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

Scott Dahlquist
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Rousch Stage 3 Mustang

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.

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Rousch Stage 3 Mustang

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.

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