From every angle and from any distance, the Saleen S7 looks like a supercar. Every pedestrian strolling along Santa Barbara’s State Street on a spring evening notices it. The gill-straked body is very long, very wide, and very low, and it sits atop huge, low-profile Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires. The snug cockpit is surrounded by acres of painted carbon fiber encapsulating enough aerodynamic ductwork to heat a house. A mid-mounted drivetrain breathes under glass, gulping air fed by a roof duct. The rear end swells upward and outward in an expression of power and strength, with quad exhaust pipes finishing the statement. When the winglike doors are open, the S7 looks like something Martians would offload from a spaceship.
The S7 is no science-fiction fantasy, though. It’s a real supercar, one you can drive home if you can write the check. (It’s probably already represented in your kid’s Hot Wheels collection.) Steve Saleen, as you might know, is a former professional racing driver and current team owner who has been remanufacturing Ford Mustangs for nearly two decades. (Don’t use the dreaded word tuner in his presence.) Along the way, he has carefully nurtured a fiercely fanatical band of Saleen loyalists who are keen to spend upward of $60,000 on Mustangs with thoroughly reworked drivetrains and suspensions and bodywork that does not go unnoticed.
In December 1999, Saleen decided to build an American supercar, and the S7 concept appeared in all its gilled glory at the Monterey Historics eight months later, in August 2000. Last year, the Saleen S7R racing car, which does not differ much from the street S7, made an auspicious debut, winning nineteen out of thirty-two races, including its class in the 12 Hours of Sebring, and four championship titles. (Technical editor Don Sherman described the S7R, and his brief drive of it, in our October 2001 issue.)
Two questions concerning the S7 have been top of mind these past two years. First, would Saleen actually deliver a real, live, fully certified street version? Second, if he did, would it be worth $395,000, which is, after all, significantly more than any current Ferrari or Lamborghini costs? After many understandable delays–have you ever tried to build a brand-new car, let alone a 550-horsepower, carbon fiber-bodied supercar, from scratch in less than two years?–Saleen delivered the first customer car in early June.
The S7 is not a direct competitor to cars like the Lamborghini Murcilago. Sure, they are both hyperexpensive, mid-engined, midlife-crisis machines for multimillionaires, but the Lamborghini is a fast and flamboyant grand touring sports car, whereas the Saleen–which is pretty flamboyant, too–provides a pure driving experience that is only a small step away from that of a racing car. This core difference between the two cars is evident in their curb weights: The S7 weighs only 2750 pounds, says its maker, while the Murcilago weighs about two tons.
A niche manufacturer like Saleen does not create a car completely from raw materials on its own. The S7’s suspension, as well as its spaceframe chassis, which is visible through the engine window, were developed by racing-car specialist Ray Mallock Ltd. in England. The car’s state-of-the-art aerodynamics were tested in a Scottish wind tunnel, and the brakes were supplied by Brembo. The six-speed manual transmission comes from the Texas firm RBT, also the source of gearchange hardware for the Italian exotic Pagani Zonda (October 2001) and the Ford GT40 concept. The V-8 is completely reengineered by Saleen from Ford’s small-block V-8. Having undergone all manner of metallurgical and respiratory surgeries, it produces 550 horsepower and 525 pound-feet of torque for a ratio of exactly five pounds per horsepower. Its dry-sump lubrication allows for very low mounting in the chassis, resulting in a center of gravity that is also about as low as they go.
We approached the S7 with some apprehension. We were on public roads, not a track, and the S7 has a learning curve. Steve Saleen himself was riding along to offer pointers and to make sure we didn’t crack up his baby. We were in chassis number 17, while number 15, a show car, and number 18, which had been earmarked for delivery to the first S7 customer, were back at the hotel. Most of the other chassis long ago were transformed into S7R racing cars or sacrificed to crash testing. In other words, there were no extra S7s to replenish the test-car fleet should yours truly commit the unthinkable.
The unthinkable did not occur. If it had, Saleen undoubtedly would have had one of his minions throw us into the Pacific with the 7.0-liter V-8 engine block from the wrecked car tethered to our legs. We would not be here to tell you how fast the S7 is, how raw and exhilarating it is to drive, and how it does not require its owners to be amateur racers, although it certainly wouldn’t hurt them to have some track time under their belts.
The driver’s door rises out of the way to reveal a foot-wide sill and a leather bucket seat. As with the Murcilago, ingress is best achieved by a variation on the old hokeypokey theme: You put your right foot in, you put your left hand out. You grasp the open door, and you swing your butt about. Eventually, you’ll find yourself planted in the cabin, and you’ll immediately remove your thick wallet from your rear pocket, the better to fit into the hip-hugging seat. (Saleen will custom-fit seats, pedals, and removable steering wheels to each S7 buyer.) The leather-swathed cabin, while not particularly luxurious, has a high-quality, high-tech feel about it.
Bring your Piloti driving shoes, or your JP Tod’s mocs, or simply your callused soles, but leave your Skechers at home, dude. The foot-well is about ten inches wide, so careful foot-on-pedal placement is essential. We won’t argue with Saleen’s purist decision to install a traditional six-speed, H-gate manual transmission rather than Formula 1-style paddle shifting, but the latter’s lack of a clutch pedal would have made for easier footwork. There is a tiny dead pedal, but your left foot won’t fit entirely on it; you end up riding the clutch, which has just enough slack to accommodate its role as auxiliary dead pedal.
Turn the key, and push the start button. After a slight hesitation, the 7.0-liter V-8 sparks to considerable life behind you. The familiar small-block American V-8 throatiness is enhanced by modern metallic undertones. You not only hear it, you feel it, and, oh, what a feeling it is.
The clutch pedal is creamy, with just the right resistance, requiring none of the tractorlike effort of, say, the first-generation . The gears reward careful, deliberate pushes of the palm. Into first, release the clutch, and you’re off, wind and mechanical noises filling the cabin as you quickly gain speed. The drive-train is immensely tractable; you hardly feel the need to shift out of second gear. “Keep the rpm at about 2500,” advises Saleen. “There’s no need to rev it really high with all the torque.”
Acceleration, you ask? Enough thrust to make any other car blur into the background is only a flex of your right foot away. The S7 is not yet available for performance testing, and Saleen is not releasing his own figures for now, but he hints that the S7’s 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times should equal, and perhaps surpass, those of the McLaren F1, which are 3.4 and 11.6 seconds, respectively. Throttle response is instantaneous no matter what gear you’re in.
The S7’s steering provides more feedback than your shrink and more feel than a teenager at a drive-in. For anyone not accustomed to driving a modern racing car, this amount of steering precision takes some getting used to. The most minute, inadvertent inputs to the steering wheel result in an exactly corresponding amount of directional change to the car. The downside is that every impact from the road affects directional stability, so a tight hand at the tiller is essential.
We are not here to tell you that we drove 200 mph on public roads, although Saleen says he has seen 205 mph on a track. Actually, we don’t know how fast we drove, because our car’s speedometer wasn’t hooked up. The car’s theoretical top speed is about 240 mph, but development engineer Bill Tally says they’ll probably gear the car to about 215 mph, a speed deemed sufficient for any privateer’s needs.
There are plenty of thrills to be had at lower speeds. The car’s reactions to inputs to the accelerator, brakes, and steering are so immediate and unworldly as to require a reordering of driver expectations for a street car. By the time we began prying open the S7’s performance envelope, we were at Jalama Beach County Park, south of Lompoc, heading back to California Route 1. Jalama Road, a fourteen-mile loop of rapidly changing elevation and direction, is the type of road that makes us natives of the flat Midwest weep. We bonded with the S7 on Jalama Road. In hairpin curves where in most cars we would be struggling to balance braking and steering, the S7 simply turned in and pivoted through the arc with grace and precision. “This is easy,” we thought, as the road unfolded and our feet and hands arrived at a steady rhythm of accelerating, braking, and turning. Braking is accomplished very handily by six-piston front and rear calipers biting down on fifteen-inch front and fourteen-inch rear rotors.
Every virtue has its price, of course, and the S7 makes you pay not only in real money but also in some comforts and conveniences. The cockpit swarms with virtually unchecked wind noise. The aluminum-intensive suspension, with unequal-length control arms and coil-over dampers, makes for spectacular handling and an acceptable ride on smooth pavement, but with every encounter of the 275/30ZR-19 front, 345/25ZR-20 rear Pirellis with a reflective Botts dot, it sounds and feels as if somebody is pounding the underside of the car with a sledge hammer. Racing-style floating brake rotors, which rattle over bumps, compound the situation. The brakes, although phenomenal, do not include anti-lock, nor does the S7 offer skid or traction control, which seems an oversight. Counters engineer Tally, who has driven motorcycles at more than 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats: “We don’t need stability control; we have downforce. Our competitors are masking problems with chassis and brakes.” Ohhh-kay.
Saleen hopes to sell a few hundred S7s over three or four years. Why bother developing and certifying such a complicated, low-volume car rather than just selling a few more supercharged Mustangs? Aside from the personal pride in seeing your own name in capital letters across the rear end of a 240-mph supercar, there is, of course, the matter of money.
By proving that his company is capable of producing high-performance, exotic niche cars, Saleen opens the way for lucrative contracts to build such cars for traditional auto-makers. Word on the street is that Saleen will build the GT40 for Ford. “It’s a delicious rumor,” says Saleen coyly. “Obviously, we have a good relationship with Ford and would like to continue it.”
Is the S7 worth it? Any automobile that costs more than $50,000 is purchased for reasons that have little to do with practicality and everything to do with perceived prestige and status. The S7 has proven itself on the track, but with no stature in this rarefied realm of the automotive marketplace, Saleen definitely faces a challenge. That said, he has created a made-in-America, world-class supercar, one that’s as raw as a racing car and completely unfettered by convention, which is something for all of us to be proud of. In its performance and appearance, it feeds our fantasies and the fantasies of its owners, and it exceeds our expectations of what any American manufacturer, let alone Saleen, can deliver.