That Saleen S281 SC Mustang was a 2006 with 435 hp and a lot of "hey, look at me" add-ons. A real kick in the pants in a straight line, but not our first choice for the twisty roads we enjoy so much. When we returned that S281 to Saleen, they mentioned that their newest special edition product would be available soon. When the words "Parnelli Jones" escaped the rep's lips, we felt a surge of adrenaline that led to an involuntary, "How soon?"
The 2007 Saleen/Parnelli Jones Limited Edition Mustang was first shown at the New York Auto Show last year. It promised 370 hp and a beefed up suspension that would emulate the performance of the 1970 championship-winning Boss 302 that Parnelli Jones helped make famous back in the golden era of Trans-Am racing. With retro touches like the Grabber Orange paint, black stripes, rear wing, jutting front lip, chrome surrounds on the grille and rear lights, rear window louvers, Minilite-like wheels, and the Shaker hood, it instantly became our favorite Mustang.
We couldn't wait for our chance to get behind the wheel. We wanted this car in a most unhealthy way. That initial lust was put to the test however, as we had to wait almost a year for our chance to try it on for size. But as they say, anything worth having is worth waiting for. A couple of details changed from concept to production. Horsepower and torque both got a boost, eventually reaching 400/390, which is nice. Not so nice - The price also rose a bit from the "mid- 50s" estimate to an as-delivered price of $61,565, including gas-guzzler tax and delivery. Sixty grand for a Mustang might seem steep to some, but we faced pretty much the same dilemma with the GT500, Roush and S281. And in the case of the PJ, Saleen is fairly certain they will easily find 500 buyers who agree it's worth every penny.
The heart of the Parnelli Jones Edition is its Boss 302 engine. Ford wants the Boss label for a future project, so although the 302 appears in oddly familiar script around the vehicle, the word Boss is nowhere to be found. That's ok. We see the similarities. In place of the 4.6-liter SOHC V8 of lesser 'Stangs, the PJ has a true 302. It starts out as a 4.6, but Saleen strokes and bores it to make it a Five-Point-Oh. They also add bigger injectors, ported aluminum heads, performance camshafts, forged-aluminum pistons, forged-steel connecting rods, a forged-steel crank and dual exhausts with bitchin' big oval tips. Oh, and that huge Shaker scoop up top.
Turn the key and it does indeed shake. It also sets off car alarms within 4 parking spots of yours. Really. It revs freely and keeps going well past what you feel it should. Especially if you've driven other recent muscle cars. The whole time producing a wonderfully sonorous wail. The difference between the powerband on this and on the S281 SC is like night and day. Where that model sported an on/off switch in place of the throttle, this one is incredibly smooth and so easy to modulate. Definitely not as much peak horsepower on tap, but always in that wide powerband. And constantly rewarding the driver with its quick responses to your inputs.
The transmission is possibly the weak link here. Saleen uses the standard Ford 5-speed manual, albeit with a nifty PJ billet short-throw shifter. Reassuringly firm, but a bit sloppy at times. Traction control is standard and helpful, rather than intrusive. You can spin the tires a bit before it intervenes, or shut it off and wait an extra tick or two before the tires hook up and launch you down the road. It makes for a very satisfying driving experience. Overall, this has to be one of the best naturally aspirated powerplants we've sampled. Easily feels as strong and nearly as smooth as a friend's 360 Modena or the V8s in the Aston Martin Vantage or Audi RS4. It might seem heresy to even dare compare a lowly Mustang to these European heavyweights, but this Saleen Boss 302 really is that good.
Watts linkage. Remember those two words. That's what takes this Mustang from acceptable to damn near perfect. As much as we liked that sweet-sounding, rev-happy motor, the suspension is what really convinced us this was the Mustang to have. The Parnelli still uses a solid-beam rear axle, but two Saleen-developed Watts links are added in place of the stock Panhard rods on each side. This allows Saleen to use PJ-specific RaceCraft Suspension pieces like a thicker anti-roll bar and stiffer springs, bushings and shocks all around.
For a car built to honor a Trans-Am racing legend, the PJ definitely feels likes it's game for some hot lapping. Sadly we didn't get any track time, but we still managed to drive it over a variety of winding roads and just kept loving it more and more. Those Pirelli PZero-wrapped 19-inch alloys did a fantastic job keeping the car planted and gripping the pavement. And the upgraded disc brakes (14-inch slotted, vented up front, 11.8-inch vented out back) were strong and held up well to repeated hard use. Great feedback through the pedal too.
While we griped that the previous Saleen Mustang we had was no canyon carver, this one practically begged to be taken to the twisties. The whole time we had it, we were impressed with the ride quality as well. That suspension provides a ride that is remarkably smooth for the level of grip available. Only the sharpest bumps produced a shudder inside. But nothing that felt like it would throw you off course mid-turn. If you can't tell by now, we really liked it. We couldn't keep out of the backroads, accumulating approximately 600 miles while we had the PJ at our disposal. Actually, we had two different PJs to review, including car number 1 of 500. Due to manufactrer scheduling conflicts, this happens sometimes.
We already mentioned many of the bespoke styling touches that identify the Parnelli Jones Edition Mustang - The Minilite-like rims, the Grabber Orange paint, black stripes, Shaker hood, spoilers front and rear, and the louvers. What we didn't mention was how well the package works as a whole. It takes the retro styling of this generation Mustang to a whole new level. We had the privilege of seeing PJ Mustangs, old and new, nose-to-tail in Las Vegas during SEMA, and we think the new one stacks up pretty nicely. The details that make this one resemble that Trans-Am racer from 1970 really seem to work for everybody who sees it too. As much attention as the S281 SC drew, this one topped that by a good margin. Guys seemed to recognize the old-school racer in it, while the ladies just wanted to be near it. It has a very magnetic personality. The tail, in particular, drew a lot of admirers. The louvers? The spoiler? The clean tail with the chrome surrounded taillights? We'd say the whole package. It just looks tight, and oh so right. As an example, check out the fuel filler door. Might sound corny, but it is one quality piece of work. Seriously. If you ever happen to be close to a PJ, try the door.
The car just clicks and does it in an oddly understated way. Hard to justify that statement when it's bright orange (and wearing a huge #15 meatball and Parnelli's name above the door), but true. You can still see the clean lines of the Mustang in all that. It doesn't scream aftermarket. Sort of like a track-prepped version of the street car, which is basically what it is. A quick note about the number and name – those are reusable vinyl decals so you can unleash your inner extrovert at will. And for those who know they won't pass for Parnelli Jones, they can opt to put Steve Saleen's name in that place of distinction.
But why wouldn't you want to keep Parnelli's name on it? Along with Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Carroll Shelby, PJ helped define the multi-disciplined American auto racer in the golden days of racing. He won the Indy 500 in 1963, the Baja 1000 twice in his "Big Oly" Bronco (which makes a cameo along with Jones himself in the original "Gone in 60 Seconds"), his class at Pikes Peak in 1963 driving a Mercury stock car, and various sprint car titles, USAC championships, and of course, the 1970 Trans-Am championship in his Bud Moore Boss 302. He also went on to be a successful team owner and tire dealer in Southern California.
The interior of the Parnelli Jones is going to be familiar to anyone who has sat in a Mustang. The requisite PJ badging and unique logos abound, but much remains the same. A few changes worth noting are the orange insert sport seats, the dual autographed dash, the unique gauges, and shifter, and the auxiliary gauge pod on top of the dash. Once you get past the orange, it's actually quite comfortable and tasteful. Really not a lot to say about it other than that. Oh, one nit to pick here. There was an isolated instance at some impossibly illegal speed where the driver's side window wanted to suck out of its track. To be fair that was on the high-test-mileage number 1 car after it had spent the weekend at a Saleen track event. The other car exhibited no such shenanigans, despite our attempt to duplicate the problem.
Do we really have to say it? This is one fantastic ride, even at $60,000. Sure there are a handful of more focused (and similarly priced) sports cars that can beat this Mustang on a track, but the unique look, back seat, trunk and, most of all, balance of this car make it a winner as a daily driver too. Add to that the limited edition nature of this model and the price makes a lot more sense.
If we were shopping in that price range, we'd definitely put this on the short list. It stacks up well against the competition and as an investment quality Mustang, it's a no-brainer. But it might be a moot point before long anyhow. Saleen tells us that half of the 500 PJ Editions have already been spoken for. And we're sure the rest won't be around much longer.
While we didn't get to take it to a track, some impromptu street encounters proved it has some serious stones. It's just as quick as a C6 Corvette from a stop. It can also keep up with an Elise in the canyons. Weighing in at 3550 pounds, that 400 hp should be good for a 0-60 of 4.5 or so and a quarter in the low 13s. Easily believable with some informal stopwatch runs. This car loves to run and rewards drivers who want a fun driving experience with few compromises. Yes, there are a few compromises.
One is that mileage plummets the more fun you have. Although overall we got about 15 mpg, we frequently saw single digit readings on the trip computer. Cruising on the freeway we were able to register 20 mpg though, so being judicious with the right foot will pay off at the pump.
The handling and braking were great, especially compared to the S281 we sampled. The word balance keeps coming to mind. The Watts links really make a huge difference in giving the driver the confidence it takes to truly take on the canyons. It begs to be driven harder, which is very endearing. The steering was nicely weighted and the pedals and other controls gave great feedback so you knew what was happening at all times too. It all adds up to a winner in our book.