First Drive: Saleen S331 is equal parts sport and truck

We recently had a chance to sample Saleen's newest offering, the S331 Sport Truck, in and around Newport Beach, California. A small fleet of these sport trucks looked right at home parked in front of the Harbor, directly in the shadows of the multi-million dollar yachts at the Balboa Bay Club. We even had an older couple chase us down in their customized BMW 7-series and place an order. We kid you not. The S331 is a new vehicle and new segment for this small manufacturer better known for its Mustangs and S7 supercar. Getting into trucks was a logical development for Saleen, as the dealerships that handle their products report that nearly three quarters of their sales are trucks. So when there appeared to be enough interest in a Saleen truck, they decided to build one. Notice we said "build one" and not "modify one."

Follow the jump for the rest of the Day 1 story. And don't forget to check out the gallery of high-res pics from Drew Phillips and the author.

Manufacturers build, tuners modify. Steve Saleen, the man, is quite compelling when he explains that Saleen, the company, is a true manufacturer. Crash testing, emissions certification, EPA, NHTSA, et al. Other companies offering custom vehicles are usually tuners, offering bolt-on parts for an existing vehicle that have not gone through the whole process and are therefore less proven, and frequently less legal. Saleen spends millions of dollars every year certifying their products. The government cuts them no slack just because Saleen bases most of their current lineup on existing models like the Mustang or F-150. The S7 is unique, but so are the S281/Parnelli Jones Mustangs and S331 Sport Truck in the minds of the authorities. As soon as you change a bumper, an intake, an exhaust, the suspension/wheels/tires, you technically have a new vehicle that needs to be recertified. Most companies find loopholes, not Saleen. We point this out, of course, to explain why Steve can frequently be seen bristling when he hears someone refer to them as a tuner. Think Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop when you hear Steve say, "It's NOT a tuner."

We also point this out to explain why a Saleen product might cost a little more than its competitors. For that extra investment, you get a vehicle that is completely engineered by Saleen. Parts and assemblies may be built by other companies, but Saleen oversees the engineering and development of those parts. They also use their own considerable talents to develop changes that are built for high performance, that are built right. Forged wheels rather than cast. Low boost superchargers that are designed to minimize airflow friction by eliminating unnecessary turns in the pathway, allowing high horsepower gains without resorting to ungodly boost levels that can put additional strain on the engine internals. And how about this novel idea, building a sport truck that drives like a sports car, but actually increases its utility as a truck?

While many "sport trucks" over the years have sacrificed their payload and towing capacity for sporty handling, Saleen thought any truck not capable of holding half a ton in the bed wasn't a real truck. If you aren't going to be able to use the final product like a truck, why not get a real sports car instead? So the design directive to the engineering team on the S331 was to make it outperform a Mustang GT, while retaining the utility and towing capacity of the F-150. Think that sounds impossible? We thought so too, until we drove it.

Heading down PCH on a typically remarkable sunny day, we had a chance to feel the impressive ride quality, and a few brief opportunities to sample the 450 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque in these 5.4-liter supercharged trucks (The non-supercharged 3-valve versions are rated at 325/380, but we never had a chance to try those). It wasn't until a little later, when we hit the canyons around Orange County, however, that we really understood the Mustang comparison. You truly forget you're in a truck when you feel the handling of these things. There is virtually no body roll, despite the compliant ride. No float or bounce, no wheel hop or tail wagging either.

The only time you sense the truckiness is when you have to make a tight turn or when you have to pull into a parking spot. The turning radius on this truck is understandably large with its long wheelbase and 305/40-23s all around, but it really comes as a surprise when you've been able to clip apexes and maintain speeds that are so high through the twisties just moments earlier. When we stopped for lunch at Cook's Corner we were able to see that this truck draws attention everywhere it goes. For some posh nosh in Newport or pub grub with the bikers, it seemed equally well suited.

The morning ended back at the Club where Saleen had an even bigger surprise waiting for us. What better way to show off the utility of these trucks than to add a few accessories? While we had taken a break, the five trucks in our test fleet had payload added. And not just Home Depot stuff, these are sport trucks after all. No, Saleen had outfitted the S331s with the kind of toys they envision owners will have in their collections. A sport bike, Harley, and quad were put in the beds of three of the trucks, while the other two got trailers. All of the trucks have a built in trailer hitch behind the flip-up rear license plate. One of the trailers had a pair of Jet Skis, and the other, a 30-foot sport boat. With the Class-3 trailer package, the truck can tow 5,000 pounds. That goes up to 9,500 when you upgrade to the Class-4 with its airbag suspension.

We all had a chance to drive the weighted down trucks over to the Dunes and discovered they perform nearly as well with a load. We stopped by the harbor boat launch where we had a nice photo opp. We were then treated to dinner at The Cannery after an all-too-slow ride in a triple Viper-engined Donzai speedboat. Dinner over, it was time for bed, for Day 2 we hit the track at El Toro.

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