The automotive intelligentsia holds a certain emotional attachment to theMustang, the progenitor of the pony car and one of the most beloved symbols of Americana.
That an enthusiast-driven auto maker such as Troy, MI-based Saleen Inc. has flourished for 25 years tuning, racing and building high-performance renditions ofMotor Co.â€™s illustrious pinup speaks volumes about the legions of fans the car has amassed since debuting in 1964.
While hot-rod legend Carroll Shelby long has enjoyed the status of being the father of some of the greatest Fords of all time, Saleen, too, has forged a reputation for knowing how to work the business end of a Blue-Oval special.
Saleenâ€™s tagline reads, â€śPower in the hands of a few,â€ť and its Mustangs now breach the 600-hp mark in the form of the â€™08 â€śExtremeâ€ť S302E model.
This thoroughly worked-over, $79,999 Mustang, with a supercharged, 5.0L controlled explosion under hood and unmistakable Saleen bodywork, is the most audacious pony ever to carry a warranty at a local Ford dealer.
And as the patriarch of the lineup, the S302E is the template for Saleenâ€™s Sterling Anniversary Edition commemorating its quarter-century in the marketplace.
Only 25 of these $100,000 beasts will be produced, with the added premium covering the subdued 2-tone silver paint, huge 20-in. chrome wheels and enough sterling-silver tinsel and badging to drag down a Clydesdale.
As an added bonus, each buyer receives an all-inclusive trip to tour the factory, dine with executives and take part in every new-car festivity Saleen can conjure up.
Wardâ€™s recently was given the opportunity to sample a pre-production Sterling car and wasted no time in flogging it through Michiganâ€™s north country to see if it has the chops to back up its price.
Unlike Fordâ€™s 500-hp Shelby GT500 and 540-hp GT500KR, which range up to $79,995 and sport iron-block 5.4L supercharged V-8s, Saleen bases its cars around the all-aluminum powertrain of pedestrian Mustang GTs. This means they utilize Fordâ€™s smooth and throaty 4.6L SOHC V-8, which has won a Wardâ€™s 10 Best Engines plaque every year itâ€™s been offered in the current car.
Far removed from an assembly-line piece, the S302E engine is rebuilt by hand, punched out to 302 cu.-ins. (4,949 cu.-cm) and beefed up with all-forged internals. Ported, polished and amped-up to handle the intercooled superchargerâ€™s 14 psi. (1 bar) of boost, the end result is a 620-hp mill with 600 lb.-ft. (813 Nm) of torque that tingles the spine on the way to a 6,500-rpm redline.
A slick-shifting, close-ratio 6-speed manual and multi-plate clutch is added, routing power to the still-present solid rear axle that now features shorter gearing and a speed-sensitive MaxGrip limited-slip differential.
A fully revised suspension with Saleenâ€™s Racecraft components hunker the car down for better control, while a Watts linkage is installed at the rear to keep the axle from chattering across the pavement when the engine gets the better of the fat, sticky Pirellis.
Cross-drilled StopTech disc brakes, 15-ins. (38 cm) in front, 11.8-ins. (30 cm) out back, also are installed, but donâ€™t offer the desired confidence when slowing from high velocities. The pedal feels far too stiff and the relatively small rear discs look silly in the giant 5-spoke rims.
The anniversary Saleen makes a wondrous first impression: Its radical, modern form appears well integrated and complements the Mustangâ€™s retro styling surprisingly well. In the setting sun, the Sterling-specific paint is stunning in its subtlety and appears as if it might drip off the panels onto the curb-scraping, carbon-fiber splitter and rear diffuser.
However, things are less impressive inside. Aluminized trim and swaths of hand-stitched Alcantara add character, and the simple Saleen gauges and reupholstered seats are welcome when launching the car toward the horizon.
|Vehicle type||front-engine, rear-drive, 4-passenger coupe|
|Engine||5.0L supercharged SOHC V-8|
|Power (SAE net)||620 hp @ 6,300 rpm|
|Torque||600 lb.-ft. (813 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm|
|Wheelbase||107.1 ins. (272 cm)|
|Overall length||189.1 ins. (480 cm)|
|Overall width||74.0 (188 cm)|
|Overall height||56.0 (142 cm)|
|Curb weight||3,645 lbs./ 1,653 kg|
|Fuel economy||12/20 mpg (20/12 L/100 km)|
|Competition||Chevrolet Corvette Z06/ZR1, Dodge Viper SRT10, Ford Shelby Mustang GT500KR|
|Intoxicating power||Minimal interior tweaks|
|Attractive, exclusive||Needs stronger brakes|
|Easy to drive hard||$100,000 Mustang?|
But good luck impressing the neighbors when your 6-figure stallionâ€™s interior is almost identical to that of the V-6 Mustang they just bought their daughter for college.
What is expected to be a mildly-tamed racecar for the street turns out to be a comfortable, if not loud, cruiser when under way, managing nearly 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) over our 900 miles (1,448 km) of high-speed thrashing.
All the major controls are well oiled and light in effort, and the suspension is amazingly compliant â€“ almost too soft, given the carâ€™s tendency to float around when exploring its open-road potential.
The solid axle remains the Mustangâ€™s weak point, with hard acceleration on uneven surfaces proving to be a lesson in courage and opposite-steering lock. But the overall handling setup is impressive and makes the last GT500 Wardâ€™s tested feel like an F-150 pickup in a tracksuit.
Indeed, the Saleen is better balanced and some 260 lbs. (118 kg) lighter than the GT500KR, with most of the savings coming from the absence of the big 5.4L V-8 bloating its front end.
Although performance estimates are unavailable, the Sterling Mustang is without question very fast in a straight line. Given the abundance of rear-end grip and neck-wrenching powerband, 60 mph (97 km/h) should be reached in about four seconds, with quarter-mile trap speeds in excess of 125 mph (201 km/h).
Accompanying the thrust, of course, is the belt-driven superchargerâ€™s soul-stirring whine laid over an intoxicating V-8 soundtrack.
While Saleen says aficionados already have snatched up most of the Sterling editions, the more-financially palatable and mechanically identical S302E will continue to be produced, and likely improved upon.
Die-hard enthusiasts shouldnâ€™t fret that Corvettes and Vipers are marginally better around a racetrack, because for all their thoroughbred edginess they lack the charisma of a Mustang and the exclusivity of these special models.
It is indeed a happy birthday for the Saleen Mustang. All thatâ€™s missing is the bow.