Wild Mustangs: 1999-2004 SVT Cobra, 1999-2004 Saleen S281-SC, and 1999-2004 Roush Stage 3

Scott Dahlquist
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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.

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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.

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Saleen S281-SC

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.

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Saleen S281-SC

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.

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