Saleen to pave way for Chinese

Times Staff Writer

Steve Saleen made his name selling hyperfast, hyperexpensive cars that were hand-built at his company’s Irvine factory.

The auto industry will be watching to see how that high-end expertise translates to Saleen’s new career: running a company that aims to import the first Chinese cars to the American market.

The former race driver is the new chief executive of Irvine-based ZX Automobile Co. of North America Inc., which was formed to import low-priced cars and trucks from China. It hopes to have its first vehicles -- an SUV and a pickup, both priced at less than $14,000 -- in U.S. showrooms next year.


Saleen is tasked with setting up a dealer network and making sure that the Chinese vehicles meet U.S. engineering standards and government regulations.

ZX Auto snagged Saleen about three weeks ago, around the time he resigned as president of Saleen Inc., the exotic-car company best known for the Saleen 7, a $580,000, 750-horsepower supercar that can go from zero to 60 in less than three seconds.

Saleen, interviewed Friday as he left for France to attend the 24-hour LeMans auto race, acknowledged that his name wasn’t exactly synonymous with Asian economy cars.

“But I think what we’ve done with smaller-volume, high-end vehicles is the right kind of experience to understand what we have to do here to set up the dealer base and get the cars up to American standards in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

Bill Pollack, head of ZX Auto’s New Jersey parent company, said he hoped to begin selling the Chinese-built SUV and pickup in Mexico by September and in the U.S. and Canada sometime next year.

If he keeps that timetable, his company would be months ahead of the major automakers that are aiming to bring Chinese vehicles to the U.S.

The Grand Tiger pickup and the Landmark SUV -- neither model name will be used in the U.S. -- are produced by Hebei Zhongxing Automobile Manufacturing Co. and sold in China and dozens of other countries, Pollack said.

His company plans to build a $300-million assembly plant outside Tijuana and thus would avoid the hefty tariffs on pickups imported from outside the NAFTA trade zone.

As for quality, “the Chinese are all over the board right now,” said George Peterson, president of market research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin. “You have companies that put out high-quality products and others that put out schlock.”

Saleen, who has been to China to visit the factories where ZX Auto’s vehicles are built, described the company’s products as “very robust.”

He said he hadn’t severed all ties with the company he founded in 1984 with his race winnings. Saleen, 56, still owns a stake in the company, his children are active in its management, and he will continue to make appearances on its behalf.


Assembly gets no-smoking bill

Soon, the tailpipe may be the only thing on your car that smokes.

A bill that would ban smoking in cars carrying children under age 18 has passed the state Senate and is on its way to the Assembly for a vote.

The bill, SB 7, is sponsored by Sen. Jenny Oropeza, a Long Beach Democrat and cancer survivor.

A California Air Resources Board report posted on Oropeza’s website says secondhand smoke in vehicles can be 10 times more dangerous than in a home.

Previous attempts by the Legislature to provide children in cars with a smoke-free ride fizzled out in the face of tobacco-industry resistance. A spokesman for cigarette maker Philip Morris USA said it hadn’t taken a position on Oropeza’s bill.

An Oropeza spokesman said the bill’s chances in the Assembly were uncertain, “but we’re optimistic.”

If it makes it through the Legislature, Oropeza’s bill will face its biggest test: California’s cigar-loving governor. A spokesman said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn’t taken a position on the bill.


-- Martin Zimmerman