From the April 2000 issue of Car and Driver.
Saleen Mustangs are unabashed mutants, with bodywork additions that bulge like the lats on Mr. Universe contestants, with wheels and tires that crowd the wheelhousings, and with engines that pulse with supercharged steroids.
Of course, they’ve also displayed some of the downsides of steroid abuse in the past, such as grumpy idling, supercharger whine, a jolting ride, and tramlining on longitudinal grooves badly enough to make a bloodhound dizzy. Also, under the duress of our testing procedures, some examples of Saleen’s handiwork have even, uh, failed to go forward.
But this S281 you see here seems a zebra of an altogether different stripe. Using the overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8 as a base, and employing a Roots-type Saleen supercharger much quieter than the one we last sampled on Saleen’s S351R (C/D, December 1996), the 2000 S281 is comparatively civilized in nature.
It starts easily and idles smoothly. Although the 2.5-inch-diameter stainless-steel exhaust system utters a note clearly deeper and gruffer than you hear on the stock Ford, it avoids being obnoxiously boomy, especially at low rpm, where this problem often turns up on aftermarket pipes.
The clutch effort is reasonable, and the short-throw shifter that Saleen bolts on works quite well, particularly when you bear in mind that the standard five-speed transmission isn’t the slickest in the business anyway. Low and midrange torque are excellent, providing bright throttle response in almost any gear. You can leave the traffic for dead without breaking a sweat, but the S281 engine will also zip through to its 6000-rpm redline with no sign of reluctance along the way. Perhaps this is what you’d expect from the overhead-cam engine, but it’s undoubtedly helped here by Saleen’s cast-aluminum intake manifold and high-flow (24 pounds per hour) fuel injectors—all managed by custom fuel-delivery calibrations.
The last supercharged Saleen we tested (C/D, August 1998) suffered from the lack of an intercooler, but the S281 takes no chances here and wears an air-to-water intercooler squeezed into the engine bay. Saleen claims 350 horsepower for the car in this form, up 90 hp from the stock GT’s 260, and 65 more than Saleen’s own naturally aspirated S281.
That’s a colossal jump, and although the car feels significantly stronger on the road, our test results don’t provide hard support for those horsepower numbers. Yes, our quarter-mile time of 13.8 seconds at 103 mph is quite a bit quicker than a stock Mustang GT’s 14.2 at 98, but is it evidence of 350 horsepower? Not really. Saleen’s publicity material quotes some performance figures published by another magazine, declaring it went from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and turned the standing quarter in 13.4 seconds at 108 mph.
We guessed these might have been simple one-way runs, perhaps without weather correction. But when we looked more closely at the numbers, we discovered that our launches were better, with fractionally quicker times to 30 and 40 mph.
Since the supercharged S281 has to be bogged off the line (the clutch must be engaged at low revs to avoid time-wasting wheelspin), this performance disparity thus appears to be a pure power issue. Even more telling is the performance of our own supercharged—but not intercooled—project Mustang GT (C/D, July 1999). We measured 278 rear-wheel horsepower on a dyno, which translates into about 330 crankshaft horsepower. That car—with 20 less hp and about 150 fewer pounds than the Saleen car—hit 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and blew through the quarter-mile in 13.6 seconds at 103 mph. Perhaps this S281 was just a slow example—who knows?
A pretty fair increase in power is evident at higher speeds. The S281 reaches 100 mph 2.1 seconds quicker than the GT. And more convincing yet is the dash to 130 mph—it’s a full 13.5 seconds quicker. The supercharged engine also has the grunt to tow the spoiler-festooned S281 to a top speed of 154 mph, beating the stock GT by 16 mph. Given the extra spoilers and scoops, that velocity increase makes the 350-hp claim more credible.
And from the driver’s seat of the S281, there’s an unmistakable increase in torque that is apparent in all driving situations. In fifth gear, the S281 accelerates from 50 to 70 mph in 8.5 seconds, 1.4 seconds quicker than the stock GT, which has a 3.27:1 axle ratio that is more conducive to acceleration than the 3.08 axle used on the Saleen. Couple that with the comprehensive suspension and wheel-and-tire upgrades on our car, and you get dynamics in the realm of race cars.
At the skidpad, the Saleen swooped around at a giddy 0.92 g, displaying resolute roll control and minimal understeer. Out on the track, the car (equipped for our test with optional 10-inch-wide rear wheels and 295/35ZR-18 Pirelli P Zero tires, worth some $995) has such good grip and such ferociously quick turn-in that it makes the stock Ford steering feel extraordinarily fast.
Cough up another $2600, and you can demand 13.0-inch grooved front discs with four-piston calipers to go behind the Saleen five-spoke alloys. Our car wore standard-issue Saleen brakes—upgrades from the stock Mustang—and these were good for stops from 70 mph in just 160 feet, a notable achievement for a 3540-pound car. With the sticky tires and well-tied-down chassis, this all adds up to a scarily fast car at the track. We had to restrain ourselves at our brief track session to keep the red mist at bay and to guarantee an unwrinkled car at the photo shoot.
It’s not that the Saleen S281 has any nasty surprises up its sleeve. It’s just that the cornering speeds are high enough to make any little lapses of concentration potentially expensive ones. Naturally, the aggressive setup compromises the car’s ride on rough surfaces, where it hammers and jolts over the worst surface imperfections. Owing to its urethane bushings, the ride is not quiet, either. And—as expected—the solid rear axle does its usual dance on corrugations as well as its obligatory wag on big one-wheel bumps.
But for what it is, the S281 is surprisingly usable and perfectly capable of commuting and touring roles. And at $33,182 with the supercharger but without the wheels and tires, it isn’t wildly unaffordable. Hey, that’s 350 (or so) horsepower and a race-bred chassis for 33 large. Is this a great country, or what?
2735 Wardlow Road
Corona, CA 92882
2000 Saleen Mustang S281 Supercharged
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
As Tested: $34,177
supercharged and intercooled SOHC 16-valve V-8, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 281 in3, 4601 cm3
Power: 350 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 410 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Wheelbase: 101.3 in
Length: 183.2 in
Curb Weight: 3540 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.1 sec
100 mph: 12.8 sec
1/4-Mile: 13.8 sec @ 103 mph
130 mph: 24.4 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 5.5 sec
Top Speed (drag ltd): 154 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 160 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.92 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 15 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 17 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED