TROY, MI – Niche auto maker Saleen Inc., celebrating 25 years of building custom Ford Mustangs and Blue Oval hot rods, looks positively towards the future as it releases its most powerful pony car ever: the Sterling Edition S302E.

Performance for the new car comes from a supercharged variant of Ford Motor Co.’s 4.6L SOHC V-8, punched out to 5.0L and making 620 hp and 600 lb.-ft. (813 Nm) of torque.

A strengthened 6-speed manual transmission assists in sub-4-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) times, Saleen says, while 15-in. (38-cm) cross-drilled brakes and a reengineered sport suspension heighten control.

A litany of aggressive body modifications, including an integrated rear spoiler and carbon-fiber front splitter and rear diffuser, distinguish the S302E as a Saleen, while brushed aluminum badges identify its 25th anniversary commemorative status.

Additional bling comes from standard 20-in. forged aluminum wheels from Alcoa Inc., which are protected by the supplier’s Durabright anti-corrosion coating.

“Alcoa thinks this (Durabright) technology will be widespread (among OEMs) in the near future,” Paul Wilbur, Saleen president and CEO, says during a recent tour of the auto maker’s headquarters here.

“You hose them off with water, and brake dust and grime just falls off.”

Inside the S302E are copious amounts of suede-like Alcantara and leather with contrasting silver stitching, as well as revised gauges, a push-button starter and a 1-lb. (0.5 kg) sterling-silver dash plaque of authenticity.

“At Saleen, automotive passion is more than a catch phrase, it is a lifestyle,” General Manager Marques McCammon says of the auto maker’s customers. “They have a high sense of style, a love for all things performance and an affinity for the exclusive.”

To that end, each S302E buyer will receive a first-class trip to the factory, dinner with the executives, a Saleen leather jacket, custom car cover and photos and documentation of the car’s construction and delivery.

Pricing for the Sterling Edition treatment starts at $100,000, making the new car the most expensive Saleen Mustang, as well. However, only 25 will be built, with deliveries beginning in March, Wilbur says, noting several units already have been sold.

Although the Sterling Edition S302E currently represents the apogee of Saleen’s “tuning” efforts, the auto maker is eyeing a much broader role in the near future.

The auto maker was born from Southern California’s eclectic car culture, with its previous Irvine, CA, facility established in 1984 by enthusiast and racer Steve Saleen. The founder since has resigned, and the auto maker now is owned by equity firm Hancock Park Associates.

Hancock also owns Southgate, MI-based American Specialty Cars Inc., of which Wilbur also is president and CEO, and merged the two companies last year. ASC maintains its own facilities near Detroit, but some of its business and nearly all of Saleen’s West Coast operations have been relocated to the new site here.

The move should be complete by midyear, Wilbur says, but an advanced-engineering and administrative staff will stay in California to support existing business.

“Our Troy facility has one of the most sophisticated low-volume paint facilities in North America,” he says. “When you combine that with the phenomenal automotive talent pool that is available in Michigan, it (the move) is a natural step.”

The Troy location is almost self-sufficient, with nearly all facets of vehicle design, manufacturing and testing located in-house.

Along with assembling about 1,500 specialized Mustangs and Ford F-150 pickups annually, Saleen’s operations also managed the painting and final assembly of Ford’s GT supercar and have painted every Dodge Viper produced since 1992.

ASC’s Deuce ‘32 Ford hot-rod replicas also are built on a limited basis, while Ford’s new ’08 F-150 Harley Davidson trucks take up temporary residence to have superchargers installed on their 5.4L V-8s.

Of note is the proprietary design of Saleen’s screw-type supercharger assembly, which is built completely in-house around the Lysholm 3- and 5-rotor twin-screw design. The unit, which Wilbur says makes up 65% of Saleen’s aftermarket sales, rests in the valley between the cylinder banks and features an integrated intercooler.

Fitted to a stock 300-hp Mustang GT, the standard bolt-on assembly, alone, can boost output 55% to 465 hp, he adds.

Saleen is recognized by federal agencies as a proper auto maker, not just a tuner, and its cars and trucks are sold through select Ford dealers as new, bespoke vehicles.

Currently, the auto maker’s only clean-sheet design in production is the $600,000 S7 supercar, which can be had with a 750-hp twin-turbocharged 7.0L V-8 and is capable of well over 200 mph (322 km/h).

Tailored to each buyer and offered in very low volumes, the S7’s greatest impact has been in winning several GT sports-car championships in Europe.

Wilbur says racing is key to the brand, and he is eyeing an entry in the American Le Mans Series to compete with General Motors Corp.’s Corvette Racing C6.R GT1 squad.

However, the S7’s limited availability and race-bred roots don’t bode well for serious production efforts. The auto maker currently is looking at designing a more conventional – and less expensive – mid-engine performance car to elevate the status of the brand.

“The $150,000 to $200,000 (price) point is where we’d want to be with our next car,” Wilbur says, motioning to a nearby Ford GT and noting the new car would abandon the S7’s composite construction for a more conventional aluminum-bodied layout.

He says working on other auto maker’s vehicles also is likely in the future, but without the Saleen name, as the brand is too closely associated with Ford to tie up with a competitor such as GM or Chrysler LLC.

As a full-line auto maker, Saleen is subject to the same requirements and regulations as other manufacturers, including new corporate average fuel economy standards imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m not too worried about (new) CAFE (standards and their implications),” Wilbur says. “We’re ready to embrace green technology.”

Of interest are potential electric and diesel powertrains, both of which naturally produce large amounts of low-end torque and can be tuned for high-performance with modern technology. Biofuels such as E85 ethanol also are exciting, he adds, because E85 has a higher octane rating than pure gasoline, resulting in more power.

“We have limited resources for research and development,” Wilbur says. “But we have good relations with our main suppliers and will rely on them when looking at new technologies and entering new segments.”

Of the many issues facing the auto industry, the lagging economy is high on Wilbur’s list; even Saleen’s affluent customers, who have a median annual income near $165,000, occasionally cut back on luxury expenditures.

Also troubling is the questionable financial health of Ford, itself.

Wilbur sees performance potential in some of the auto maker’s new products, particularly the tuning possibilities of Ford’s upcoming family of EcoBoost gasoline engines employing turbocharging and direct injection.

However, if things don’t turn around quickly for Ford, “we may have to step up our efforts to work with other manufacturers,” he says.

msutton@wardsauto.com