen, and inevitably, the company is pushing towards its goal of world-class, Porsche-and-Ferrari-level status. The current Mustang, not to mention the $575,000 twin-turbo S7 hypercar, has already brought BMW and Mercedes owners into Saleen showrooms, so the move is well underway.

The S281 SC moves down the road with mumbling grace. The exhaust sounds are always there, and the blower gives the softest background whine, but they're nothing the radio volume can't handle. As a daily driver, the S281 carries the real-world excellence Mustangs are famous for. The front end doesn't drag in driveways, doors clear all but exceptionally tall curbs, ingress and egress are fine, the Shaker 500 sound is a great companion, and the climate control is remarkably effective. We'll only repeat that the rear view is slightly constrained by the wing, but not enough to worry about. Also, the 200-mph speedometer seems silly once you realize the needle only moves 45 degrees between 0 and 80 mph, leaving the rest of the arc for schoolboy fantasies.

Oh yes, the power: Saleen's supercharger makes ours one fly ride. It delivers boost immediately across the powerband. Like all modern Ford engines, the Saleen supercharged 4.6L ramps up power in a smooth rush.

With the modest 281ci displacement, the engine can't hit off-idle like a 460, but with the 3.73 gears and early-to-the-party boost response, it's satisfying and only gets better with rpm. When you let it wind out, you'll appreciate Saleen's "Power in the hands of few" motto with some personal conviction. It means triple digits and nowhere near slowing down.

In short, the current Saleen Mustangs, like their Ford cousins, are the best ever. Absolutely real-world, daily driver cars, they offer an unarguably unique combination of exhilarating performance and brash expressiveness. We can hardly wait to slide behind the wheel of an Extreme. With a fully built 4.6L three-valve and more boost, its 550 hp has to be that much more of a great thing. And like Mae West said, too much of a good thing ... can be wonderful.