Tom Wilson
February 1, 2009
Billed as the meanest, darkest, and fastest Saleen yet, the Dark Horse Extreme Edition melds Saleen's Heritage bodywork with the 620hp S281 Extreme powertrain, plus an improved Super Shaker hoodscoop. Total production is 25 cars, and finally, after 25 years, we have a Saleen without a billboard across the windshield. "Saleen" is there, but in 1 1/2-inch-high letters-and they're black.

Horse Sense: Sane people don't shoot black cars at night, so that exempted us immediately. But all that black paint and a warm summer evening had us fixated on late-night cruising, so we opted to shoot the Dark Horse in its natural element. The strobes flashed from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., startling birds in their nests and neighbors from their sleep.

When it comes to any story with the word Saleen in it these days, the first lug nut to bust is where to start. By now most folks understand that Steve Saleen, the man, and the company bearing his name went separate ways in the spring of 2008, so we'll let that part go. And while Mr. Saleen is off spinning his own doughnuts, the Saleen company has continued to balance its heritage with its new offerings.

Of course, there are the financial realities of our time. With stock portfolios tanking faster than a Boss 429's gas gauge at full throttle, whims such as the $89,000 Mustang before us may not be primary in people's minds. In short, it's time to add more horsepower and honk the exclusivity horn a little louder. This meant another trip to Saleen's parts bins in Troy, Michigan, where Saleen mated its Heritage bodywork with the Extreme powertrain to foal the Dark Horse Extreme Edition. Award yourself a few points for deducing that all 25 Dark Horses are painted a handsome gloss ebony, punctuated by Shinoda-like flat-black stripes.

Blacker than a fleet of Model Ts, the Dark Horse seems a natural for cruising till dawn.

In fact, black is the theme throughout the Dark Horse, with every possible bit of trim sleeked in some form of black. The wheels, for example, are black chrome, as are the brake calipers, bumper numbers, serial number plate, and even the Super Shaker hoodscoop badging, not to mention the entire interior, save for the bright dash option. This is one car that definitely won't be wearing white-face gauges. In fact, the sole exterior colors seem to be the running lights, taillamps, front turn indicators, stylized red S on the Saleen badging, and Saleen script on the brake calipers.

The Heritage bodywork was introduced on the Saleen/Parnelli Jones. A relatively mild restyling, the Heritage theme is classic, fitting between the prosaic stock styling of a Mustang GT and the expressive mood set by the more complex S-series bodywork found on the S281 models, including the thumping S281 Extreme. Highlighting the Heritage togs is the bar running across the headlights, along with the protruding hoodscoop-more on that when the tour gets to the engine room.

Mechanically, the Dark Horse introduces the Super Shaker hoodscoop. Redesigned with a more direct air path, the Super Shaker may make 5 hp more than the previous Extreme scoop, according to Saleen. It will be available as an aftermarket part for both Saleen-blown and naturally aspirated Three-Valve engines and will be standard issue with ram-air Saleen blower kits. It's a hose-happy install, with drain and multiple coolant hoses snaking to and from the scoop.

In its understated exterior ornamentation, the Dark Horse reminds us of a Mustang Bullitt, and in fact, its outer form is nearly sparse by Saleen standards. We've also heard the Dark Horse called a black PJ with a supercharger. While that's a technically accurate observation from a body-panel point of view, given the 20-inch black chrome wheels and pizza-pan front brakes, the Dark Horse musters a more contemporary and urbane fashion than the good ol' times revived by the Parnelli Jones cars.

Inside, the Dark Horse continues its "meanest, darkest, and fastest Saleen yet" theme, as Saleen CEO Chris Theodore put it. Ford's premium-level bright dashboard and satin-silver steering wheel spokes are literally the only bright spots. The rest is either Ford's stock black interior or Saleen's black upholstery or trim. The seats are handsomely upholstered in an alternating pattern of leather and Alcantara, with the center console armrest lid and dash top continuing the plush and matte Alcantara topic.

Naturally, the more you look, the more Saleen touches you notice. The instrument faces-black, as we said-are Saleen's own, including the 200-mph speedometer. So, too, is the twin-gauge pod atop the dash with the now familiar boost and charge cooler coolant temperature instruments. The Saleen logo in the steering wheel center is a given, as is the "Saleen" script embroidery in the headrests, floor mats, foot pedals, and doorsills.

Saleen black-face instruments are right at home on the Dark Horse. And as we said in our S281 Extreme coverage, the 200-mph Saleen speedometer doesn't look so silly any more. Ford's multicolor illumination is retained.

Two items unique to the Dark Horse are an engine start button where the power point is normally found at center dash and a red-anodized aluminum shift knob and shifter surround. Chris explains that "unless you guys [the press] object, the shift surround will be black-anodized on the 25 production cars." We don't object, as the red is overt and the gloss of black-anodized aluminum would be enough contrast in this interior.

Contributing to the Dark Horse's cave-entrance accommodations are the completely blanked quarter-windows and rear-window slats. Obviously there are less lumens in the Dark Horse's rear seats, and all told, the men-of-few-words, racer-X types ought to be reassuredly in the shadows when belted behind the Dark Horse steering wheel, especially after some window tint.

Saleen engineers have always maintained the 5.0-liter Extreme engine puts out slightly more than 620 hp, and with the freer-breathing Super Shaker hoodscoop, it should put out a hair more, and more consistently. We saw 524 hp at the tire of our last Extreme test car; for the record, the Dark Horse is rated at 620 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, and it feels like it.

Engineering-wise, the Dark Horse is an animal we've examined before. All the mechanicals-engine, clutch, transmission, driveshaft, rear axle, suspension, brakes, and tires-are from the S281 Extreme. That's a great place to originate, with 620 twin-screw horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 600 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm from a hand-built Saleen 5.0-liter modular. In case you missed our gushing May '08 report on the Saleen Extreme, the engine is a Three-Valve modular stroker built by Saleen using a stock bore, stroker crank, and all forged internals. The camming is also Saleen-specific, giving a freer-revving persona that's nothing less than intoxicating to unleash. Behind the engine is a clutch and close-ratio Tremec 6060 six-speed transmission from the Shelby GT500. A Saleen MaxGrip differential with 3.73 gears resides in the 8.8-inch live axle.

Actually, there is a significant update atop the engine: the Super Shaker hoodscoop. The new scoop resembles the previous Saleen through-hoodscoop as used on the naturally aspirated PJ, for example, but employs a straighter, larger air path into the rear of Saleen's Stage VI twin-screw supercharger. In the Super Shaker, air enters the scoop, pops over a rain deflector (think of a medium-height wall laid back at an angle), then turns down to pass through a flat-panel air filter laying in the bottom of the scoop. Past the filter, the air resumes a rearward flow, zooms through the throttle body, then gently turns 90 degrees downward to enter the rear of the supercharger, which requires another 90-degree turn. The Saleen Lysholm-type supercharger discharges the air upward into a water-to-air charge cooler. Thus, the Saleen supercharger sits atop the engine, but it's not very visible as the Super Shaker covers it up.

Understated in the rear, the Dark Horse breaks with modern high-end Saleen tradition by fitting a non-center outlet exhaust. The soundtrack is boomy, interspersed with moments of delicious blower whine.

Unlike the PJ hood scoop, the Super Shaker ingests all its air from outside the engine compartment. A tray seals the scoop to the underside of the hood, and the only air path into the engine is through the scoop sitting outside. This brings repeatability to multiple full-throttle applications and reduces heat soaking because the intake tract is more efficiently "air-cooled," if you will. The Saleen engineers say they can see the air charge temperature drop when going down the return road at the dragstrip in testing-something that certainly didn't happen before. Topping it all, the Super Shaker makes more power-possibly 5 horsepower-on the dyno due to its less restrictive air path. You can't feel 5 horsepower in this car, but it's nice to know it's there.

Unfortunately we were unable to test that repeatability as our overnight sampling was too short for any formal testing. Still, it doesn't take lab equipment to figure out the Dark Horse flat hauls. It really does. Hammer it, squeeze it, tickle it, and it doesn't matter; the Dark Horse is out of there.

Unless you've pedaled a car in this power league, it's difficult to describe the feeling of well over 500 hp to the rear tires. Toggle off the traction control and wheel spin is immediately available, as is car-rotating grunt in slow corners. On the straights she pulls hard the entire sweep of the tach. There is no getting lazy near redline; the Dark Horse asks you if you really want to go this fast. This is real power, the sort that demands your facial muscles smile even when just wiffing the power in traffic. It's the sort of power you don't just hand to anyone; the sort of power that always seems enough; the sort where for once you just don't automatically mat the throttle.

Saleen enthusiasts will find the interior traditional with the usual Saleen script, pedal pads, and instrumentation. As always, the twin-gauge pod atop the dash is a classy and fun touch. The Dark Horse does boast Ford's navigation system, a first in our Saleen experience.

And when you stop to remember that this is a certified, 50-state-legal new car and not some tuned up hot rod, the glory of it is even stronger.

There's a subtly different sound from the Super Shaker scoop, too. The blower whine is more pronounced, a bit shriller. Pedestrians well up the road turn to see what's coming; it's not a car for sneaking home at night. This is doubly true for the exhaust. It booms and mumbles industrially from idle to redline. Even when pushed, it never takes on a crisp note from the driver's seat, such is the price of catalytic converters. Even with the more aggressive cams, the electronics expunge any chop from the idle, so there's no snotty stuttering at the stoplight to intimidate the uninitiated. It's more a loud blubbering, although it'll finally snarl if free-revved to the moon.

Our test car was something of a preproduction prototype, generously loaned to us early in its life cycle by Saleen so we could make our deadline. It had seen track action before we sampled it, so we'll give it a bye on the thumps and bonks roads that we heard from the suspension on rough. Less abused, it should ride and handle admirably, just like the S281E we last tested and with which it shares its chassis.

Giddy-up in the Dark Horse is a push-button affair, but shutting it off is still a key twist.

Overall the Dark Horse is strikingly similar to the Extreme, as it should be with the same powertrain and suspension. It's a musclecar that can turn corners, and confidently at that. There is a sensation of great weight in motion-this is a 4,000-pound dreadnought, after all-but the tremendous thrust is always up to the task and then some.

Handling is good, limited only by the basics of the Mustang's nose-heavy layout. The Watt's link calms the rear axle, especially through uneven pavement, so the Dark Horse is reassuring in the curves. Likewise, braking seemed fine in our short drive. They're the same clampers we enjoyed-and thoroughly sampled-on the Extreme, so they should impress when leaned on. As it was, our lighter braking efforts this time were rewarded by a pleasantly firm pedal and immediate high-torque grip.

When the hood goes up at the burger stand, the Dark Horse relies on its Super Shaker hoodscoop and ebony gloss to carry the night.

If we had to throw a brick at the Dark Horse experience, it would be the shifter. This was one Tremec six-speed that still felt a bit sticky on some shifts, with the old grunt to get it into Reverse. These are long-time traits of this gearbox, although with massaging by expert technicians during assembly, they can be slick as a salesman. That aluminum-topped shift handle can be big-time warm after a day in the summer sun, too. Most enthusiasts can live with that, though.

The funny part of it is, do you really need six closely spaced speeds? The Dark Horse has enough torque to arm-wrestle a freight train; we'd be tempted to put a slightly taller Sixth in the box to put the car asleep on the freeway, but Dark Horse owners aren't too worried about fuel mileage anyway-which isn't bad as long as you keep can pry yourself off the joy pedal. Good luck with that!

Saleen is eager to get the word out that their new Super Shaker hoodscoop is a Saleen SpeedLab aftermarket item. For those lucky enough to already own a Saleen supercharger, the Super Shaker costs $1,250. That price includes everything, according to Saleen; the template for cutting the hood, an edge-concealing plastic gasket for that cut, plus all necessary mounting hardware and electronic tuning. New Saleen supercharger kits for Mustang GTs will offer the Super Shaker as an option. In that case, the complete kit-supercharger, scoop, manifolding, tune, and all small parts-is $6,949.99.

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5.0 Tech Specs
ENGINE AND DRIVETRAINIgnition
Block{{{Ford}}}
Aluminum FordInstruments
BoreSaleen black-faced and
3.554-inchrecalibrated Ford instrument
Strokecluster w/ {{{200}}}- mph speedometer,
3.800-inch6,500-rpm redline tach; twin-
Displacementgauge pod atop dash w/ boost
5.0-liter (302ci)pressure and charge cooler
Crankshaftwater temperature
Saleen forged-steel stroker 
RodsSUSPENSION AND CHASSIS
Forged H-beamFront Suspension
PistonsFord-based MacPherson strut w/
Forged aluminumSaleen gas-filled struts, Saleen
Camshaftssprings
Saleen-specific, blower optimizedK-member
HeadsFord
CNC-ported Ford SOHC Three-Control Arms
ValveFord
IntakeSprings
Saleen-specific Super ShakerSaleen
ram-air scoop with {{{100}}}-percentStruts
ambient air; flat-panel air filter,Saleen, gas-filled
high-flow throttle body and massCaster/Camber Plates
air; integrated Stage VI twin-screwFord
superchargerBrakes
Injectors15-inch, cross-drilled and vented,
39 lb-hrsix-piston Saleen-script calipers,
Power AdderFord ABS
Saleen Stage VI twin-screwWheels
superchargerForged-aluminum, seven-spoke
IntercoolerSpeed Star black chrome, 20x9-in
Saleen water-to-airTires
HeadersPirelli PZero 275/35ZR-20 ultra-
Ford cast-ironhigh performance
ExhaustRear Suspension
Saleen dual 2 1/2-inch, polishedSprings
SS oval outletsSaleen
TransmissionShocks
Tremec 6060 six-speed close-Saleen gas-filled
ratio manual; GT500 shifterControl Arms
FlywheelSaleen
GT500Brakes
ClutchFord 11.8-inch, cross-drilled and
GT500vented disc, single-piston caliper
Rear AxleWheels
8.8-inch axle, Saleen Max-GripForged-aluminum, seven-spoke
limited-slip differential, 3.73:1Speed Star, black chrome, 20x10-in
gearsTires
 Pirelli PZero 305/35ZR-20 ultra-
ELECTRONICShigh performance
Engine Management 
Saleen PowerFlash calibration