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.