By: BOB GRITZINGER on March 24, 2008
Original Article: AUTOWEEK, VOL. 58 ISSUE 12

This Week Bird Of Prey

If the new guys running the shop at Saleen are worth their salt, an ethanol-powered Saleen race car will be tearing up the streets of America and the circuits of the American Le Mans Series in a few years.

At the New York auto show, Saleen is showing the S5S Raptor, a conceptual vision of an all-new, all-American sports car that its makers say will rival European exotics such as the Ferrari F430.

Comparable in size to the F430, the S5S Raptor packs a hand-built Saleen 5.0-liter supercharged (hence “S5S”) three-valve V8 producing 650 hp at 6300 rpm and 630 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, running on E85 ethanol. Why E85? Maybe because it’s the official fuel of the ALMS starting this season and the Saleen folks expect the Raptor to be in the thick of GT-class competition in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe just because ethanol produces a 5 percent horsepower boost over the same V8 fueled by gasoline.

Either way, the S5S opens a whole new chapter in the Saleen story, one that draws on the company’s racing roots — exemplified by the Saleen S7R — combined with a breath of fresh air from new ownership and new top management.

Gone from the front office is company founder and namesake Steve Saleen, who resigned in mid-2007, about three and a half years after his company was purchased by investment firm Hancock Park Associates. After adding Michigan-based American Specialty Cars to the portfolio in 2007, HPA merged the two specialty manufacturers. Saleen is now managed by a group of executives, some of whom have responsibilities in both companies, including Saleen and ASC president and CEO Paul Wilbur, Saleen and ASC vice chairman and chief technical officer Chris Theodore and Saleen general manager Marques McCammon.

“What we’re putting together is an all-American supercar company,” says Wilbur.

The first Saleen product under new management, revealed in January but also on display at the New York show, is the 25th Anniversary Sterling Edition Ford Mustang S302E (This Week, Jan. 28). The company will build just 25 of the $100,000 specials, with deliveries beginning this month. But that car and the Dan Gurney Signature Edition Mustang, also premiering at New York (see above), are just more trick ponies in a long line of similar specialty models from Saleen.

By contrast, the S5S Raptor represents a ground-up vision for an all-new exotic car from Saleen — not as exotic as the $650,000 S7, to be sure, but equally intriguing as a new model that could reestablish Saleen as America’s best supercar maker. Built on an aluminum chassis with composite body panels, the two-seat, mid-engined S5S Raptor would boast a more people-friendly cabin than the S7 and still be able to achieve speeds of more than 200 mph, 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds and 10.9-second quarter-mile runs.

“Although this is primarily a street vehicle,” Wilbur says, “its dynamic capabilities will not be compromised.”

Workers at the Saleen shop in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, are no strangers to supercars and near ones. The plant paints body panels and provides subassembly for the Dodge Viper and previously was the subassembly and paint shop for Ford’s GT. So if the S5S Raptor gets the green light, the boys in Troy will be ready to rock on the project in no time. Plans call for building 500 cars a year, starting at $185,000 each.

But hold your horses, says Wilbur, noting that even if the project is approved tomorrow, it would take two years to develop and put the S5S Raptor into production. Whether that production decision comes sooner rather than later will depend quite a bit on response to the S5S Raptor at the New York show and beyond.

“It’s still a concept, but market reaction will be key in determining when and if production starts,” says Wilbur.

BASE PRICE: $185,000
DRIVETRAIN: 5.0-liter, 650-hp, 630-lb-ft supercharged V8; rwd, six-speed manual or sequential manual gearbox
CURB WEIGHT: 3365 lb
0-60 MPH: 3.2 sec (mfr est)

At New York, Saleen also rolled out this Dan Gurney Signature Edition Mustang, with a 465-hp supercharged V8, five-speed manual transmission and all the Gurney extras anyone could want.