Saleen S7

Forgive me if you are American, but I have to say this: American never know how to build supercars. Their so-called supercars are usually modified Corvettes and Mustangs or some never-takeoff dream machines, such as Vector. Why? because compare with Europe, America is lack of a suitable environment to breed supercars - it doesn’t have any established sports car makers like Ferrari and Porsche. It lacks high-tech motor racing such as Formula One and World Rally to train up engineers. It lacks suppliers of high-tech components that you can easily find in Italy and UK. That’s why the best-ever American supercar, Ford GT40, was actually engineered by Lola in UK. 

However, is it really impossible to build a financially viable supercar in America? Steve Saleen thinks not. Saleen is an established American car tuner renowned for converting Ford Mustang. 3 years ago, it started making a clean-sheet mid-engined supercar for competing in American GT series. That’s the S7R. It won 19 races in 2001, including the Sebring 12 Hours. A clause in the regulation required Saleen to build some road cars. Delay after delay, the first road car was finally delivered to customer recently. Some car magazines were invited to test the production car and none of them finished the day without impressed by its strong performance.  

Compare with the contemporary European supercars such as Pagani Zonda, Ferrari Enzo, Porsche Carrera GT, McLaren Mercedes SLR and Bugatti Veyron, this American supercar is designed and constructed more like a GT racing car than a road car. It is very wide, low and long. It has massive skirts and ground effect diffuser to generate as much as 1300kg of downforce at 160mph. It employs a classic mid-engined, rear-drive layout, suspended by double-wishbones all round via racing-style adjustable dampers without any electronic aids - no adaptive damping, no traction control, no stability control and not even ABS. Also like a racing car, ground clearance is almost non-existent while the lack of suspension travel results in a super-stiff ride that could easily rock you eyeballs off.  

But racing technologies are not necessarily edge-cutting. Just like the famous Dauer 962LM, you won’t say it more sophisticated than a contemporary McLaren F1, would you? to Saleen S7, evidence can be found in its chassis. While all other serious supercars employ a chassis made of either carbon-fiber monocoque or carbon-fiber tub, the S7 still relies on a tubular steel spaceframe, just like a Dauer 962LM, or to insult it, a Lotus Seven of 1957. Needless to explain, this chassis comes no where near its rivals in terms of weight and rigidity. Now you understand why Saleen has to tune its suspensions so hard. 

To compensate, the body is made of carbon-fiber, or carbon-fiber-reinforced aluminum honeycomb sandwich at where extra stiffness is required. However, Saleen found no where in the America can build these sophisticated parts thus it has to outsource from UK.  

Another problem is engine. Apparently, Saleen cannot afford to build a powerful engine from ground up and it has to source from somewhere. However, in America it cannot find stock engines as good as Pagani’s AMG 7.3-litre V12. Therefore it decided to take a NASCAR Ford V8 and thoroughly re-engineered it. The 7.0-litre unit remains a push-rod 2-valve-per-cylinder design, perhaps quite laughable to European supercar engineers. Steve Saleen defended, “What kind of American supercar would it be if it didn’t have a pushrod V-8?” he just didn’t tell you why American never build good supercars. For the same reason, I guess. 

However, Saleen cast its own aluminum block and heads to save weight, then installed a forged steel crankshaft to cope with its 550 horsepower at 5900rpm and 525 lbft at 4000rpm. This is a torquey engine, although not as torquey as Pagani’s mega V12.  

As the S7 is relatively simple compare with other contemporary supercars, it weighs just 1300kg, heavier than Pagani by 50kg but lighter than Enzo by 65kg. Therefore it makes very good use of the horsepower. Car And Driver found it took just 3.3 second to accelerate from zero to 60mph, almost matching the all-time record of 3.2 sec set by McLaren F1 ten years ago. This is already enough to level with Ferrari Enzo. But note that the Saleen is geared to reach 60mph in 1st gear, without any gearchange, probably intended to achieve a 0-60 figure to attract public attention. To see its real ability, 0-100mph is more useful - now it takes 7.6 second, a massive 1.0 second behind the Enzo and even slower than Pagani by 0.2 second. 

As for top speed, Saleen claims a wild 223mph. It looks unlikely for a 550-horsepower-only supercar with so large frontal area and undisclosed drag coefficient. The company declared it as the most aerodynamically efficient street car in the world, thanks to the hard work taken in the wind tunnel of the University of Glasgow in Scotland (another non-American content). Nevertheless, I doubt whether its downforce-biased shape could achieve low drag simultaneously. For your information, both Porsche Carrera GT and Mercedes SLR claimed lower top speed than the Saleen despite of their 600-plus horsepower output.  

The cabin of S7 is not a piece of art. Although it has a price tag matching Pagani Zonda, its cockpit is full of Ford switch gears and low-rent materials. On the positive side, equipment level is generous - air-conditioning, power windows, central locking and a LCD screen showing the rear view from a video camera. Driving position is similar to a race car's - the cockpit is narrow, the footwell is very tight, the pedals are seriously offset towards the center, the carbon-fiber seats are non-adjustable. Luckily, the driving position is fundamentally good, as Saleen will tailor-set the position of pedals for each client.  

Not only the cockpit, but all the controls work like a race car's - the clutch is heavy and difficult to engage. Launching the car without stalling its engine takes a good skill and some practice. The gearshift of the 6-speed manual gearbox is solid - Porsche and Ferrari will never approve such a transmission. The steering, with just 2.0 turns from lock to lock, is sharp and accurate.  

On the road, the Saleen S7 also drives like a racing car. On the right surface, you will appreciate its stability, downforce and the lack of body roll. But it rides so harsh that only glass-smooth race tracks can exploit its potential. Every small dip and bump on the road surface is an enemy to the S7 and its occupants. The vibration, the shake, the noise and the steering kick-back show how raw, how unpolished and how uncompromising the Saleen is. 

What about the push-rod V8 ? well, it may be the most powerful naturally-aspirated V8 in the world, but how can it compete with rivals' V10 and V12s, which are more willing to rev, generate better noise and deliver more horsepower? 

When you pay as much as US$400,000, you certainly deserve a better car than this one. A Pagani Zonda could be the answer. 

The above report was last updated on 7 July 2003. All Rights Reserved.

S7 Twin-turbo

Saleen S7 might have very high exposure in American magazines and websites, but so far it is yet to get recognition from the world. People paying US$400,000 are likely to expect more than a race-converted-to-road car. They want a prestige brand name, an exotic design, a high quality finishing and spectacular performance. Unfortunately, the original S7 had none of these qualities. That's why it needed to upgrade the S7 to S7 Twin-turbo.

In fact, the Twin-turbo version has nothing to do with the first three qualities we mentioned. Performance, however, is the focus. The story of Vector and Viper taught us that the easiest way for American supercars to get world attention is to provide more power and speed than European supercars. To Saleen S7, the easiest way to do so is to add a pair of turbochargers to the 7-litre pushrod V8. The Garrett GT35R turbochargers boosts a mild 0.4 bar, allowing the engine to run an unusually high compression ratio at 10.8:1. The result is 750 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 700 lbft of torque at 4800 rpm. That’s almost 100 ponies more than Ferrari Enzo !

The question is how to put all these spectacular power and twisting force to the ground, transforming them to forward motion. At the moment there are only 2 cars on the market offering more horsepower than this car: the 1001hp Bugatti Veyron and the 806hp Koenigsegg CCR. How do they cope with so much power? Bugatti employs a clever 4WD system plus traction control and stability control. Koenigsegg relies on electronic traction control alone. What about Saleen Twin-turbo ? none of these. As before, this car is almost free of electronics - no ABS, no ESP, no TC... the car weighs only 1346 kg (50 kg more than the original S7), so you can imagine what happen when you wind up the monstrous engine and drop the clutch in standstill, or when you abuse the throttle in a corner. The answer is wheelspin, wheelspin and then spectacular oversteer.

Taming S7 Twin-turbo is not easy. You need to drive it with racing driver's precision. No, perhaps more than that. The Twin-turbo has a lot more power and torque than the race car yet without the racing slick tires. Although its unrestricted diffusers and spoilers produce more downforce than the race car, at low speed and in the twisties the aerodynamic aids are useless.

Find a good test driver and try many times, like Car and Driver did, you may get 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds. When the car is rolling, acceleration is easier, so 0-100 mph is done in 6.2 seconds. That's faster than Ferrari Enzo. Of course, Bugatti is still out of sight, but remember it costs twice the price of the Saleen, which is sold at US$590,000.

The S7 Twin-turbo switched to grippier Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires. Note that they are of higher profile than the ones used in the naturally aspirated S7, so ride quality improves a bit. Well, the lack of suspension travel and its racing genes mean this is still the hardest riding supercar on the market. Other areas remains the same as the original car: super-sharp steering, superb brakes, rock steady body control and cheap-feeling interior.

I can't remember where I hear this: Power is useless if it is uncontrolled. This is perhaps the best description to Saleen S7 Twin-turbo.
The above report was last updated on 21 Apr 2006. All Rights Reserved.


Saleen S7
Saleen S7 Twin-turbo
Mid-engined, Rwd
Mid-engined, Rwd
L / W / H / WB (mm)
4775 / 1990 / 1041 / 2700
4775 / 1990 / 1044 / 2700
V8, ohv, 2v/cyl.
V8, ohv, 2v/cyl, twin-turbo.
7008 cc
6991 cc
550 hp
750 hp
525 lbft
700 lbft
Suspension (F/R)
All: double-wishbone
All: double-wishbone
Tyres (F/R)
275/30ZR19 / 345/25ZR20
275/35ZR19 / 335/30ZR20
1300 kg
1346 kg
Top speed
223 mph (c)
248 mph (c)
0-60 mph
3.3 sec*
3.4 sec*
0-100 mph
7.6 sec*
6.2 sec*
Figures tested by: * C&D

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