Tom Wilson
June 19, 2006
BMW probably started the trend, but Saleen wins something for vehicle branding. We didn't count them all, but adding up the Saleen script and logos on the seats, floor mats, instruments, valve-stem caps, calipers, rear valance, intake manifold, cooler hoses, and so on, we counted 30 references on our test convertible. Like this seat embroidery, all are nicely done.

Saleen's supercharger is an efficient Lysholm-screw design. The male/female rotor pack is sourced from Lysholm, but the remainder is all Saleen. Air enters by way of the stock Ford inlet and panel air filter and tubing, then passes through the Saleen upper casting, which is the section of casting visible atop the blower package. At the rear of the system, the passage turns downward to reach the rear of the supercharger, which sits deep in the 4.6L 3V's expansive valley. In fact, the supercharger sits deepest in the valley, discharging upwards into an air-to-water charge cooler. After the heat rejection, the charge air is diverted 180-degrees outward and downward in the individual cylinder runners. It sounds convoluted, but the air passage easily handles the volumes involved. By turning the alternator around, it maintains a single serpentine beltdrive.

What's more, the supercharger, manifold, and charge cooler make a nifty package that can be preassembled by Saleen in the engine shop, the same place where the thumping 750hp, twin-turbo S7 427 engines are built. On the assembly line, all that's necessary is removal of the stock intake manifold; placement of the blower assembly, the cooler's radiator and small electric water pump; and reversing the alternator. This packaging also makes the supercharger a natural aftermarket part.

Short and stubby, Saleen's short-throw shifter takes a bit of effort to operate. It goes a long way toward giving the yellow S281 convertible a manly feel.

Our test car had several options, including the HID headlights, chrome-wheel and Pirelli-tire upgrade, MaxGrip differential, and Sports Bar (the rollbar lookalike), but not the Speedster tonneau cover. The Sports Bar is a styling feature and goes for $999, while the similarly intended Speedster option is $2,679. We haven't seen the latest Saleen Speedster Tonneau, but it is now a three-piece folding unit that fits in the trunk. That's a significant improvement over the old one-piece that didn't fit in the trunk. For example, if you needed the top due to an unexpected rain storm or whenever stopping for the night while touring, too bad: It wasn't in the car.

In Screaming Yellow with black graphics, the S281 SC is a stunner. The anticollision yellow attracts attention at 1,000 yards, and by the time you draw near, camera phones are out and fingers are pointing. Pull in for gas and somebody is sure to say something or want a closer look, and who can blame them? The Saleen bodywork is attractive, and so effective, few can immediately identify the car as a Mustang. All but the Mustang die-hards ask what it is, and everyone congratulated us on our good-looking car. Steve Saleen likes to say his cars are always parked up front, no matter how many Ferraris and Maseratis are already there, and he's right.

Saleen doesn't leave anything be when it comes to performance. These are the optional 4 piston caliper Saleen/Brembo calipers used to detach your retinas under heavy braking.

For our own edification, we'd like to try a set of silver wheels with the Screaming Yellow paint. The chrome wheels are certainly flashy, but with so much bright color on hand, we wonder if a less-brilliant wheel treatment might wear longer. Such wheels certainly are gorgeous on the Satin Silver coupes we saw at the Irvine headquarters. Those Saleens exuded a restrained, yet tightly-strung sense of excitement, while our convertible tester was considerably more extroverted.

Of course, from behind the steering wheel, the road-wheel finish is not quite so imperative. The first thing we noticed was the firm seating. While not the FloFit concrete benches of Saleen Fox-body yore, the late models are definitely firm. Larger individuals may find the thigh bolsters noticeable in supporting the upper leg, but otherwise, our editor-at-large had a good home inside.

It's difficult to rise higher on the Mustang pecking order than a shiny, new Saleen convertible. The S281 carries a subtle, all-black egg-crate grille with the classic Saleen five-hole front valance. The optional HID headlights do their part to give the Saleen a unique front end.

Turn the key and the 3V's V-8 loudly bursts to life. With the top down, the Saleen exhaust's mumbling and muted burbles are right there with you. It barely intrudes on conversation but is quite the thing to match the yellow paint and chrome wheels when making a big exit.

The Saleen exhaust has an interesting twist. The mufflers, which are mounted in the extreme rear corners, have two outlets. Normally the exhaust vents through the center exhaust outlets, but when making big power, a valve on each muffler opens, allowing exhaust to exit through a short dump tube on the end of the muffler also. This increase in area lowers back pressure and aids power production. Curiously, we couldn't detect any difference in sound quality or volume with the dump tubes activated, probably because we were busy with the 435 hp.

Not quite released during our visit, Saleen's Scenic Roof option ($3,999) is one of the most exciting developments in years. "Michigan's answer to the convertible," according to one Saleen insider, the Scenic Roof uses a UV-blocking tinted glass to deliver a convertible-like experience with the comfort of a coupe. Saleen says the non-operating glass is thicker than the metal it replaces, so body rigidity actually increases. In our brief drive, we found it awesome. Although you're inside, you feel like you're outside.

Years ago, Saleens were criticized for their harsh ride, but those days are long gone. Taking advantage of the new Mustang's more rigid chassis, Saleen engineers have carefully chosen springs, shocks, and sway bars that improve responsiveness without sacrificing ride quality. In fact, this may be the greatest improvement granted by the new Mustang platform: the ability to corner and handle like a thoroughbred without the hammering of previous performance suspensions.