Dale Amy
May 1, 2003

First, a confession: Despite being a regular around these pages, I don't get much seat time in Saleen Mustangs. With its corporate headquarters and manufac-turing facility being located in California, West Coast Editor-at-Large Tom Wilson usually gets the call when Saleen hands out the keys to something new and exciting. And, on the rare occasion when one does finds its way east, the crew in the Florida office practically smack each other silly to get in line for the keys, with Editor Turner usually getting first shot, because-well-rank does have its privileges.

But all that changed last October when Saleen scheduled its '03 model introduction for the days leading up to the American Le Mans Series' season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. El Jefe Turner, you see, had a scheduling conflict, so in an unparalleled fit of Southern hospitality, he gave his unofficial "northern-affairs editor" (that would be me) the call. Saleen's scheduling of the intro to coincide with the race event was not at all coincidental, since a number of customer S7Rs were to contest the ALMS GTS class against factory-backed Corvettes, the venerable Viper GTS-Rs, and a pair of Ferrari 550 Maranellos.

The plan was to spend a couple quality days behind the wheel of Saleen's two supercharged '03 models-the S281-SC and the top-dog S281-E-with an '02 SC along for comparison, then check out a brand-new, high-tech Pirelli tire manufacturing facility in Georgia, and finally close out the trip as guests of Saleen and Pirelli North America at the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans road race. The only way it could have been better is if they'd brought along a street S7 for a good wringing out. But that, as Saleen Vice President of Engineering Bill Tally once quipped, would be like "giving a monkey a gun." Well said, Billy, and pass the banana.

The tie-in between Saleen and Pirelli is a close one, as the Italian firm's world-class rubber has shod production S281s, as well as the street S7 and some S7Rs, for some time now. This trip would be an opportunity for us to sample a new ultra-high-performance offering just entering the Pirelli lineup-the P Zero Nero-and to check out the revolutionary new process used to manufacture it (see the sidebar Pirelli Invades North America). Two of our test cars wore the new Nero tires, while the third was fitted with previous-generation P Zero System counterparts.

As press intros go, this was purposely intended to be a small gathering, with only two scribes from Stateside and a British colleague in attendance. That blessedly meant one car for each of us, so during the course of our two days' rampaging through the Southeast, we simply rotated between one '03 S281-SC coupe and two Speedsters-an '02 SC and an '03 S281-E-for back-to-back comparison.

Though we experienced a mixed bag of tarmac in these superbly potent Mustangs, from rural two-lanes to Atlanta's notorious rush-hour freeway gridlock, the most memorable stretch by far had to be the Tail of the Dragon. This almost unbelievable paved roller coaster twists its way like a drunken tapeworm through the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Traversing just 14 miles as the crow flies, its adrenaline-milking switchbacks and gut-curdling elevation changes can probably account for a year's worth of tire and deodorant wear if driven with proper enthusiasm-which is the only way to drive it. How challenging is this serpentine section of blacktop? Well, it even has its own Web site (www.tailofthedragon.com), and let's just say that if you die on the Dragon, it won't be from boredom.

The Cars-Talk About The Cars!Model-wise, Saleen's '03 Mustang lineup remains unchanged, comprising the naturally aspirated S281, the blown S281 SC, and the mind-blowing S281-E. But power is up across the board. The S281 gains 5 hp and 10 lb-ft of torque (to 290 hp, 330 lb-ft) thanks to recalibration of the Saleen PowerFlash processor and some exhaust tweaking. Last year's exhaust apparently necked down 2.25 inches at the mufflers, a situa-tion that has now been remedied with a system that is 2.5 inches throughout. The final change for the '03 S281-which is priced at $36,095 in coupe form and $40,114 for the convertible-is the addition of Saleen Sport seats to the standard-equipment list.

The blown SC also benefits from much the same exhaust and programming improvements as the S281, but its big news is a swap from last year's Roots-type supercharger to a Lysholm twin-screw unit. Though the boost level remains about the same, Saleen found the Lysholm to be more thermally efficient at that pressure, so that it exhales at a lower temperature, especially after shedding even more BTUs via a new, more efficient, fan-equipped, water-to-air intercooler (shared with the Extreme). This cooler, denser intake charge allows tuning for both better power and driveability. Air-inlet ducting has also been enlarged in support of the new blower. Now packing 375 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque (up 10 and 15, respectively, from last year), the S281-SC coupe carries a $42,788 list price, while the drop-top comes in at $46,807.

At the pinnacle of Saleen Mustang pecking order is the S281-E (known hereafter simply as the Extreme), back for its sophomore year with even more power and steeper gearing (3.55 versus 3.08). Exhaust and calibration revisions, along with a larger throttle body (75mm versus 65), have bumped horsepower up by 15, to 445, and torque by 20 lb-ft, to an even 450, making the E's upgraded short-block seem like a darn good idea. Perhaps in view of the additional power, the Extreme coupe, at $60,586, and the $64,504 convertible also receive 1-inch-larger, 14-inch slotted front rotors for 2003. And look for midyear introduction of a new pod housing boost and intake air temp gauges. Oh, and you can add the Speedster package-as our pair of convertible testers had-for $2,979.

Unfortunately, the weather was (accurately) forecast to be fairly sodden for our blitzkrieg through the Smoky Mountains, so we had to leave those Speedster tonneau covers in storage back at Road Atlanta and run buttoned up for much of the time. But the dreary weather did little to dampen our enthusiasm for the task at hand. My first stint was in the over-the-top S281-E. This Beryllium ragtop was, in fact, Steve Saleen's personal car, an '02 that has been fully updated to '03 specs. The Extreme certainly lives up to its billing, with power that is intoxicating, particularly when accompanied by the wicked exhaust note emanating from its center-exiting trumpets. A word of advice, however: If you want to go through life unnoticed, don't even think about getting behind the wheel of a Beryllium S281-E, a car that draws more envious stares than Dolly Parton in a nursery full of unfed newborns. Speaking of such major attractions, our route took us right past Dollywood, nestled amongst the scenic peaks of the Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But we digress...

Having both '02 and '03 versions of the S281-SC on hand provided some interesting comparisons. Whether you'll be happy or disappointed to know that the new car's Lysholm-supplied screw-type supercharger operates in almost total silence will depend on how well you liked the patented "siren-call" of last year's Roots-style blower. Either way, you're unlikely to be disappointed with the '03's performance, which has a distinctly fatter feeling powerband than its predecessor-sort of like a .40-caliber S&W compared to a 9mm.

One other difference was obvious, and that was in the exhaust note. Both SCs sounded equally pleasant, with a nice X-pipe rip under acceleration, but the '02 exhibited the common Mustang-with-an-aftermarket-exhaust drone, particularly in the 1,800- to 2,200-rpm band. This, to me at least, gets really old, really fast, on any sort of highway trip. The '03 car, by comparison, was blessedly quiet under 80-mph cruise conditions, allowing normal conversation or actually hearing the whole tonal range of the sound system. Chalk this up to a revised muffler design this year.

We can't leave the topic of sound without one further observation: The new P Zero Nero Pirellis fitted to both our test SCs went about their oh-so-sticky business more quietly than the older-generation P Zeros that were on the Extreme. Yet, based on our kamikaze attack on the Tail of the Dragon, they give up absolutely nothing in grip, taking everything we dared throw at them without even so much as a squeal or slide. Given our duck-friendly weather, we also had plenty of opportunity to experience their prodigious wet grip.

On early Saleens, the price for that performance was a race-hard ride that limited the car's appeal as daily transportation on anything but the most velvety of roads. Not so with the current generation, which combines quick reflexes and athletic handling with surprisingly supple long-distance comfort, in the true gran tourismo tradition. How would it do on a racetrack? We haven't a clue, nor do we care, because the Saleen Mustang isn't a race car. It's a high-performance road car-one that will be equally at home doing slot-car duty on some canyon road, swallowing hundreds of miles of freeway in a single gulp, or just profiling down Rodeo Drive.

I'll have to try and get my hands on one more often.

Pirelli Invades North AmericaPerformance-tire giant Pirelli has recently opened its first North American manufacturing facility. We don't know whether it was through sheer coincidence or a corporate sense of humor that the Italian-based firm chose Rome, Georgia, as the locationfor this leading-edge-technology plant that also encompasses its North American headquarters.

Tire production in Rome will use Pirelli's revolu-tionary new Modular Integrated Robotized System, a highly automated design and manufacturing process that is more efficient and much more flexible than "old-fashioned" tire production. Rather than be batch-processed in a multitude of phases, each tire built in the MIRS facility will be handed from robot to robot, and go from raw material to finished product in as little as 72 minutes. Tires built the old way could take as long as six days because of various storage phases along the way. Processing phases using MIRS are, in fact, reduced from the traditional 14 to just 3

Maybe most important to Mustang owners is that the only tire currently being built at this world-class Georgia facility is the equally world-class P Zero Nero (aside from sounding catchy, nero is the Italian word for black). This latest member of the P Zero family is intended to provide the ultimate in grip, under both wet and dry conditions. The best accolade we can offer is that it got us safely through the Tail of the Dragon-no mean feat when you have auto writers playing tag in someone else's cars.

Southern Hospitality (Tent)If you've never been to an American Le Mans Series race, you're missing some awesome sights and sounds. For Saleen fans, the highlight will no doubt be the thundering 7.0 S7Rs that do battle in GTS against Corvettes, Vipers, and Ferraris. Unfortunately, in 2002, the Saleens had to engage in this combat with one hand tied behind their backs, thanks to rules that had them choked with a 10-percent-smaller intake restrictor than the previous year. This penalty had to do with ALMS rule requirements relating to S7 production volume and European distributorship. These matters are expected to be resolved for the '03 season, hopefully putting the S7R back in the take-no-prisoners winning form it exhibited in 2001.

The Petit Le Mans we attended at Road Atlanta wrapped up the season with a 1,000-mile test of stamina-for cars, drivers, and crew. We, on the other hand, were able to escape the heat and load up on calories in Pirelli's hospitality tent. A perfect end to a great road trip and an exciting race.

03 SalEen S281

GENERAL
Curb Weight 3,428 lb, coupe 3,620 lb, convertible
Weight Distribution 57/43 F/R
Fuel Capacity 15.7 gal
Wheelbase 101.3 in

ENGINE
Type 4.6L, 2V, SOHC V-8
Bore and Stroke 3.60x3.60 in
Displacement 4.6 L, 281 ci
Accessory Pulleys Saleen underdrive pulleys
Exhaust System Saleen stainless, 2.5-in exhaust w/X-pipe
Horsepower 290 hp at 5,100 rpm
Torque 330 lb-ft at 4,100 rpm
Fuel Premium unleaded 91-octane

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Saleen Quick-Ratio five-speed 8.8-in Differential
3.27 Ratio Standard 8.8-in Differential
3.55 Ratio Optional
Saleen MaxGrip Optional

SUSPENSION
Front Hybrid MacPherson struts w/Saleen Racecraft system including N2 struts, variable-rate springs mounted on lower control arms, 1.38-in stabilizer bar w/urethane pivot bushings
Rear Live-axle four-bar link w/variable-rate coil springs on lower trailing arms, stabilizer bar, Quadra Shock system w/Saleen Racecraft shocks
Brakes Power four-wheel ABS 10.8-in dual-piston
Vented Disc (Front) Standard
10.5-in Disc (Rear) Standard Saleen ABS Four-Piston Calipers
13.0-in Grooved Disc (Front) Optional
Wheels Saleen five-spoke alloy
18x9-in Front Standard
18x9-in Rear Standard
18x10-in Rear Optional
Tires High-Performance Pirelli P7000
P255/35ZR18 (Front) Standard
P265/35ZR18 (Rear) Standard High-Performance Pirelli P Zero Rosso Upgrade
P265/35ZR18 (Front) Optional
P295/35ZR18 (Rear) Optional

GENERAL
Curb Weight 3,428 lb, coupe 3,620 lb, convertible
Weight Distribution 57/43 F/R
Fuel Capacity 15.7 gal
Wheelbase 101.3 in

ENGINE
Type 4.6L, 2V, SOHC V-8
Bore and Stroke 3.60x3.60 in
Displacement 4.6 L, 281 ci
Exhaust System Saleen stainless, 2.5-in exhaust w/X-pipe
Horsepower 375 hp at 5,800 rpm
Torque 415 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm
Fuel Premium unleaded 91-octane Saleen Intercooled
Supercharger ...Saleen Series IV Twin Screw supercharger, 4-in power tube, 80mm cast 356-T6 aluminum inlet tube, Saleen cast 356 T6 aluminum manifold, water-to-air intercooler, calibrated Saleen engine-management system,30-lb/hr fuel injectors

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Saleen Quick-Ratio five-speed transmission 8.8-in Differential
3.27 Ratio Standard
Saleen MaxGrip Optional

SUSPENSION
Front Hybrid MacPherson struts w/Saleen Racecraft system including N2 struts, variable-rate springs mounted on lower control arms, 1.38-in stabilizer bar w/urethane pivot bushings
Rear Live-axle four-bar link w/variable-rate coil springs on lower trailing arms, stabilizer bar, Quadra Shock system w/Saleen Racecraft shocks
Brakes Power four-wheel ABS 10.8-in dual-piston
Vented Disc (Front) Standard
10.5-in Disc (Rear) Standard Saleen ABS Four-Piston Calipers
13.0-in Grooved Disc (Front) Optional
Wheels Saleen five-spoke alloy
18x9-in Front Standard
18x9-in Rear Standard
18x10-in Rear Optional
Tires High-Performance Pirelli P7000
P255/35ZR18 (Front) Standard
P265/35ZR18 (Rear) Standard High-Performance Pirelli P Zero Rosso Upgrade
P265/35ZR18 (Front) Optional
P295/35ZR18 (Rear) Optional

GENERAL
Curb Weight 3,428 lb, coupe 3,620 lb, convertible
Weight Distribution 57/43 F/R
Fuel Capacity 15.7 gal
Wheelbase 101.3 in

ENGINE
Type 4.6L, 2V, SOHC V-8
Bore and Stroke 3.60x3.60 in
Displacement 4.6 L, 281 ci
Crankshaft Special Saleen forged steel
Connecting Rods Saleen forged steel
Pistons Saleen forged aluminum
Cylinder Heads Saleen aluminum w/Saleen camshaft and Super-Duty valvesprings
Exhaust System Saleen stainless, 2.5-in center-outlet exhaust w/X-pipe
Horsepower 445 hp at 6,000 rpm
Torque 450 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm
Fuel Premium unleaded 91-octane Saleen Intercooled
Supercharger Saleen Series V Screw-Type supercharger, Saleen water-to-air intercooler, Saleen PowerFlash Performance Calibration System, Saleen 90mm mass air sensor, 42-lb/hr fuel injectors

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Saleen Quick-Ratio six-speed transmission 8.8-in Differential
3.55 Ratio Standard
Saleen MaxGrip Standard

SUSPENSION
Front Hybrid MacPherson struts w/Saleen Racecraft system including N2 struts, variable-rate springs mounted on lower control arms, 1.38-in stabilizer bar w/urethane pivot bushings
Rear Live-axle four-bar link w/variable-rate coil springs on lower trailing arms, stabilizer bar, Quadra Shock system w/Saleen Racecraft shocks
Brakes Power four-wheel ABS 10.8-in dual-piston
Vented Disc (Front) Standard
10.5-in Disc (Rear) Standard Saleen ABS Four-Piston Calipers
13.0-in Grooved Disc (Front) Optional
Wheels Saleen five-spoke alloy
18x9-in Front Standard
18x9-in Rear Standard
18x10-in Rear Optional
Tires High-Performance Pirelli P7000
P255/35ZR18 (Front) Standard
P265/35ZR18 (Rear) Standard High-Performance Pirelli P Zero Rosso Upgrade
P265/35ZR18 (Front) Optional
P295/35ZR18 (Rear) Optional

GENERAL
Curb Weight 3,428 lb, coupe 3,620 lb, convertible
Weight Distribution 57/43 F/R
Fuel Capacity 15.7 gal
Wheelbase 101.3 in

ENGINE
Type 4.6L, 2V, SOHC V-8
Bore and Stroke 3.60x3.60 in
Displacement 4.6 L, 281 ci
Crankshaft Special Saleen forged steel
Connecting Rods Saleen forged steel
Pistons Saleen forged aluminum
Cylinder Heads Saleen aluminum w/Saleen camshaft and Super-Duty valvesprings
Exhaust System Saleen stainless, 2.5-in center-outlet exhaust w/X-pipe
Horsepower 445 hp at 6,000 rpm
Torque 450 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm
Fuel Premium unleaded 91-octane Saleen Intercooled
Supercharger Saleen Series V Screw-Type supercharger, Saleen water-to-air intercooler, Saleen PowerFlash Performance Calibration System, Saleen 90mm mass air sensor, 42-lb/hr fuel injectors

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Saleen Quick-Ratio six-speed transmission 8.8-in Differential
3.55 Ratio Standard
Saleen MaxGrip Standard

SUSPENSION
Front Hybrid MacPherson struts w/Saleen Racecraft system including N2 struts, variable-rate springs mounted on lower control arms 1.38-in stabilizer bar w/urethane pivot bushing
Rear Live-axle four-bar link w/Saleen Racecraft variable-rate coil springs on boxed lower trailing arms, 0.94-in stabilizer bar, Quadra Shock system w/Saleen N2 Racecraft shocks
Brakes Power four-wheel ABS Saleen Premium, 14.0 in.
Two-Piece Slotted Disc (Front) Standard
10.5-in Disc (Rear) Standard Saleen ABS Four-Piston
Calipers (front) Standard
Wheels Saleen five-spoke alloy
18x9-in (Front) Standard
18x10-in (Rear) Standard
Chrome Finish Optional
Tires High-Performance Pirelli P Zero Rosso
P265/35ZR18 (Front) Standard
P295/35ZR18 (Rear) Standard