DETROIT – Amid widespread skepticism, Chinese battery-maker-turned auto maker BYD Auto Co. Ltd. says it will launch its e6 electric car in the U.S. before the end of 2010, a year earlier than it promised 12 months ago.

BYD unveiled the battery-powered cross/utility vehicle at the 2009 North American International Auto Show, stating the 5,060-lb. (2,295-kg) CUV would have a range of 250 miles (402 km) and be introduced in 2011.

The auto maker since has revised the e6’s range downward to 205 miles (330 km), but it is accelerating the timetable for U.S. introduction to the end of 2010.

This latest claim is straining the credulity of automotive analysts and observers who already were doubtful of BYD’s ability to meet U.S. crash safety standards and establish a U.S. distribution network.

Another problem: The build quality of the vehicle displayed at this year’s NAIAS, inside and out, is not up to U.S. fit-and-finish standards.

Nevertheless, BYD Global Marketing Manager Paul Lin is unbowed.

“We’re scheduled to bring the e6 electric vehicle to the U.S. by the end of this year. (BYD is) working on a distribution system and talking to dealers,” Lin tells Wards. “Our business model is to go directly to dealers, especially on the West Coast.”

Lin says he is confident the vehicle will pass U.S. crash safety tests because BYD designed the e6 using the strictest test standards it could find in China, the U.S. and Europe.

Lin also says the auto maker is talking to energy companies in the U.S. (whom he declines to identify) to set up quick-charging stations. But he says the vehicle also can be charged via a household 110- or 220-volt outlet.

Asked if BYD would launch a pilot program in the U.S. before beginning retail sales, Lin says “You can’t make it profitable if it’s just fleet customers. You need to do both.”

No pricing has been determined for the e6 when it comes to the U.S. this year, but Lin says the EV sells in China for about $42,000.

“We can (produce) more than 50,000 units per year, (but) in the beginning we’re not going to say how many we will sell because the market is new; the consumer is new; everything is new. But hopefully, it will increase fast.”

As for a warranty on the e6, Lin says it’s a “big question mark” and will depend on its market strategy.

BYD was established in 1995 and became the world’s second-largest rechargeable-battery manufacturer just eight years later. It now is a multinational powerhouse, claiming to have 150,000 employees around the globe, and is hoping to have its automotive business emulate the success it has enjoyed in batteries.

The auto maker is gaining share in the local Chinese market, and at the Detroit show, BYD tells journalists it wants to be the world’s largest auto maker by 2025.

BYD started in automotive just six years ago, with the acquisition of the previously state-owned Tsinchuan Automobile Co.

Henry Li, general manager of BYD’s auto export trade division, says the auto maker sold 450,000 cars in China in 2009, 160% more than 2008’s total, and expects to sell 800,000 in 2010, although very few of these are expected to be electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.

Even though China’s automotive market is booming, passing the U.S. in sales in 2009, Chinese auto makers still have a credibility problem outside their home market. Several have made brash claims about entering the U.S. and failed to follow through.

Entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin promised to deliver a lineup of sophisticated cars made by China’s Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. in the U.S. by 2008. That deal never materialized.

Neither did a bid by China America Cooperative Automotive Inc. and subsidiary ZX Auto North America to import vehicles from three Chinese auto makers. Instead, they ended up in bankruptcy court.

“We have to do a lot of things (to come to the U.S.), especially brand-building,” acknowledges BYD’s Lin.

“The auto business is a long-term business, and we’re quite serious about this market,” he says. “We have the confidence we can finally go in (U.S.) this year. Here (at the show), we can show our car and let people see the improvements we’ve made to our products.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com

bpope@wardsauto.com