First Drive: 2008 Saleen S302E and H302SC Mustangs

click above image to view more high-res photos of the Saleen H302 SC

There might be dozens (even hundreds?) of Mustang variations out there, but when Saleen sends you an invite to drive its new 620-horsepower S302E Extreme Mustang, you take it without thinking twice. You see, they have been working their magic on Ford's pony car for 25 years now, so if anyone knows how to do it right, it's Saleen. Company founder Steve Saleen might no longer be at the helm, but that doesn't mean the company's passion is gone for producing high performance automobiles. In fact, there seems to be a renewed enthusiasm, or what Saleen's General Manager Marques McCammon calls a "reawakening" of the company. Part of this is due to the recent acquisition of ASC (American Specialty Cars), and new key personnel in place including Paul Wilbur as the new President and CEO, as well as Chris Theodore, the father of the Ford GT program, as the new Chief Technology Officer. The two vehicles we drove, the H302 SC and the S302 Extreme, were the first two new vehicles launched under the new leadership. Follow the jump for our driving impressions of these two monster Mustangs.

Live Photos Copyright ©2007 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

Arriving at the retired El Toro Marine base for a day of driving, we were met with Saleen's full lineup of vehicles. After a brief introduction to the new models, we headed out for some all-out driving on the abandoned runways. First up was the all-new H302 SC, which is by far one of the prettiest Mustangs ever built. The Heritage body design has more of a mature look than it did on the Grabber Orange Parnelli Jones Mustang, not to mention more power, as well. Using the 302 motor from the PJ with forged pistons (changed slightly to allow for less compression), crankshaft, and connecting rods, Saleen also added its patented twin-screw supercharger for a total of 580 bhp @ 6400 rpm and 525 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm. To put things in perspective, that's more power than the original Saleen S7. In addition to the engine upgrades, the H302 SC also receives a 6-speed transmission, lightweight aluminum flywheel, high performance clutch and a 3.73:1 rear end. In the handling department, the H302 SC gets Saleen's Racecraft suspension alongside a second generation Watts-Link system.

On the coned-off course, the H302 SC was undoubtedly a strong performer, exhibiting the same handling characteristics that we loved in the Parnelli Jones Mustang combined with a significant amount of additional horsepower. The car was smooth and easy to control, offering predictable handling and a chassis that felt up to par with handling the torque. A slight dose of understeer could easily be resolved with the throttle, and any traction lost by the rear tires was predictable and easy to control. Think GT500, except lighter, quicker, more responsive, and no wheel hop or rear end shifting from the live rear axle.

After making several laps in the H302 SC, it was time to switch to the S302E. The Extreme has the standard Saleen look, although with a carbon fiber front lip and rear diffuser. Underneath the hood is the same supercharged 302 ci V8 as the H302 SC, but with CNC ported aluminum cylinder heads good for an additional forty horsepower. More significant upgrades come in the form of 15-inch brakes with 6-piston calipers, lightweight forged aluminum 5-spoke wheels, and most importantly a sticky set of Pirelli P-Zero tires sized at 305x35x20 in the rear. The additional traction provided by the tires helps tremendously in putting the power down, both in a straight line and carving corners. Once hooked, the Extreme held onto the pavement with the exception of a brief chirp between gear shifts. Like the H302 SC, the Extreme could be easily steered using the throttle and provided excellent feedback. The power doesn't overwhelm the brakes, suspension or chassis, which is surprising for a car that was initially supposed to have less than half the horsepower. It's definitely a beast, but very predictable and controllable.

Amazingly, the cars ran all day without a hitch. None of the cars exhibited too much heat soak from the supercharger, and the brakes held up all day despite constant wide-open-throttle acceleration and ABS-inducing braking.

Priced at $74,999 for the H302 SC and $79,999 for the S302E, comparisons will most likely be made with the Corvette Z06 and the Viper SRT10. But most likely Saleen will attract a different type of buyer who wants the convenience of a back seat and prefers the Mustang's styling over the Viper or Vette. Yes, $80k is a hard pill to swallow for a Mustang, but you'd be hard pressed to find another car with 600+ horsepower that can be bought off the showroom floor for less.

Click image below to view the S302 Extreme's spec sheet

Click image below to view the H302 SC's spec sheet

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