By: GAVIN CONWAY on October 26, 2008
Original Article: SUNDAY TIMES, THE

It is designed to take on Lamborghinis and Ferraris and shows America is
getting supercars right at last, says Gavin Conway

Americans don’t have much of a record when it comes to making supercars. At least, not ones that we Europeans take seriously. With the notable exception of the stunning 2004 Ford GT, their efforts tend to look clumsily overstyled and slightly amateurish.

That was certainly true of Saleen’s first in-house attempt at a mid-engined supercar. The S7 was a startlingly over-the-top machine that first broke cover in 2000, all massive overhangs and more ventilation slats than the back of a fast-food restaurant. But here’s the thing -Saleen is an outfit with nearly 25 years’ experience of successfully fettling Fords (mainly Mustangs).

The company has long produced cars with enormous power and with chassis tuned so that they handle and ride better than anything out of the factory. It really knows its stuff.

In fact Saleen’s credentials are so good that Ford awarded it a contract to assemble and paint the aforementioned GT at its Michigan factory. And in racing form, the S7 has been tremendously successful, with multiple championship wins both in the US and Europe. It might look odd, but as the Americans would say: “That sucker can really fly.”

Which is why the company’s recent Raptor S5S is such an exciting concept. With its distinctly European dimensions, beautifully balanced proportions and relatively restrained detailing, I reckon this is the best-looking American supercar concept I’ve seen.

Sure it’s a bit derivative, with shades of the Audi R8 and Lamborghini Gallardo, but those massive haunches and wheelarches give a distinctly Yank flavour without coming over all “yee haa”.

The other overtly American feature of the Raptor is that glorious lump of Detroit iron scheduled to reside amidships. Saleen knows just about all there is to know about getting massive power out of Ford’s 5 litre V8, and here it has upped the ante with a twin-screw supercharger -that’s how the model designation is derived, Saleen 5 Supercharged (S5S).

The result is a high-revving (for a V8) powerplant that delivers 650bhp and 630 lb ft of torque, enough to give credibility to the company’s claim that the Raptor will reach 60mph in 3.2sec and top out north of 200mph. And a well-sorted Yank V8 can be just as inspirational as its European competition-the Ford GT uses one and that car ranks as one of the most sensational drives on the planet. After all, that’s why Jeremy Clarkson bought one.

The V8 has also been tuned to run on E85 ethanol, and to its credit, Saleen isn’t overworking the green connotations that usually attach to this fuel. Rather, the company points out the higher octane rating and the fact that this is the official fuel of this year’s American Le Mans race series. That, says Saleen, is a nice fit with the company’s long racing heritage.

There are other racing car touches, too, such as the lightweight aluminium chassis wrapped in composite body panels. And the car weighs 1A tons, which is a bit less than an Audi R8. Given that the Raptor will boast an extra 230bhp, that should make any stoplight grand prix a most interesting prospect.

Safety also gets a look-in. Unlike some small-volume manufacturers who believe that the manly approach is to do away with driver aids, the Raptor has antilock braking, traction control and stability control. And with a relatively spacious cabin and a full-length glass roof, the car even tilts at being a grand tourer.

Saleen reckons the Raptor could compete head to head with the Lamborghini Gallardo, Ferrari F430 and R8. Indeed, with an estimated price of $185,000 plus Vat (a total of about Pounds 130,000) the Raptor would find itself in close company with the Lambo and Ferrari. And that’s about as tough as competition gets.

Will Saleen actually build the Raptor? When the concept was unveiled at the New York motor show in March, company executives said it could be in production by 2010.

When I called Saleen’s headquarters in Troy, Michigan, nobody was prepared to talk about the project before this story went to press. Which probably means a decision, either way, is imminent.

The company could gamble that the economic meltdown we’re in the midst of might be turning around by 2010. Wouldn’t it be a fine situation to be in: the economy picking up, confidence restored, the market bouncing back, and there’s the best-looking American supercar to turn a wheel, buyers lined up around the block.

An impossibly optimistic scenario? Yeah, probably.

Hot Wheels specs

ENGINE 4949cc, eight cylinders
POWER 650bhp @ 6300rpm
TORQUE 630 lb ft @ 4400rpm
TRANSMISSION Six-speed manual
FUEL/CO2 n/a
ACCELERATION 0-60mph: 3.2sec
TOP SPEED 200mph
PRICE Pounds 130,000 approx
VERDICT Good old American V8 punch in a Euro-credible package
RELEASE DATE To be announced