Nearing the end of our 2010 Detroit Auto Show coverage brings us to a vehicle that got a lot of media attention, though it's unclear when it will actually arrive in the U.S. That's the BYD e6 electric crossover, which could become the first Chinese vehicle sold in the U.S.
The crisply styled five-seat midsize crossover is entirely electric, with a claimed range of 205 miles and a top speed of 87 mph from its lithium-ion battery pack. The BYD e6 went on sale last year in China.
2010 Detroit Auto Show
2010 Detroit Auto Show
BYD, at Detroit auto show
If confirmed, that electric range would roughly equal that of the 2010 Tesla Roadster, and far exceed that of the 2012 Nissan Leaf, at 80 to 100 miles.
Battery company that makes cars
BYD Auto--the name stands for "Build Your Dreams"--is the carmaking arm of one of the largest Chinese battery cell companies. It may be the most ambitious among many Chinese car companies, though it now sells vehicles outside China in only a few countries, including Bulgaria, Poland, and Russia.
Its product line in China is largely derivative gasoline-engined compact and midsize cars, but it already holds the distinction of launching the world's first production plug-in hybrid electric vehicle late last year. That car, the BYD F3DM, hasn't sold well due to its high price.
Backing from Buffet
Still, BYD is nothing if not confident. Last August, it said it would enter the U.S. market in 2010, the same claim they had made the year before. At the Detroit Show, it expanded on its plans, saying it might bring R&D and even lithium-ion cell production to the U.S. as well.
This might seem like the same pipe dream held by many other small Chinese makers, if not for one fact: BYD has financial backing from legendary investor Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, who invested $232 million for a 10-percent stake. The Buffet name automatically demands more serious consideration for BYD.
The company increased its vehicle sales in China to 450,000 in 2009, and it aims to sell 800,000 this year. Its goal is to be China's largest automaker in 2015 and, it says, the world's largest by 2025--though we suspect Toyota, GM, Volkswagen, and Hyundai may have other plans.
BYD's general manager for exports, Henry Li, told High Gear Media that e6 sales will have to hit at least a few hundred in the U.S. before it will launch a dealership system.
And BYD may be willing to subsidize the price of the e6 at first. “There might not be a profit initially," Li said, "but we’ll have to sell it [the e6] at a reasonable price."
Chinese cars: a few years yet
While the BYD e6 is still far from having the build quality and features of the latest crossovers, including the 2010 Ford Edge--which it somewhat resembles--it is more modern than the F3DM plug-in hybrid compact sedan, which resembles a bad copy of a previous-generation Toyota Corolla.
Most analysts expect it to take several more years before Chinese automakers can provide vehicles that are fully competitive on features, fit, and finish in the U.S. market.
But with the examples of Japan and South Korea in mind, few global automakers are willing to discount the threat of new and forceful contenders from China. If BYD has anything to say about it, it will be among the forefront. Stay tuned for more on this intriguing company.