Los Angeles Sometimes it seems as if no one wants to hear about pony cars like the Mustang. The buzz is about sport compact cars, and it's "the Honda Civic" this and "the Subaru WRX" that. Yet the market for hot-rod Mustangs is on fire. Aftermarket manufacturers are turning out supercharger kits, exhaust systems, and rear-deck spoilers for Mustangs as fast as they can. No fewer than five specialty magazines speak to the Mustang masses every month, and they've sliced Mustang culture into separate niches, for the first-generation car of the '60s, the 5.0-liter car of the '80s, and the 4.6-liter car of the '90s. Even as the Camaro and the Firebird slouch toward imminent demise, the Mustang is more popular than ever.
To Mustang people, the numbers matter. Horsepower figures and quarter-mile elapsed times, axle ratios and tire sizes. Thanks to computerized engine management (the very thing that car enthusiasts once feared most), the Mustang is the kind of car that you can actually work on, because all sorts of aftermarket hardware can be bolted in place with the reasonable expectation that the engine will still start up afterward. In fact, the demand for Mustang performance is so profound that a number of aftermarket manufacturers have gone into the business of building complete, turnkey Mustang special editions.
Ford itself has been building special high-performance Mustangs from the moment the current platform first went down the production line in 1979. Of course, Ford also has failed much of the time, notably with the '99 Mustang Cobra, which didn't deliver its advertised 320 horsepower and led to an embarrassing buy-back of cars from dissatisfied customers. The current SVT Mustang Cobra tries to rectify the failures. The 32-valve DOHC 4.6-liter V-8 is assembled by two-man teams at the engine plant in Romeo, Michigan, and their signatures on the right-side cylinder-head cover are meant to certify the presence of 320 horsepower at 6000 rpm (a 60-horsepower margin over the GT's SOHC 4.6-liter V-8). Lots of air flow is the key to the power rating. On the intake side, there's a conical air filter, a 3.15-inch (80-millimeter) mass-air-flow sensor, and twin 2.24-inch (57-millimeter) throttle bodies. On the exhaust side, 2.25-inch-diameter tubing and low-restriction mufflers pass the gas.
There's more to the SVT Cobra package than just a power rating. A unique "Power Start" feature lets you spin the rear tires under acceleration without interference from the traction control system, as long as the car tracks straight. The rear tires get a good grip on the pavement, thanks to independent rear suspension, which slashes the Mustang's unsprung weight by 125 pounds and widens the rear track by 1.2 inches. The SVT Cobra also invites you to use its big front brakes with 13.0-inch Brembo rotors and PBR twin-piston calipers. It's a lot of car for $29,235.
There's plenty of car in the $37,499 Saleen S281-SC as well. Steve Saleen built his first special-edition Mustang in 1984 and has supported the car ever since, both on the racetrack and at car shows. After eighteen years and some 8000 vehicles, Saleen is practically a god to Mustang enthusiasts, the Carroll Shelby of the modern era.
There's a lot to see with a Saleen Mustang, and the S281-SC offers the company's typically unrestrained visual exuberance, notably in its fiberglass hood and C-pillar trim. Under the hood is an SOHC 4.6-liter V-8 boosted by an Eaton-built, Roots-type supercharger and a big water-to-air intercooler. Six pounds of boost yield 365 horsepower at 6000 rpm.
Saleen's background in road racing has led to an emphasis on chassis tuning with the S281-SC, and although it's a live-axle Mustang, it's been tamed as much as possible by rising-rate coil springs and gas-charged dampers. The S281-SC also features a limited-slip differential from New Process. A viscous coupling actuates the internal clutch pack, so the limited-slip engages with a smoother, more predictable effect. Meanwhile, the front brakes come from Brembo, with 13.0-inch slotted rotors and four-piston calipers. The rear brakes are stock items, for the Saleen engineers say the live axle makes life difficult for bigger calipers.
Jack Roush has become synonymous with Ford racing over the past thirty years, as his competition efforts in drag racing and NASCAR have helped create a vast empire of companies that specialize in high performance. Roush entered the Mustang business by building cars for the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving, and Roush Performance Products began building turnkey specialty Mustangs in 1999.
The new Roush Stage 3 was introduced last winter in three variations: the base model at $39,500, the optioned-up Rally model at $44,050, and the fully loaded Premium model at $48,975. There's an Eaton-built Roots-type supercharger on top of its SOHC 4.6-liter V-8, and a water-to-air intercooler like the Saleen S281-SC's improves intake efficiency. Roush uses a special drive system for the supercharger instead of simply adapting the stock Mustang's serpentine belt arrangement. Six psi of boost produces 360 horsepower at 5250 rpm. Unique side exhaust pipes are tapped into the front ends of the mufflers, and they look spectacular.
Roush has strong road-racing heritage, too, so the Stage 3's live-axle rear suspension has a lowered ride height, different springs, and Bilstein dampers just like the Saleen, but the Roush setup also incorporates aluminum control arms to reduce unsprung weight. The Premium-spec Stage 3's front brakes have slotted, 14.0-inch-diameter rotors and four-piston Alcon calipers.
There's no trick to getting the Cobra SVT off the starting line. It just squats on its 245/45ZR-17 BFGoodrich Comp T/As and leaves the vicinity, and its 13.5-second quarter-mile times are easily repeatable. Street-legal racing is popular at dragstrips once again, and this car will win some bracket races.
The Saleen S281-SC is a far trickier proposition. Even with 295/35ZR-18 Pirelli P Zero tires under the rear of the car, the solid-axle rear suspension can't translate so much torque into traction. Time-wasting tire smoke is the consequence. The SC will turn 13.5 seconds at 107 mph in the quarter-mile, if you get it right. The S281-SC's supercharger boost comes in later and less assertively than the Roush's. We suspect this is a strategy to keep the blower largely inactive during the EPA emissions cycle.
The Roush Stage 3 Mustang is simply a brute from a standing start. You're either a hero as the 295/35ZR-18 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A rear tires hook up and the car rockets into the middle distance at 13.0 seconds at 110 mph, or you're a dope spinning your tires. More often, you're a dope. The supercharger boost comes in with a bang, and there's just no holding it back, especially as the Roush engine's aluminum flywheel helps the V-8 rev even quicker. This is a wickedly fast car, but it's wise to have a plan when you drop the clutch.
Thirty years after the glory days of street racing on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, it's also important to make good things happen in the corners, and each of these Mustangs measures up. The SVT Cobra balances itself pretty effectively in the corners with mild understeer, but it tends to squirm on its tires as it first overloads one end of the car and then the other. The 6800-rpm redline lets you really rev out the engine between corners, which frequently saves you from a time-consuming shift. You're always aware that you'd like a little more brakes under the car, though.
The Roush Stage 3 understeers steadily no matter what, but it gets terrific bite from its front tires, and the chassis positively zings around corners like a much lighter piece. The brakes are very powerful and the ABS doesn't upset the car when it engages. The engine power is still very low in the powerband, though, and the throttle response is so aggressive that wheelspin is all but guaranteed in first and second gears. It's best always to pedal the Stage 3 in a gear taller than you'd expect.
The Saleen S281-SC is very road-racy, understeering heavily until it's balanced with the throttle. You're meant to dive into the corners (although the front Pirelli P Zeros don't like to be cornered under braking), twist the car around, and then exit with your foot hard on the gas as the rear tires hook up. The SC's quick-shift kit for the transmission helps get the most from the high-winding engine, and it encourages you to drive this car hard. All this enthusiasm heats up the brakes and the engine, however.
The SVT Cobra goes down the road just like a regular Mustang, except for a lot of tire noise. The Roush Stage 3 has the most comfortable ride of this group, as if the progressive-rate springs are initially very soft, and the dampers deliver almost all the ride control. There's lively engine response and lots of blower whine every time you jump on the gas, but you'd better be careful of those side pipes on driveways and speed bumps. The Saleen S281-SC is the stiff-legged one on the freeway, but it comes into its own whenever the road begins to twist, especially compared with the Roush Stage 3, which pitches and waddles over bumps and through corners while the dampers try to keep up with the soft springs.
There are a couple of surprises here. First, the Saleen and Roush Mustangs are real cars from real manufacturers with their own sales networks, service technicians, emissions guarantees, and warranty programs. Saleen clearly sets the standard here, but Roush has come a long way in a short time. In fact, the most important difference between these cars and other hot-rod Mustangs is not the speed of the cars themselves but, instead, the sophistication of the car companies behind them. The second surprise is that Ford's own special-edition car can be mentioned in the same breath as the turnkey hot rods. There is nothing weak or half-hearted about the SVT Cobra, and it requires no apologies.
In terms of character, we're really presented with three different cars. The SVT Cobra is a great daily driver. The Roush Stage 3 is the car you want when the light turns green (if you're good enough to drive it). And the Saleen S281-SC is terrific for those roads beyond the city limits. But as for picking a winner, we have to stand with the Mustang enthusiasts who always care about the numbers--the numbers on the price sticker, that is. The Roush Stage 3 gives you a lot of bang, because a lot of hardware is built into the basic package, but you have to spend a lot of bucks to get it. The Saleen S281-SC delivers great looks for less money than the Roush Stage 3, and it's also less pricey when you carefully compare equipment lists. But if you want real bang for the buck, then the SVT Cobra does the job. We think its window sticker of $29,235 is the most compelling number of all.