Quick Spin: 2010 Saleen S281 is the real deal with the wrong engine... for now

2010 Saleen S281 - Click above for high-res image gallery

In the middle of the decade, Saleen was on a roll. The company had just launched its new S281 Mustang based on the S197 platform, the twin-turbo variation of the S7 was underway and Ford had contracted the specialty manufacturer to assemble its GT supercar. Business was good, and both of Saleen's assembly plants in Irvine and Detroit were at full capacity. The top of the mountain came in early 2007 when Saleen introduced the Parnelli Jones Mustang, still one of our favorite Mustangs of all time.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from that point. Founder Steve Saleen announced his departure in the summer of 2007 and the investment firm with a controlling stake in the company declared that it was looking for a buyer in late 2008. Just a few months later, most of what was left of Saleen was sold to MJ Acquisitions, a Detroit-based company that owns various automotive manufacturing businesses.

Needless to say, we had our doubts about the future of Saleen. Would the new owner uphold the identity of the brand that was built over the past 25 years? Would they be able to keep their loyal base of customers without Steve at the helm? Most importantly, would a new Saleen have the resources and personnel to create an all-new product worthy of the brand? Saleen gave us the opportunity to drive one of its first production S281 Mustangs based on the the car's new-for-2010 body style, and we think we have the answer. Continued after the jump.

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Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Some of our initial questions about the new Saleen, now named Saleen Performance Vehicles, were answered at SEMA last year when we got our first look at the 2010 S281 prototype. The design was distinctively Saleen while still managing to take a new styling direction that worked well with the revised bodywork of the 2010 Mustang. We loved the interior as well, especially the two-tone leather seats with red trim. Maybe our expectations were low, but it was worlds better than we expected. Of course, it's one thing to build a prototype and another to build a production car.

Fast-forward a mere six months and we're in Buena Park, CA for the 25th annual Fabulous Fords at Knotts. Saleen is in town for the show and has brought along the first two S281 production cars. Would we like to drive one? Why, yes. Yes we would...

Before we got behind the wheel, though, we did a walk around the car with David Byron, the man tasked with designing the new S281 and no stranger to the Saleen brand. After starting out his design career at ASC working with GM's specialty vehicle group, he helped design for Saleen when the two companies merged in 2007. Remember the S5S Raptor? That was all Byron.

As you can imagine, designing the new S281 was no easy task. "We had to make sure the enthusiast still looks at it and says, 'Wow, look at the new Saleen!' and not 'Cool, what is that?'" Byron told us. Even so, he wanted to make sure he didn't just replicate the look of the previous design. "The first goal was to evolve the Saleen brand yet maintain a connection with our fans."

There are plenty of classic Saleen styling cues, like the rear deck lid that extends past the taillights, the black horizontal grill and the faux vents behind the front wheels, but there are plenty of new cues as well. The front end tapers to the center rather than flaring outward, and each side features LED driving lights instead of the dual vents. The hood now has a large single scoop rather than heat extractors, and the rear end has a diffuser-style fascia instead of the horizontal vents. Starting to notice a trend? The new S281 has fewer vents. The previous generation Saleen had them everywhere, but they are noticeably absent on the 2010 model, for better or worse. It's definitely a cleaner look, although maybe not quite as distinctive.

A closer inspection of the exterior reveals some of the best fit and finish we've seen on an aftermarket Mustang. The body panels have an OEM appearance, something we expect from a car that essentially doubles the price tag of a Mustang GT from the factory. Saleen designed each of the S281 body panels to work with the car's existing mounting points, so items like the side skirts don't need the dreaded double sided tape to keep them on. There are also some keen design details that blend so well with the stock Mustang's design you might missed them at first glance. For example, take a look at the rear portion of the side sill – it mirrors the line that creates the haunches over the rear wheels. See the vertical line outside the headlight? Saleen actually used it as a design element and continues it down and around the driving lights.

While we came away impressed with the exterior, we absolutely adored the interior. In fact, it's the best interior we've ever seen in a tuner Mustang and one that's finally fitting of the price tag that comes with a car of this caliber. Of course, Ford helped out by providing better materials to start with, but Saleen has done a great job enhancing the Mustang's cockpit with items that are both great to look at and touch. The seats are probably our favorite part of the interior, particularly the creative application of the suede inserts and the red Saleen logo on the inner bolster.

Like the exterior there are some small details that make a big difference, too. For instance, the entire center console has been painted glossy black for a more upscale look. The Saleen logo in the leather door inserts glow with Ford's MyColor ambient lighting, and the black-faced gauges are particularly handsome. While this example had the stock shifter, Byron assured us that all of the production cars would get the same ultra-cool shifter found in the concept car and that Saleen didn't quite have them ready for the first few vehicles built.

Perhaps the one low point for the 2010 Saleen S281, if there is one, is the motor. If the engine bay looks familiar, that's because it is. Saleen's familiar supercharger system sits atop the 4.6-liter V8 and provides around six pounds of boost good for 485 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. So what can be so wrong with a supercharged V8 putting out nearly 500 horsepower? Well, nothing. It's just that Ford has really made things tough on Mustang tuners with the new 5.0-liter V8. With the Mustang GT putting out 412 horsepower, it will be hard for tuners like Saleen to provide a significant performance boost. Plus, we can't imagine buying a brand new Mustang that has the old 4.6-liter V8 now that the 5.0 is here.

Even so, Saleen has decided to invest in some small upgrades to the supercharger: retooling the manifold, adding new bearings for longer and quieter operation, and improved seals to prevent oil and air leaks. That, plus an all-new tune for the engine's computer, accounts for the ten horsepower increase compared to the 2009 S281.

With the 4.6-liter motor going out of commission, you might be wondering what Saleen has in store for next year. There's no need to worry, as work is already underway on an all new supercharger for the 5.0-liter V8.

While the engine is only slightly changed for 2010, the suspension system has been completely swapped out for brand new components. Adjustable coilovers now reside both front and rear and allow for height adjustment and tunable damping. Each damper has 30 stiffness settings that can be customized using dials located on the front strut towers and in the trunk, while ride height can be changed by turning the spring further into its mount. It might be overkill in this application, and we would bet that only a small portion of Saleen's customers will fully utilize the potential of the suspension, but the attention to detail shows through.

So what's it like to drive? Well...a 485-horsepower Mustang. Our time in the S281 was limited to several jaunts around the city, so we couldn't explore anything close to the limits of the car, but we definitely got our full dosage of boost from the twin-screw supercharger. Floor the throttle and the blown V8 provides a mountain of torque through the entire rev range. We tested out a few different suspension settings, and while we preferred it to be dialed in towards the middle, the stiffest setting wasn't as bone-jarring as you'd expect.

While we came away from the 2010 Saleen S281 itching for more and better driving time, we still learned what we wanted to know: The Saleen brand is in good hands. In fact, we get the idea that the new owners of the company won't be settling for the status quo. The interior plaque says "Manufactured in the Motor City." They mean it. For the first time Saleen has brought much of their manufacturing in-house, which they believe will lead to better and higher quality products. The staff is full of enthusiasts who know Saleen well, many of them previous employees, and as CEO Mike Shields puts it, they are "committed to building on the best traditions of the Saleen brand." To all the Saleen fans out there, know that for the first time in a long time the Saleen brand has a bright future. The new S281 is a true Saleen in name, design and spirit. It's the real deal, and we're convinced that another good decade is around the bend.

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Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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