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.

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.

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.

Pulled from the same assembly line as blowers destined for production Saleens, aftermarket Saleen blowers get all the decoration and content found on S281 SCs. Here the blower's bottom mounting is evident; the two hose nipples above the supercharger are water outlet/inlets for the charge cooler.

Curing Blower Envy
Have an '05 or '06 Mustang GT and want the Saleen supercharger? No problem: Saleen is offering not only the S281 supercharging system as an aftermarket part, it's relaunching the entire aftermarket-parts program in a very serious way.

Saleen's commitment to parts sales is so great, says Manny Margaretis, director of operations for aftermarket, they're busy dusting off every possible Saleen part going all the way back to the Fox heyday. Yes, that means vintage Saleen parts will be available once again. That's perfect for the Saleen restorer or Mustang restomod fan. It's all part of a plan to position Saleen as a premium lifestyle brand, says Margaretis. Saleen parts sales will fully support every Saleen vehicle, plus those people who want to personalize their cars with Saleen equipment. So, from vintage body kits to the latest Extreme powertrain, we'll all have access to Saleen parts. This effort includes all sorts of apparel and accessory items, so Saleen fans should keep an eye on the company. The quickest way to do that is on the Web site, www.saleen.com, or in Mustang Monthly.

As for the supercharger, it's Saleen's Series VI blower. It uses a 2.3L Lysholm-screw rotor pack and retails for $5,699. That includes everything; the supercharger/charge-cooling/manifold assembly as described in the main story, plus the charge cooler's radiator, electric water pump, reservoir tank, pulleys, and serpentine belt. The stock throttle body and injectors are used, so they are not included.

Built as a show piece, this assembly is how a customer receives a supercharger and manifold, minus the throttle body since the stock throttle body is reused.
Saleen builds its superchargers in a specialized room off the main assembly line. Obviously, blown Saleens are popular: We saw them stacked up like this throughout the shop.

Because the major pieces are already assembled, installation is a nut-and-bolt affair. Besides R&R to the the intake manifold, the alternator is remounted, and some of the drive pulleys and tensioners are relocated. Saleen says it takes two of their assembly-line techs four hours to install the blower, but they're working on a clean car under ideal conditions. Although senior enthusiasts can likely fit the Saleen blower package in one rather long day at home with some help from a buddy, a more realistic assessment rates it a weekend project.

After installation, Saleen says you should have a good time with the four pounds of boost and 435 hp using its conservative engine-management program. Like all such superchargers, the Saleen blower makes an extremely soft coffee-grinder gear noise all the time. This is a subdued sound and will not bother anyone unless they believe that old saw about roots and Lysholm superchargers being silent: nearly so, but not quite. When making boost, the noise out the intake is a siren-like scream, but you won't hear this because it's muffled by the Saleen intake casting and stock air filter. Take the air filter off and you can make like a fire truck at full throttle.

When the S281 Extreme supercharger becomes available, you'll be able to buy any part of the Extreme through the parts department, including the entire engine, and it will come with larger fuel injectors, a different drive pulley, and a higher price tag to cover the injectors.

What Does She Weigh?
Increasing weight is an industry-wide concern today, so we took our Saleen convertible across the scales. The numbers below are for the car shown with a full tank of gas and no driver.

2006 Saleen S281 Weight
WeightPercentage
Front Axle2,020 lbs53%
Rear Axle1,820 lbs47%
Total3,840 lbs

Wow, even with a 180-pound driver, these cars are 4,000-plus pounds. With many of us packing 200 pounds or more, plus a lightweight passenger, the total weight easily reaches SUV territory. Combine a 240-pound driver with a 130-pound passenger and a full fuel tank, and the car totals 4,210 pounds. Of course, much of this weight is fun stuff such as the supercharger, intercooler, and those tall wheels, but that weight is accelerated and cornered nonetheless. To put it in perspective, this is approximately 700 pounds more than an old Fox Mustang. Credit the new car's stiffer chassis, longer wheelbase, air bags, better bumpers, more complex engine, and other improvements for the increase.