A Car for the Everyday Man

A Chinese car maker promising affordable, gas-free driving stakes its claim at the Detroit Auto Show. But it still has something to learn about presentation.

DETROIT—During a break from selling his employer’s vision of the future, Patrick Zhou wandered the floor at the North American International Auto Show, past the Maseratis and the Bentleys, past the $500,000 Maybachs and the Lamborghinis accessorized with models clad in black cocktail dresses. (“Half these guys aren’t really interested in the cars,” a woman observed to her boyfriend.) Returning to his own unprepossessing patch of auto show real estate—five cars parked on a stretch of carpet—Zhou assessed the surrounding opulence: “Those beautiful vehicles are for the very handsome men, those high in society. They’re not for the everyday man.”

Zhou, just a year out of university, where he studied mechanical engineering and engine design, works for the Chinese automaker BYD (short for “Build Your Dreams”), selling cars that are intended for the everyday man—cars like the F3DM, a $20,000 plug-in hybrid that can go 60 miles before the gas engine kicks in, or the e6, an all-electric crossover that cruises 250 miles on a single charge. Eyebrows rise when Zhou goes over the numbers for visitors stopping by his display. “Impossible! They all say that,” Zhou told me.

Maybe. But BYD intends to be the first Chinese brand in America when it introduces its plug-in hybrid and electric crossover here in 2011. And the company, which makes a third of the world’s cell phone batteries (and only started building cars in 2003), seems to be doing well. Warren Buffet liked the battery technology so much that he bought a $230-million stake in the company in September.

When BYD first debuted its wares at Detroit last year, its display was in the basement. But this year, benefiting from the fact that other companies have downsized their displays and Nissan and Suzuki withdrew from the show entirely, BYD was given a spot on the main floor, nestled between GM, Ford, Mazda, Subaru, and Brilliance, the other Chinese automaker at this year’s show. Zhou and his colleagues arrived here on January 1, and for the next several days toured twenty car dealerships in the Detroit area, learning about American sales techniques and service plans for the U.S. market.

Compared with the delicate balancing act that America’s beleaguered automakers must perform at the show—acknowledging past missteps while projecting confidence about their viability and capacity to innovate—BYD’s task is relatively simple: get a foot in the door and offer a glimpse of products to come. But BYD still has much to learn from its competitors and their polished displays. When I stopped by, the all-electric e6, the jewel of BYD’s fleet, had no signs or information screens describing the car’s features, and the doors were locked, so visitors couldn’t climb inside. Most people were drawn instead to the F0, a tiny red four-door that gets 56 mpg on a three-cycle engine, and costs just $6,000. Never mind that the F0 won’t even be available in America. Visitors clustered around it, intrigued by the site of an authentic Chinese car, snapping pictures of each other at the wheel.

What’s more, because Chinese manufacturers are better known for making cheap products than for green, technologically advanced ones, many visitors were clearly skeptical about BYD’s quality. A few visitors seemed determined to expose shortcomings. Zhou showed me where one person had manhandled and broken one of the cars’ rear windshield wipers. Another had opened and slammed a door of the F0 sedan over and over, perhaps testing its strength. “I can understand the reason, but so many times?!” Zhou asked. “Maybe ten is okay, but 20?”

Two men originally from Hong Kong who had driven down from Toronto, snickered just out of Zhou’s earshot as they ran their hands across the interior and rapped their knuckles against the dashboard and console.

“Every car company starts off crappy,” one of them, Patrick Lui, commented. (Indeed. Hyundai, once dismissed for the same reasons, won top honors this year, with its Genesis luxury sedan named the show’s car of the year.) But Lui conceded that BYD has already made demonstrable progress: “In a year’s time, they’ve made amazing strides. Last year, it was like a plastic model glued together.”

“They just have to come up with their own style instead of copying from everybody else,” said Lui’s friend, Andy Lee.

“They are the first company to introduce a fully electric car,” Liu pointed out. “We’ll see how that goes, see if it doesn’t burn up, burst into flames.”

Cars are still quite a luxury for many in China, where the car ownership rate, while booming, is just 40 per 1,000, about one-tenth America’s rate. “In China, if you can switch from a two-wheel motorcycle to a four-wheel car, you’re doing pretty good,” Lui observed. “That’ll get you the chicks.” But to succeed in the U.S. market, Chinese companies will need to cater to the concerns of Americans, who view the style and quality of their cars as a reflection of their tastes and values.

Zhou, for one, seems confident. “Now, our batteries are the best,” he said. “As the next step, we will make everything else perfect.”