In the Autoblog Garage: Saleen S281 Supercharged Mustang Convertible

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When the new Mustang debuted in 2005, pony car enthusiasts were elated. After decades of rehashed Fox-platformed Mustangs that could barely get out of their own way, the new DEW98-derived DC2 'Stang promised so much more. At just over $25,000 for a 300hp GT, it delivered big time in the bang for the buck category. With such a low entrance fee, the platform really allows for things to be taken up a notch or two. Seems everybody and their mother are offering tuned Mustangs with body kits, wheel and tire packages, and enough underhood goodies to make that 300 hp look positively anemic.

We've already profiled several of these and have even had our grubby little hands wrapped around the steering wheel of a Roush 427R for a week. While we're still waiting for Ford's own super 'Stang, the GT500, to find its way into the AB garage, specialty manufacturer Saleen stepped up to offer us a sampling of their current lineup. Although our first choice Parnelli Jones limited edition was previously spoken for, we know that we will get one soon. In its place we were able to park a 2006 S281 Supercharged convertible. With 435 hp under its lightweight hood, we figured it might be an acceptable substitution.

And we weren't disappointed. This sucker is fast. And fun, if you can define fun as having dozens of strangers speed up to get a pic of you on the freeway, giving you thumbs up at a stop light, fielding questions from bright-eyed young ladies at every (frequent) gas stop, and being able to light up the tires at will in almost any gear at almost any speed. Those are a few ways we usually define fun, so it seems we have a winner here. But is living with one for a few days as much fun as it seems? Read on for the whole story.

Walking up to the car, the first thing you notice is the screaming (Speedlab) yellow paint. Guess it's going to be hard to fly under the radar to avoid legal attention with this one, or any other kind of attention for that matter. Saleen knows its customers and knows that they like the connection to the company's S7 supercar/racecar. So styling cues taken from that car and corporate badges can be found all over the S281. Consider yourself forewarned. Saleen buyers tend to be a little extroverted, which helps. The Saleen bodykit's proclamation of its family heritage is anything but subtle.

Completely new front and rear fascias, side skirts, and a huge (deletable) rear wing are designed to keep the car planted, and to look racy in the process. The power-dome hood has dual black heat extractors, one running above each bank of cylinders, and manages to keep a low profile despite the supercharger shaking it from below. The slats and aero ducting up front emulate the S7 styling, but the rear fascia with its sunk-in and blacked-out rear center body panel and Saleen-designed rear spoiler with end caps that totally encircle the rear really look S7-ish.

Although the convertible top looks pretty good up, it didn't stay there very much during the car's stay with us. What's the point of attracting all that attention if admirers can't see who's driving? Our particular tester didn't have the optional Sport Bar or the Speedster package with the removable tonneau, but Saleen can hook you up with those items, as well as custom paint schemes or optional HID headlamps.

In case anybody is wondering who makes this Mustang, there are Saleen fender badges, Saleen center caps on the 20-inch chrome rims, a Saleen grille badge, a huge Saleen impression in the rear bumper, signature Saleen graphics on the lower doors, a Saleen serial number on the front bumper, and Saleen championship wreath stickers in the window to remind them. Oh, and there's that huge SALEEN graphic across the windshield. And that's just on the outside.

Inside the S281, you'll find several familiar Mustang bits, but a lot of bespoke Saleen items, as well. Things like Saleen S281 custom floor mats, Saleen leather sport bucket seats with extra side bolstering (and a somewhat questionable raised center spine that managed to rub some drivers the wrong way), Saleen embroidering on the seatbacks, and open (and louvered!) headrests populate the interior. There's also a Saleen serial number dash plaque under the rightmost dash vent.

Other changes inside include a Saleen instrument cluster with a 200mph speedometer (that we know is relatively accurate at precisely twice the 65-mph legal limit – don't ask), 8,000rpm tachometer with smaller auxiliary gauges between them displaying fuel, oil pressure, engine coolant temperature and volts. On top of the dash is an extra pod with a boost and air temperature gauge. Saleen has also added its own dash vents and bezels, a Saleen steering wheel badge, Saleen pedals, and a Saleen billet shift knob sitting atop their close-ratio shifter. You probably also won't be able to miss the Saleen door sill plates when entering or exiting the vehicle.

The interior is dressed up but still has the Mustang shortcomings that most people will learn to live with in a short time. The dash looks cheap, even with the Saleen upgrades, and rattles like Nicole Richie's ribs when she walks. Keeping that slotted metal-finish dash dust free will likely require a lot of hard work. The back seat is understandably cramped and there is only enough headroom for somebody under 5'4" to fit upright. That really can't be blamed on Saleen, however. And although the convertible top eats up some trunk space, there is plenty of room to stow your weekend bags.

There are plenty of storage areas and cupholders that handled just about any beverage container we tried. The Shaker 500 stereo in our tester can be upgraded, but we see no need as this thing can produce more decibels than even the V8 up front. The HVAC system was also more than adequate and the controls felt logical. Labeling on some of the other buttons and knobs weren't always intuitive, but we managed to figure out the traction control defeat switch, so we were happy. After one or two fun runs, we quickly appreciated that it could be turned back on, which leads us back to the engine.

Pop that power-dome hood and you'll be looking at a Saleen serial number plaque in the engine bay and that 435 hp (for 2007, SC buyers will be getting 465hp!) supercharged engine of course. The Ford 4.6-liter V8 is stock internally, but Saleen modifications include underdrive accessory pulleys, a Saleen Powerflash performance calibration upgrade to the ECU (requiring the use of premium fuel), and a Saleen performance air filter to...uhh...bring in more air.

On the exit side of things, Saleen fits a stainless-steel exhaust system, using two mufflers and a vacuum-actuated bypass valve. This actually works to increase low-end torque and as a very enjoyable bonus, makes this custom Mustang sound like you would hope it might. Then there's that eponymous supercharger.

The new-for-2006 Saleen designed, "2.3 liter Series VI integrated twin-screw supercharger with a dual-stage water-to-air intercooler" helps boost power almost 50% over the stock GT unit. The numbers are 435 hp at 5,800rpm, and a whopping 420 lb-ft of torque at 4,000rpm. It feels like at least 80% of that torque figure is available at idle. The cleverly compact integrated supercharger works so well that Saleen sets the boost to just 4psi. That's still enough to shake the lightened hood as soon as the key is turned. Watching the boost gauge was kind of fun, but we had to make sure we were pointed in a straight line before hammering it to watch the needle flip from off to full boost in a blink.

All that power is routed to the rear wheels through Saleen's quick-ratio 5-speed transmission. A 5-speed automatic is optional and, we hate to say it, but might be a better fit for the Supercharged model because of that on-off boost. The shifter was a bit vague and took a firm hand to guide it into the proper slot, and the clutch was very stiff and had us on the verge of cramping during a 70-mile 2-hour slog through L.A. rush-hour traffic. Perhaps that fits with the image of the car, but we'd prefer something a little lighter and more direct. In all fairness, this was a press car with more than 10,000 especially hard media miles on the clock.

Getting the power to the road, Saleen offers an optional MaxGrip speed-sensitive limited-slip differential (not on our test car) to go along with the standard traction control that we found to be a lifesaver when encountering a couple of surprisingly slick corners. Turning it off was a lot of fun too, but not in corners.

With that much more power on tap, thankfully Saleen has upgraded the suspension and brakes, as well. The stock Mustang setup of a live rear axle, three links, and a Panhard rod are retained, but the S281 Supercharged features Saleen's Racecraft suspension that uses higher spring and sway bar rates, urethane bushings and nitrogen-pressurized shocks in back. It made the ride a bit firmer but didn't exactly turn the Mustang into a canyon carver, either.

In fact, with the slightly more flexible convertible platform, the firmer settings produced a lot of squeaks and rattles inside and did nothing for our confidence on Mulholland. Grip from the wide 20-inch Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires was good, but body roll was pretty off-putting and the jolts from even small bumps was disconcerting at speed. We suspect that the basic Mustang layout is more to fault here than anything else.

Our test car rode on huge (and extremely blingy) 20 X 9 inch, 7-spoke, chrome, Saleen-designed alloy wheels in front and 20 X 10s in the rear. These were wrapped in ultra-high-performance Pirelli P Zeros measuring 275/35ZR20 up front and 275/40ZR20 out back.

Stuffed inside those wheels to help haul this 3,700 pound beast to a drama free hault are 14-inch slotted and vented aluminum rotors squeezed by Saleen-branded, 4-piston, ABS-equipped calipers. Perhaps surprisingly, the factory rear brakes are left alone. We can honestly say that braking was never a problem, although serious track use will probably require an upgrade. And we doubt many convertible buyers will be tracking their cars, so it's all good.

While we didn't get to take it to a dragstrip or strap it to a dyno like we did with the Roush 427R, we were able to get some subjective performance figures for the Saleen S281 SC Convertible. It's not as quick in a straight line as a C6 Corvette, for instance. But, it's a lot closer than we might have thought. Top speed is claimed to be around 180 mph, but we doubt enough people will have big enough cajones to probe that limit. Double the legal limit was scary enough. Something about the front end didn't feel extremely stable and the howling we heard through the fabric top didn't make us any more confident along the way. Being able to unleash that much power at will comes with a price at the pump, as well. We were unable to get this car to register anything higher than 15 mpg on the computer. Overall it returned just 13 mpg for the whole 600 miles we put on it.

The handling and braking were good, but again using the Corvette as an example, we felt the Mustang platform just had too much of a handicap to make this a fair comparison. Apples and Oranges certainly, but price, Patriotism and performance put these in similar market segments. We know there are people who will point to the back seat, proper trunk, and blue oval as reasons why this is a clear win for the 'Stang, but we came away feeling this might be the furthest we'd want the Mustang platform pushed before it needs some extreme revisions.

The steering, brakes, handling and transmission were no more than adequate on this car. Maybe that's all that was required of it, but we wanted more. Looking at this as a very fast and limited edition Mustang makes its appeal obvious. There are plenty of people who love the Mustang and want one that offers added flair and speed. Us included. We know there are fans of Steve Saleen and know that getting one of his cars means you have something of a collectible that will always have a higher resale value than some mere tuner car. But when the prices rise to a point that starts with a 5, then a whole bunch of other cars start to crowd the short list at decision time.

Many of those cars above $50,000 offer similar straightline speed with a much higher level of sophistication and road feel than the Mustang can ever hope to offer. These are cars that don't require an adrenaline overload to drive at 8/10ths. Perhaps that's part of the Saleen's appeal, but do you want to be challenged by your car every day for the high levels of performance it promises or for the physical challenges of dealing with its clunky mechanicals on a daily basis? Do you want to spend your time trying to tame the car, or using your car to help you tame the road? There are buyers for each type of car, but for our money, it's hard to pick this over some of the similarly priced competition.

We'd certainly want a slightly better interior for this kind of money, too. Not the fault of Saleen so much as Ford, but that supercharged powerplant and body kit can only draw so many customers. The 2007 model will get another 30 hp and a couple of other detail changes but none really addresses these concerns. The top-of-the-line S281 Extreme takes the power up another level still (to 550 hp) and incorporates similar (minimal) changes to the basic structure. At some point we see the law of diminishing returns here. Simply adding more horsepower won't cut it. Like we said about Dodge upping the power in the 2007 Viper to 600, we doubt most people were sitting around thinking, "the Viper would be just about perfect, if only it had another hundred horsepower."

When all is said and done, this is one fine Mustang. It has the extra power, beefed up suspension and wild looks you'd expect from a $56,000 car. It certainly attracts attention and allows you to release your inner teenager whenever you feel the urge. It has the exclusivity that comes with the Saleen name. One potential problem is that Ford now offers its own hot rod Mustang in the form of the GT500. That car can be purchased at most any Ford dealer and has the added bonus of a longer warranty. There's also the Roush alternatives. And the new Shelby CS8 from Hillbank.

But the biggest complaint for some of us is that for all it offers, the S281 is at its heart just a Mustang, albeit a much stronger one. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but when you start to push the power levels this high, you quickly start to see its limitations. It's still a bargain for the numbers you can post (high 12s in the quarter, 0-60 in 4.6 sec), but living with it as daily transportation comes at a higher price than the window sticker alone. And we don't just mean your high gas bills. The basics are a bit crude for the money and the firm ride, stiff clutch, vague shifter, oddly artificial steering, and hard-to-modulate throttle make this more of a chore than a treat. But then you see that cute blonde at the next pump do a double-take when she notices you and the car, and it all seems to make sense again. We're pretty sure buyers would get used to this Mustang's shortcomings in a hurry.

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