By: MARK VAUGHN on July 2002
Original Article: AUTOWEEK, VOL. 52, ISSUE 27

But can heaven wait any longer for a Saleen S7 street car?

Yes, it’s a great supercar, how could you expect anything else from the very same chassis, heck, almost the very same car that won the 2001 ALMS GTS championship and a host of other real race titles? No, it’s not as smooth, supple and ergonomically cozy as Ferraris, Lamborghinis or other supercars, far from it. But on tight, winding roads and around racetracks with lots of turns it works better than almost anything you can put a license plate on. It is a race car for the street, and despite all the other carmakers that have come before claiming to have a race car for the street, this one really is.

Or it will be real soon. Before we get to how much fun this is to drive, and it is fun, we have to ask that supercar question that has always plagued supercars: Will the things ever get here? The street versions, that is.

Since the S7’s unveiling at the Monterey Historics on Aug. 19, 2000 (reminder, that year the Historics featured Maserati, as opposed to Bentley last year and Corvette next month), we’ve been given several delivery dates. We’ve been promised and promised like an abused boyfriend in a dysfunctional relationship that S7s would be in customer hands, and-at this writing-still there is none. Well, there is one, the keys of which were handed over to Jerry and Kathy Ritzow of Milwaukee during an elaborate ceremony at Saleen headquarters June 6. But that car and all the other theoretical S7 street cars still hadn’t passed all the certification hurdles necessary to hang a license plate on the back and drive to Taco Bell. When this story went to press the S7 was scheduled to complete its final certification, a cold-start emissions test, on June 22. For your review, here are the promised S7 delivery dates with their accompanying (paraphrased) reasons given us that the cars weren’t done:

  • First date: “The second quarter of 2001.” Reason we got no S7s then: “I meant race cars.”
  • Second date: “Fall 2001.” Reason we got no S7s then: “We were real busy with lots of other stuff.”
  • Third date: “March 2002.” Reason we got no S7s then: “Did I say March?”
  • Fourth date: “July 2002.”

This time for sure! Full production of the street cars will be up and running by the end of July, Steve Saleen promises. He even showed us a flat, empty cement area in Saleen world headquarters that will serve as the assembly line. And if a flat, empty cement area isn’t proof enough for you skeptics out there, well, we can’t help you.

But we know street cars will be coming. How? Because the street S7s are necessary if Saleen wants to keep racing his S7Rs. And he will do darn near anything to keep racing. Saleens are currently banned from FIA GT Cup competition because Saleen hasn’t delivered any street-legal vehicles. The cars carry a weight and restrictor penalty in ALMS competition for the same reason, though the penalty has been lessened recently because Saleen keeps convincing organizers that he really, truly intends to start making street cars. ALMS competitors gripe that while Corvette makes 30,000-plus street cars and Viper over 1000 a year, Saleen has made no S7s other than S7Rs. Saleen says that the Corvettes and Vipers on the racetrack bear precious little resemblance to any Corvette or Viper he has ever seen. The argument continues.

All technicalities when you’re behind the wheel of the “street” S7, which is a major blast to drive.

Oh man.

With unequal-length aluminum A-arms and unheard-of-for-a-street-car tires (Pirelli P Zero 275/30ZR-19s in front and 345/25ZR-20s rear), the car grips like a Hoover vacuum cleaner on a fur ball. The torque band is so flat and wide that the six-speed transmission doesn’t seem to care what gear it’s in. The disc brakes are 15 inches in front and 14 inches in the rear (yikes!), made by Brembo to Saleen specifications. The thing feels like a Group C car or, more precisely, the ALMS GTS car it is.

Here are the facts: The basic layout and almost all the details of the street car are just about exactly the same as the race car. Start with the monster 7.0-liter aluminum-block V8 that is the heart of the whole beast. That engine traces its roots back to big desert racing trucks of SCORE. It has torque, it has horsepower, it has unstoppable growl. In its current form it sits longitudinally just behind the cockpit, putting out 550 horsepower and 520 lb-ft of torque, both at 6400 rpm. The race engine makes 600 horsepower and 550 lb-ft of torque at the same engine speeds.

The torque comes on low in this two-valves-per-cylinder mill. Each stainless-steel valve is controlled by a hydraulic roller lifter and a roller rocker. The race car gets solid rockers and titanium valves. Both race and street engines are topped with eight vertical air intake trumpets stacked directly on top of the plenum like an old Can-Am powerplant. The heads are CNC-machined aluminum. Pistons are forged aluminum and the rods and crank are forged steel.

The transmission is a six-speed manual mated to a 3.22:1 final drive ratio with a limited-slip differential. The race car uses a viscous differential.

The powertrain is nestled in a 4130 alloy steel space-frame chassis with honeycomb composite panels. The body panels are carbon fiber baked in an autoclave. The whole thing weighs 2750 pounds in street trim, 2530 pounds in race. That gives it an unbelievable power-to-weight ratio of 1:5 in the street car and 1:4.22 in race trim. A Lamborghini freakin’ Murcielago (AW, June 17) is 1:6.93.

Great jumpin’ catfish.

We drove both an S7R on a racetrack and, later, what was described as a pre-production prototype S7 street car in the hills north of Santa Barbara, California. There was little significant difference between the two. The race car had a ride height that put it two and a half inches off the ground while the street car rode four inches above the pavement. The race car had electronics bolted inside the cabin, a racing seat and a racing radio in place of the S7’s finished interior and six-disc CD player, but otherwise there was little difference.

Our turn in the race car was limited to five laps around the Streets of Willow, a tight, curvy track near Edwards Air Force Base in the Southern California desert. We were limited to five laps at Willow both because of time constraints and to reduce the likelihood of smacking the thing up. The race car belonged to Park Place Ltd., which fields a winning team in the ALMS, and they needed it.

It was mighty tight inside for a six-foot-tall driver, but a race car doesn’t need to be spacious; any space in a race car immediately gets the preface “wasted.” The seat and pedals have to be fitted for each driver, and a change-over fitting later in the day for some gangly six-foot-four-inch colleagues took 45 minutes of pedal adjustment.

The engine sounded full-throat blasty at ignition, but with the clutch controlled by non-racer feet, it stuttered out from a stop before opening up nicely on Willow’s short straight. The race car’s 600 horsepower gets lost in its 550 lb-ft of torque. Since it doesn’t come on gradually or hit a sudden peak as it would in a turbocharged or nitrous-fed engine, there’s nothing immediately obvious to compare it to. All that power and torque are just there all the time. It’s a mountain of force. Saleen claims a 0-to-60 time of less than four seconds and a top speed of “200-plus” mph. Murcielago numbers, using a little less power and a lot less mass.

The shifter in the S7R is a quick, race-type box that also takes a few turns to get used to, but shifting seems almost unnecessary with power and torque curves this wide.

In some race cars, sports prototypes for example, the most impressive thing is the brakes, especially if they’re carbon fiber. These brakes are very good, vented aluminum discs 15 inches in front and 14 in the rear, no doubt designed to last 24 hours at Le Mans. But the most impressive thing about driving the S7R was its cornering ability. Pushed hard into a wide, fast turn at Willow, the car just held on like it was entering another dimension. Your body’s not used to that much side force and has to readjust. The Saleen press kit says with ground effects in full use at 160 mph the S7R “could be driven upside down and still maintain contact with the road.” They mean driven like on the roof of a tunnel, not sliding along on its roof, though that would work, too.

The street car was very much the same as the race car. The finished interior was a little nicer, might be more comfortable on a date for instance, but was similar in performance. Our street-car drive being in a prototype meant some quirks were to be expected. The speedometer didn’t work, for one (Saleen says the gauges are made in China and are being sent “by slow boat”), interior trim pieces weren’t connected all the way and the steering wasn’t hooked up. Yes, the steering wasn’t hooked up, at least not properly. That was a bit disconcerting.

When we pointed out what felt like loose steering to a Saleen engineer, he spoke about the very close relationship between racing and the street, about making compromises and finding the right balance of performance and comfort, about many things, none of which had to do with part of the steering not being hooked up. At more than 100 mph, with the car wandering around on the road, we figured maybe the caster was just set for lower resistance or something. At the end of our first day’s drive in the street car another engineer tried it out and said something like, “My God, there’s something wrong with the steering!” We got back in the car a few days later and it cornered almost like we remembered the race car. (Note to self: Don’t say “loose” or “not hooked up” when talking to chassis engineers. Say “broken.”)

On our second drive, Steve Saleen himself was riding shotgun. With the car assembled properly it was a brilliant, if somewhat rattly ride. Though the chassis is rigid thanks to its steel space frame, NVH is not a strong point. It’s not anywhere near as bad as a Consulier, but the Consulier did come to mind. Other beefs: The shifter was recalcitrant about going into first gear at stoplights; the pedals are so close together we drove the street car with bare feet and wished we’d driven the race car that way; and the rear glass, positioned vertically right behind our heads, reflected the oncoming traffic in the rearview mirror, which was terrifying for a little while until we got used to it.

But we could spin the tires off the line and slot through corners all day long. Everything else in front or behind simply dove out of the way. The street car was as much fun as the race car, and that was a lot of fun.

“It’s addictive, isn’t it?” said Saleen.

It is. But at $395,000, it is an expensive addiction. The price, the car’s performance and the wild dimensions of the S7 (it’s 41 inches high, for instance) put it in a very elite class. Cross-shoppers will be looking at Murcielagos, Ferrari FXs and Porsche Carrera GTs. Those guys can afford to cross-shop. And if they’re willing to wait for an FX or Carrera GT, well, why not wait while Saleen gets a factory up and running?

We’d like to be those guys. Except for that part about waiting.