“It’s really there for sentimental reasons,” says Steve Saleen, referring to the only part that his $395,000, 200-mph-plus S7 supercar shares with the Ford Mustang—a lower window channel buried deep within the featherweight carbon-fiber door. It’s a nice gesture, seeing as Saleen’s exclusive high-performance versions of Ford’s pony car have made him a household name among Ford loyalists, and a demigod at Ford club gatherings. This year, he’ll sell 800-900 Saleen Mustangs through selected Ford dealerships, in various states of chassis tune, power and appearance.
As we circle a stoutly triangulated spaceframe of 4130 chromemoly tubing gussetted with panels of honeycomb aluminum at the Saleen factory, it’s obvious that this is no Mustang. Later, with Steve riding shotgun in our fully assembled S7, we tap the full 550 bhp and the car explodes like a round out of a chamber to a very un-Mustang-like speed of 165 mph. On this necessarily deserted section of road, the suspension compresses mightily and the steering tightens, as the car is generating its full 2870-lb. curb weight in downforce here...and it’s champing at the bit for more throttle. I have no reason to doubt the 200-mph claim. The sound is thoroughly intoxicating too, with 7.0 liters of dry-sump aluminum V-8 transitioning from coarse rumble to maniacal shriek with every flight to the 6500-rpm redline. This thing flat moves, and feels locked in a slot at triple digits.
This story originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Road & Track.
Later, we attack a favorite tree-lined canyon road, throttling in the huge 3rd-gear thrust from turn to turn. It’s remarkable how the front aero enhances turn-in, and how a car that seemed so unmanageably wide at first can be guided so obediently in its lane. We’re flying along at ridiculous speeds, and the mammoth Pirelli P Zeros have hardly squawked in protest.
Geez, in the span of several hours I think I’ve used my entire fun allotment (and good karma with police) for the year! Steve is grinning too— and deservedly so. He’s succeeded where many others have failed, in building a no-holds-barred American supercar that’s crash-tested, OBD-II certified and emissions-legal in all 50 states. It’s also a true race car for the street, designed without compromise around its considerable downforce package, that makes the Lamborghini Murcielago feel positively posh by comparison. That’s purely intentional, as the whole Saleen crew is proud of how close the chassis is to the S7 race car’s, the track-proven alter-ego that won 19 out of 32 races in 2001, including a victory over the factory GTS Corvettes in the 12 Hours of Sebring.
As the factory tour continues, it starts to become obvious why the S7 costs as much as it does. Billy Tally, Saleen’s enthusiastic vice president of engineering, holds up a front suspension upright that’s been CNC-machined from a solid aluminum billet, its elegant latticework o f openings designed to admit cooling air to the brakes. It’s one of hundreds of like-machined parts that are hand-assembled, welded and jigged up on the premises. Only the immaculately done carbon-fiber bodywork is done off-site, though it’s painted in Saleen’s booth. Saleen admits that the English Midlands is the epicenter for this work: “The weave pattern is better-looking, it’s lighter, and it’s stronger.”
We move to engine final assembly, where Steve clears up the misconception that the 7.0-liter V-8 is Ford-based. The aluminum block is a Saleen-exclusive lightweight casting that has small-block external dimensions with big-block capacity. “I did borrow Ford bore centers so I didn’t have to reinvent head gaskets and some other bracketry,” explains Steve. Tally points with obvious pride to an S7 cylinder head and pokes a finger in the gaping ports, the exhaust valve seats done in beryllium. “It has the best heat conductivity of just about any metal on the planet,”he says, adding that with ultra-precise computer machining of both ports and combustion chambers, most heads are within 0.5 percent of one another on the flow bench.
Out of the shop and back in the S7 (chassis No. 17), we have a chance to sample the amenities, as there are power windows and door locks, fabulous-smelling Connolly leather, very effective heat and air-conditioning systems, and a silver- trimmed, white-face gauge cluster inspired by Steve’s own Breitling wristwatch. There are small luggage compartments front and rear, which beautifully show off the carbon-fiber weave and are shaped to accommodate the three-piece set of fitted luggage that’s included with the car.
The luggage isn’t the only thing that’s fitted...the driver is too. The leather- wrapped, fixed-shell seats are non-adjustable fore-aft; rather, the AP-sourced pedal cluster can be manually bolted in one of eight positions. Leather-covered seat pads can be added or taken away according to driver girth and preference, and the small-diameter wheel is adjustable for tilt. As part of the purchase price, Saleen flies the buyer and spouse first-class from anywhere in the U.S., puts them up at the local Ritz-Carlton for two days, takes them on a tour of the Saleen shops in Irvine, California, and fits them to the car. Last, Steve takes them on what he calls an “acclimatization drive.”
This is necessary. For a number of reasons.
First, there’s a certain technique requiring some flexibility to enter the car. The doors tilt forward on a diagonal hinge line, like a Porsche 962’s, and if you attempt to put just one leg in the footwell and hoist yourself into the offset-toward-center driver’s seat, you’ll do the splits like Mary Lou Retton. No, it’s best to thread both feet in and lower yourself with hands on the sill and seat. Once ensconced, the footbox is quite narrow, with close spacing of the heavy-effort pedals. (Remember the downforce I mentioned earlier? A good deal of it at the front comes from space-hogging channels between the footbox and road wheels; at the rear, there’s a generously sized diffuser.) At 6-foot-2, I had surprisingly good head, leg and elbow room, but my size-12 Pumas would catch the edge of the brake when going for throttle. A swap to narrower Adidas shoes solved that problem, but there was no solution for the steering wheel blocking the useful part of the tach, from 1500 to 6500 rpm. Saleen says a larger steering wheel is being considered.
The clutch, a 2-disc, small-diameter number, is a beast. The pedal effort is considerable, and the engagement window is narrow and finicky. I claim personal responsibility for frying it on the photo shoot, during multiple passes that required 3-point turns and not much time for friction-plate cool-down. It takes the better part of a day in the car to get what resembles a smooth start, without either killing the engine or leaving the line with a flurry of revs.
There are some unusual noises...the hiss of the power steering as it’s moved off-center, and the sound of brake pads rattling in side the Brembo-sourced calipers, which becomes truly annoying only over freeway expansion joints. The steering isn’t happy over rain grooves, but feels better with speed and familiarity. Gearbox? The linkage of the 6-speed, sourced from a Texas company Saleen prefers to keep confidential, is quite solid and direct, but reverse requires a Herculean tug toward your right thigh. Outside mirrors provide mostly a view of therear fenders, but a sizable LCD screen that pops out of the sound system in the center console provides a wide-angle view to the rear via a small camera.
No one said owning an exotic car would be easy. But with familiarity, the S7 is livable, enjoyable and delivers only slightly softened race-car thrills like no other. Peruse our data panel and you’ll find the S7 is the quickest production car to 60 mph we’ve ever tested; at 3.3 seconds it beats even the almighty McLaren FI by a tenth, though Gordon Murray’s machine retains our official quarter-mile honors (11.6 sec. at 125.0 mph, versus the S7’s 11.8 at 119.9). Through our high-speed slalom, it’s one of two production cars on record to exceed 70 mph, remarkable considering its 78.3-in. width in a test that favors narrower cars. And on the asphalt centrifuge of the skidpad, it nearly touches a full g—0.99 to be exact. Stopping distances of the non-assisted brakes are quite good, as expected, with enormous full-floating rotors and a total caliper piston count of 16, but lack of anti-lock prevents stops from being shorter.
As with most exotics, this sort of performance is best enjoyed on a racetrack, and the S7 is more than qualified to be the darling of open-lapping day for the fortunate buyer who can shell out $395,000. He or she should be prepared to put up with some annoyances, answer many questions, have people point and gawk and, when appropriate, go very, very fast. After all, this is as close as one can get to charging down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans without an FIA license.