The automotive intelligentsia holds a certain emotional attachment to the Ford Mustang, 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 of Ford Motor Co.’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.

Saleen’s tagline reads, “Power in the hands of a few,” and its Mustangs now breach the 600-hp mark in the form of the ’08 “Extreme” 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 Saleen’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.

Ward’s recently was given the opportunity to sample a pre-production Sterling car and wasted no time in flogging it through Michigan’s north country to see if it has the chops to back up its price.

Unlike Ford’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 Ford’s smooth and throaty 4.6L SOHC V-8, which has won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines plaque every year it’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 supercharger’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 Saleen’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 don’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 Mustang’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.

’08 Saleen Mustang S302E Sterling Anniversary Edition
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
Compression ratio 9.4:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
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
Base price $100,000
Fuel economy 12/20 mpg (20/12 L/100 km)
Competition Chevrolet Corvette Z06/ZR1, Dodge Viper SRT10, Ford Shelby Mustang GT500KR
Pros Cons
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 stallion’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 – almost too soft, given the car’s tendency to float around when exploring its open-road potential.

The solid axle remains the Mustang’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 Ward’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 supercharger’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 shouldn’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 that’s missing is the bow.

msutton@wardsauto.com