Few names are more synonymous with American muscle and speed than Steve Saleen, the personality and driving force behind Saleen Automotive. From the early supercharged Mustang variants of the 1980s to the roaring, 1,300-plus horsepower S7 of the 2000s, V8 power has been a defining hallmark of the specialty manufacturer.
Not any longer.
Debuting at the 2017 LA Auto Show, the latest Saleen is the elegant S1. “We’re really charting a new breed of car here,” says Steve Saleen of his newest model, and the reality of that statement is apparent all throughout the vehicle.
For underneath the glowing, burnt orange paint lies a surprise: four fewer cylinders than any reasonable person has a right to expect from the California company. Just 2.5 liters of lightweight turbocharged four dwell amidships, hidden by elegant carbon fiber bodywork. When compared to previous and even current models, the 450 horsepower on tap is almost dainty.
However, the intent of the S1 is to be more than just another steroid-crazed American powerhouse. This is a world car, with an almost Zen intent on balance, and the engine reflects that. Its small size allows it to be packaged in the center of the chassis, which aids rotation and is a boon to handling. Its low weight means that more of the power it does produce can be put to its intended use: speed. And, perhaps most importantly, turbocharged powerplants are efficient, a necessary requirement to meet highly-regulated global standards.
The same sense of balance can be seen in the design. The S1 looks truly like a road-going sports car, with an exterior that is positively restrained compared its predecessor, the fire-breathing, Le Mans-storming S7. The S1 is far smaller, Porsche Boxster size, and would be a breeze to drive through the narrow city streets of Europe or Asia. The exterior is svelte and taut, curvy in all the right places and bulging with power in the others. The car looks refined and grown up.
The first supercar to be completely designed and built in-house was the aforementioned S7, a track-focused monster that would be “delightfully bonkers” if it weren’t so damned good at winning races. All of them, in fact. “It has won at every major racetrack in the world,” according to Steve Saleen. Every fin, diffuser, spoiler, and aero bit on the S7 is there for a clearly defined purpose: to cheat every last molecule of air out of its power to slow the car down. The monstrous engine is there to pound the sand out of the best racing teams that Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche can field.
The S1, then, is Saleen entering uncharted territory, but with the same unity of design and purpose that defined the S7. “Steve had a very distinct vision for the car,” says Gary Ragle, the designer responsible for the exterior. “Once we came together and had a good heart to heart, and we all understood where his mind was with the car, it was a pleasure. It was a very simple design process form that standpoint.”
Interior designer Chris Schuttera tells much the same story. “The car itself is uncomplicated from a design standpoint,” he said. “It’s very straightforward. It’s a turbocharged four-cylinder. It’s a manual transmission. It’s two seats. And that’s it.”
The interior design of the car continues the theme of elegance and simplicity. The car is small, but the cockpit feels light and spacious. There are few electronic buttons or other distractions. It’s quiet and downright reverent. This is a temple to speed.
From inception, starting with a blank sheet of paper, the S1 was designed and built in just a year. The guiding principle was to let low weight and big power define the heart and soul of the vehicle, and that is the most fundamental of Saleen qualities. It’s incredibly light for a modern car, clocking in at a model-thin 1,217 kg (that’s 2,685 pounds). With 350 lb-ft of torque available at low rpm thanks to the turbo, acceleration promise to be somewhere between a slingshot and nuclear war.
The S1 will appear in US markets in late summer of next year, sporting an affordable-for-a-supercar $100,000 price tag. The vehicle was also designed with global domination in mind, so Asia and Europe are in the plans.
No word on a right-hand drive yet, though. Sorry, Britain.
Saleen S1: in pictures