Vinnie "The Hit Man" Kung
January 13, 2014

In the world of specialty vehicle manufacturing, few can match the legendary Steve Saleen when it comes to offering performance vehicles that provide the utmost in power and presence. Having recently celebrated 30 years in the business, we were lucky enough to be invited to check out the latest special editions at Saleen’s headquarters in Corona, California.

Steve himself gave us a grand tour of his design and manufacturing studios, as well as his assembly line where cars such as the Heritage Collection Follmer Mustangs come to life. Did we see the upcoming successor to the S7 supercar during our visit? Perhaps. But that’s for another day.

For this visit, we focused on the 2014 302 Mustang line that mere mortals such as us can afford. These Mustangs are offered in three flavors (White Label, Yellow Label, and Black Label) ranging from 440 to 700 horsepower, in naturally-aspirated and supercharged form. The “Labels” represent three traditional colors of Saleen’s famed racing heritage—where paint and striping has been traditionally a mix of white, yellow, or black.

The top dog, the 351X Black Label, is the most extreme variant and offers racetrack-level performance for the street, with exclusivity to match. But for us, we were more eager to try out the “base” $38,495 White Label.

Why, do you ask, would we travel all this way just to jump behind the wheel of the most entry-level Saleen 302 Mustang? Quite simply, we wanted put ourselves into the shoes of someone who was in the market to buy a new Mustang and turn it into a nice weekend warrior with the usual bolt-ons.

Starting with Ford’s excellent Coyote 5.0, SALEEN adds a custom calibration, high flow air filter and axle-back exhaust for 440 horsepower with a full warranty. This thing just positively rips to 7,000! But you knew and already expected that. Note the strut tower brace with the SMS logo.

Once we added up the costs of a new Mustang GT and the dollar values for a nice exhaust, cold-air with tuner, a mild suspension for better grip, the pricing was looking pretty scary. As soon as we threw in a set of nice 20-inch wheels and tires and some exterior mods, we were quickly over $41,000 with a garage full of leftover parts that we’d have to sell for pennies on the dollar. So, we wondered… wouldn’t it be much easier for someone to simply buy a Saleen and actually pay less and have everything already done?

It seems like the lazy way out, but man, this makes too much logical sense. By the time you factor the warranty coverage, strong resale value, and the fact that you have something truly exclusive, it becomes clear that the Saleen is a smart move. As Steve put it, “The 302 Mustang White Label makes a lot more sense because it offers much more value than a regular production Mustang. There is no other car on the market that offers more power for the money” (Yes, we checked and at $38,495, no other car can get you 440 horsepower for under $40k!).

Steve then shared some of the technical aspects of the car that go beyond the fully-tuned Coyote mill revving away. “With the 302 Mustang, you also get all the four food groups addressed—Engine, Suspension, Interior and Exterior, all done with a factory warranty. Most Mustang enthusiasts will buy all the upgrades after they get a car, but we include all of that from our factory.

“For our cars, we make the swaybars stiffer and we add urethane where appropriate, which offers compliance. We increase the spring rates and lower ride height to maximize the factory geometry. The biggest improvement is with the offset of the wheels, to make sure that I have the maximum footprint of the tires on the ground. It’s this combination that we’ve learned over the years that allow us to put 275 tires all around, allowing you to take this car comfortably to work every day and still have a great handling car,” he added.

Starting with a base Mustang from Ford, our test vehicle, car number 2, was equipped with the cloth seats, which we absolutely love. Yes, leather can be nice, but we’re partial to saving a few animal hides. Besides, cloth breathes better when you have a bunch of fat-arses like us testing cars. SYNC was present and even without the Shaker sound system, we were still able to enjoy the tunes.

Behind the wheel of the Saleen, you get a sense of something special. Sitting in the cloth buckets, we gander at some of the Saleen-specific trim items such as the logos throughout the cockpit and the unique shift knob lets you now it’s time to hang on. Turning the key, we cranked the 5.0 to life, listening to the rumble of the exhaust settle into a nice idle, which certainly has authority. The open road is where thing started to heat up. On our first tank of gas, we tried not to beat on it too much, since it wasn’t broken in yet. But afterwards, it was ON!

After spirited driving, we put heat into the Cooper Zeon RS3-S tires and had them sticky enough to let us aggressively roll the car out in First to feel all 440 horsepower. Time to powershift Second, but hang onto something because this gear winds out quick. Next up, grab Third and let that motor get up on cam(s) all the way to 7,000 rpm. Check your review mirror pal, because we passed “legal” speeds about one International border ago.

Once into Fourth, you can really feel how hunkered down this car is. The suspension is planted and the car doesn’t have the typical feel that stock Mustangs do where you can sense the car being all torqued up from the power when traveling at triple-digit speeds. Also, there is no wander present when you bang into Fifth. At this point, it was time to slow down… to do it again, of course. Time to kick back some tacos, get a few liters of petrol, and drive this puppy home at sane speeds. After all, we did all this aggressive driving in another country, where speeds are not regulated.

The next day, we decided to something we don’t normally do—drive it to work, go shopping and do the usual stuff that Joe schmo does—you know, the mundane day-to-day stuff. But this was the perfect time to really see how good the car is since after all, not everyone is driving at 10/10s all the time.

The most impressive part of the package is how well calibrated the engine tune is. Sometimes, aftermarket tunes make big power, but are real sloppy on the bottom end under light throttle. We’ve seen some other tunes surge and buck the car when coming from a stop but with this car, Saleen has really figured it out, making it feel more drivable than even a showroom-stock Mustang. Smooth and buttery power delivery is what it’s all about and this car delivers it in spades.

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On the highway, the ride quality was good, but let’s talk in relative terms here. Certainly, a performance suspension will always ride a bit stiffer than an OEM Ford setup, but we’re used to is, so to us, it’s very livable. The 20s are certainly making their presence known each time you hit a large bump in the road as there is some rear bump steer present, which is inevitable when a live-axle car meets such gnarly wheel and tires combos on each corner. As far as cabin noise goes, the Cooper tires were great, emitting equal or less tires noise than some stock cars with 19s. However, it may have been because the exhaust note was overpowering all other sounds. Right under 2,000 rpm, the exhaust drone was constant under mild to heavier throttle, which even the cruise control will provide when climbing mild hills in Sixth. But, we do like how everyone checks you out with your 5.0 rumbling down the road. Anywhere we rolled, not a single Ricer or even one Camaro would start with us. They would look at the car, and by the time you turned your head, they looked down at our wheels—that’s respect. In truth, the color probably had something to do with it also.

After putting on nearly 1,000 miles on this 2014 Gotta Have It Green coupe, we were excited to report that Steve Saleen is right in every regard. His new 302 Mustang White Label gives you everything you’d expect in a weekend play toy that can serve double duty as a DD. Refined drivability, incredible performance, road presence and a price tag that’s actually less than building your own makes the 2014 302 Mustang White Label one of the best new Mustangs for the dollar. Come to think of it, that’s a good label to have.

Exterior enhancements aside, the most impressive part of the new SALEEN is the drive. With 440 horsepower and throttle response second to none, the entire car is a balanced package with no sacrifices for power, comfort or speed. The rear spoiler is quite pronounced, offers more downforce at speed, and gives the coupe a proper sendoff from behind.


Specs

Test Vehicle: 2014 SALEEN 302 White Label

Base MSRP

$38,495

Options

Chrome Wheel upgrade ($1,350)

As Tested

$39,845 (without D&H)

Color

Gotta Have It Green Metallic Tri-Coat (HD)

Upholstery

Charcoal Black Cloth

Engine

302 CI 4 Valve DOHC V8

Horsepower

440 hp @ 6,750 RPM (with Premium fuel)

Torque

401 lb-ft @ 4,500 RPM (with Premium fuel)

Fuel delivery

Ford 33 lb/hr with SALEEN calibration

Induction

Factory cold air with high-flow air filter

Exhaust

High flow axle-back with polished stainless tips

Wheels

20" x 9" (F&R)

Tires

Cooper Zeon RS3-S, 275/35/ZR20 (front), 275/40/ZR20 (rear)

Suspension

SALEEN S4 specific-rate springs, bushings and links

Interior

SALEEN leather shift knob, SMS door sills and embroidered floormats and headrests

Exterior

SALEEN front grille, striping, taillamp panel, high downforce rear spoiler, serialized numbering, chevron fenders stripes

Warranty

3 years / 36,000 miles