IRVINE, CA – As Saleen Inc. takes the wraps off its ’05 Saleen Mustang S281 at the California International Auto Show this week, the niche car builder shows off a 400-hp pony intended for global sales.

President Steve Saleen tells Ward’s the company, best known for rebuilding Ford Mustangs into more-aggressive street machines, is setting up operations in Shanghai and Beijing that will open their doors “in the next six months.”

Chinese dealers will sell Saleen Mustangs, Focus hatchbacks and S7 super cars once sales operations commence, he says in an interview at company headquarters here.

Saleen’s sales operations, while based in Irvine, stretch into Canada, Mexico and Italy. The company’s production hub, also located in Irvine, is supported by a plant in Quebec, Canada, which strictly builds for the local market. China’s cars will be exported from California.

While modified Mustangs have been Saleen’s trademark since starting business in 1984, the company recently branched out into other vehicles by offering an “N2O Focus,” which is wired to accommodate nitrous gas, and the $430,000 S7 that was designed by Saleen from the ground up.

Saleen Mustang S281

The company expects to sell 3,050 units in 2005, including about 10% outside of the U.S.

In addition, the niche auto maker has begun diversifying its capabilities as it takes further advantage of its longstanding relationship with Ford Motor Co. Saleen played a key role in Ford’s development cycle for the high-powered GT and now is shepherding much of the assembly activities for the car at a new facility it built in Troy, MI.

Steve Saleen is somewhat guarded about the company’s future expansion plans, but he does not rule out taking on other OEM’s engineering, design and niche manufacturing programs.

“We are doing a fare amount of (engineering) work,” he says. “We’re in a very unique position, because we really can do a full turnkey or any aspect. If you want to have the car designed in CAD (computer-aided design), in full clay or just (a) rendering, we can do all of that and take it into prototyping, production and certification.”

Saleen says this aspect of the business is growing because of two developments. “One, when we came out with our own car, the S7, we actually demonstrated the ability to do all aspects of a car,” he says. “Second, our involvement in the Ford GT program has demonstrated our ability as a company to service the niche-vehicle market.”

For now, the company is gearing up for Job 1 in early November of the ’05 Saleen Mustang S281, which will be available in three performance levels: the $38,000 normally aspirated S281; the sub-$45,000 S281 SC (supercharged); and the S281 E (“Extreme”), which is yet to be priced and won’t be available until next spring.

The company expects to deliver 2,000 S281s in 2005.

While shops that modify Mustangs can be found throughout the U.S., Saleen prides itself on being a full-service manufacturer that takes responsibility for government certifications, warranty and manufacturing operations.

“With the exception of the Pirelli tires, we engineer, design, tool, manufacture, either by ourselves or by a Tier 1 supplier, every item we put on Mustang,” he says. “There is nothing we buy off the shelf.”

The S281 does carry over some significant portions of the Ford-built Mustang, such as certain body panels, interior parts and underbody components, but significant sheetmetal, powertrain, chassis, interior and other vehicle changes come standard.

“At Saleen, we have our own design language,” Steve Saleen says. “The S281 is clean, distinctive and aggressive.”

A composite hood replaces the aluminum factory hood; 20-in. wheels and Pirelli tires are standard; high-intensity discharge lights are fitted standard in the SC’s Saleen-styled fascia; custom rocker panels, a longer rear deck and custom wing serve to round out the extensive list of exterior changes.

While the S281’s skin distinguishes the vehicle on the road, its heart is the 4.6L V-8 powerplant, revised by Saleen in naturally-aspirated and supercharged forms.

Ford’s new 4.6L V-8 engine, based on the company’s modular 3-valve F-150 mill, is tuned by Ford to knock out 300 hp and 320 lb.-ft. (434 Nm) of torque. Saleen kicks it up a notch to 325 hp and 340 lb.-ft. (461 Nm) by fitting an under-drive pulley system and a Saleen-designed engine management-control computer.

The bulk of sales are expected to come from the supercharged S281 SC, capable of 400 hp and 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm)of torque. The SC is differentiated from its naturally aspirated compatriot by way of devoted hood, spoiler and rear window treatments.

Next year, the S281 lineup gets topped with the “Extreme” edition, the heart of which will be a 4.6L V-8, built in-house and capable of 445 hp and 450 lb.-ft. (610 Nm) of torque.

In addition, the body structure, steering and suspension have been significantly tweaked.

jstoll@primediabusiness.com