Can GM beat Chinese BYD as global electric-car leader? It plans to try


2017 Cadillac CT6

2017 Cadillac CT6

Enlarge Photo

The automaker that sold the most plug-in electric cars last year wasn't a U.S., Japanese, or European firm.

It was BYD, the Chinese carmaker notably backed by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.

BYD sold just over 60,000 battery-electric cars and plug-in hybrids last year, with the vast majority going to customers in its home country.

DON'T MISS: Who Sold The Most Plug-In Electric Cars In 2015? (It's Not Tesla Or Nissan)

Now it appears General Motors is gunning for some of those Chinese customers—and BYD's status as the global electric-car leader along with them.

The success of the BYD Qin and Tang plug-in hybrids in China has piqued GM's interest, Martin Murray—GM China deputy director, electrification engineering—told journalist Alysha Webb in an interview for her ChinaEV Blog.

In the first six months of 2016, BYD sold 11,129 Qin sedans and 19,134 Tang SUVs, making those two models the most popular plug-in cars in China.

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China

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GM also believes the Qin and Tang are bought by "real people" Murray noted, perhaps meaning individual consumers as opposed to government employees.

"We think those cars can be better," Murray said.

While he did not make comparisons to any specific GM models, in the current context of the Chinese auto industry, that comment may nod to the idea that foreign automakers can still build inherently better cars than Chinese firms, Webb noted.

ALSO SEE: Samsung takes stake in Chinese electric-car maker BYD, joining Warren Buffett

Chinese cars have a somewhat-deserved reputation for being poorly engineered, but they have improved significantly in recent years, according to Webb.

Even if BYD's products are a match for GM's, though, Chinese consumers still tend too trust foreign automakers more than local ones.

So the GM name alone could carry considerable weight in shoppers' decisions.

Battery pack assembly for 2015 Chevrolet Spark EV electric car at GM's Brownstown, Michigan, plant

Battery pack assembly for 2015 Chevrolet Spark EV electric car at GM's Brownstown, Michigan, plant

Enlarge Photo

Demand is currently driven by government subsidies, Murray said, but even if those subsidies end he expects GM to still sell a significant amount of electrified cars in China to meet the country's strict fuel-economy standards.

GM plans to produce the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Buick LaCrosse Hybrid, and Cadillac CT6 Plug-In Hybrid sedans locally; the Cadillac will also be exported to the U.S.

MORE: Buick Lacrosse Hybrid unveiled at Beijing Auto Show, for China only

However, the Detroit carmaker has no apparent plans to produce any all-electric models in China.

It will open a battery plant in Shanghai to produce packs for hybrid and plug-in hybrid models, though.

The plant will use imported battery cells, and the same production process as GM's main U.S. battery plant in Brownstown, Michigan.

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