DETROIT – BYD Auto Co. Ltd. of China intends to be the world’s first auto maker to offer a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle with the launch this fall of its ’09 F6 DM sedan.

Unveiled this week during the auto maker’s first visit to the North American International Auto Show here, the PHEV is based on BYD’s conventional front-wheel-drive F6 model and features the auto maker’s 1.0L 4-cyl. gasoline engine mated to a proprietary DM (dual mode) parallel hybrid-drive system and ferrous (Fe) battery technology.

If successful, the F6 DM will beat to market proposed PHEVs from General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Fisker Automotive Inc.

Part of the Shenzhen, China-based BYD Group, BYD Auto was created from its parent company’s acquisition of Tsinchuan Automobile Co. Ltd. in 2003. Despite its limited history, the auto maker produced approximately 100,000 vehicles in 2007 and currently is marketing six models.

Development of the DM system stretches back five years and leverages the unique battery technology created by BYD Group, a leading producer of lithium-ion batteries for cellular phones, as well as information technology components, says Michael Austin, vice president-BYD America Corp.

Described by the auto maker as similar to iron-phosphate configurations, the F6 DM’s Fe battery pack incorporates 100 cells, produced in-house and arranged along the center of the vehicle where a transmission tunnel normally would be located in a rear-wheel-drive car.

Officials are coy about the overall output of the 441-lb. (200-kg) battery, but say it provides enough juice to propel the F6 DM 60 miles (97 km) on a single charge. Battery-charging components and electronics take up a small portion of the trunk.

As the system is designed for pure electric-vehicle operation until the battery is depleted, a 75-kW (101-hp) electric motor/generator is the primary source of motivation. The 67-hp I-4 and continuously variable transmission kick in afterwards to recharge the battery and provide another 130 miles (209 km) of hybrid gasoline-electric range from the 5.3-gallon (20-L) fuel tank, Austin says.

Performance for the 3,968-lb. (1,800-kg) F6 DM is uninspiring, with an estimated top speed of 99 mph (160 km/h) and a 0-62 mph (100 km/h) time of less than 15 seconds.

BYD says it chose the Fe battery because it contains no heavy metals, is safer than existing Li-ion formulations and has quick-charge capabilities.

Plugging in the F6 DM at home through a 220-volt outlet charges the battery in about nine hours. However, a 50% charge can be achieved in 10 minutes by plugging the vehicle into a roadside quick-charge station, which Austin says will become more common in China’s urban areas.

In addition, the entire EV element of the powertrain can be retrofitted for about RMB43,456 ($6,000) to any existing BYD model, including the F1 hatchback, F3 and F3R compacts and F8 hardtop convertible. All the models, except for the F1, are on display at the auto maker’s stand here.

Although BYD does not anticipate entering the U.S. market for three to five years, it will launch the new F6 in China in March, with the rollout of the DM hybrid to follow in the fourth quarter.

Pricing in the U.S. likely would be the same as in the home market, with the standard F6 sedan starting at approximately RMB130,369 ($18,000) and the DM coming in between RMB144,854 to RMB217,281 ($20,000 to $30,000).

The 3- to 5-year lead time, Austin says, mostly will be spent ensuring the new vehicles meet the more-stringent emissions and safety standards in the U.S., as well as overcoming the greatest challenge facing Chinese auto makers: the perception that vehicles made in China are of inferior quality.

The F6, for example, has near-midsize dimensions, a 4-wheel independent suspension and most of the equipment expected of a mainstream sedan in the U.S.

However, its design borrows heavily from several existing vehicles, and the interior is marred by uneven panel gaps, low-rent fake wood and a general lack of attention to detail.

A target of about 20,000 deliveries is expected for the first year of production, Austin says, noting the significant vertical integration of BYD is a key factor in keeping the price of the new PHEV low. In addition to producing its own batteries and engines, the auto maker also designs and manufactures its own hybrid electronics.

However, BYD is not completely isolated, as several of its vehicles offer optional engines supplied by Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

Austin does not rule out additional partnerships in the future but says the auto maker plans to come to the U.S. regardless of whether or not it is paired up with another manufacturer.

msutton@wardsauto.com