DETROIT – Chinese America Cooperative Automotive Inc. (CHAMCO) says it will begin importing into the U.S. cars made by China’s Hebei Zhongxing Automobile Co. Ltd. (ZX Auto) by year’s end.

“Our goal is to have our certified vehicles in U.S. showrooms this year,” CHAMCO Chairman Bill Pollack tells attendees at a China Business Update conference co-sponsored by Ward’s.

“It’s aggressive, but I like our chances,” Pollack says of the targeted launch date.

CHAMCO also has plans to have vehicles in Mexico even sooner, by midyear, he says.

The importer is displaying two models, the Landmark SUV and Grand Tiger pickup truck, along the concourse at Cobo Hall, just outside the North American International Auto Show here. They are the same vehicles exhibited offsite during last year’s show, both of which will be sold in North America under different, yet-to-be-announced names.

The Landmark is relatively unchanged from last year, says Steve Saleen, president and chief operating officer-ZX Auto North America, but the Grand Tiger’s front fascia now mimics the Landmark’s.

“(And) the engines now are totally different,” he says. “They are the 2.7L (4-cyl.) that we are going to be bringing into the U.S.” Last year both vehicles had a 2.4L.

Racing legend Saleen and his staff of 25-30 people now are working on establishing a state-of-the-art 150,000-sq.-ft. (13,935-sq.-m) research and development center in Anaheim, CA, saying it will have wide functionality, including engine and chassis dynamometers as well as a design studio.

“In essence what we’re trying to do with our facility is turn it into a one-stop shop, so you really don’t have to leave to accomplish any of the requirements,” Saleen says.

The two biggest issues prior to sales launch in the U.S. are the need to bring Chinese airbag systems and vehicle electronic control units (ECUs) up to snuff.

“Because the vehicles we drive today, especially in the United States (are so advanced), the ECUs are the brain of the car,” Saleen says.

Pollack says it was decided last week during a trip to China that all vehicles destined for North America will be assembled at a new ZX Auto plant set to open in the fourth quarter in Changchun.

ZX Auto, one of the smaller Chinese domestic manufacturers based on volume, has two existing plants in China, from which it already is exporting to 52 countries.

Pollack says CHAMCO is halfway to reaching its goal of 150 U.S. dealers, up from 40 in September. It will begin lining up dealers in Canada and Mexico in the next few months.

Only in the last few weeks was a decision made to drop a requirement forcing dealers wishing to sell ZX Auto models to invest in the venture.

Pollack says he still believes retailers should own a stake in CHAMCO, but dropping the requirement should help spur those who remain on the fence about acquiring a franchise.

The importer will stake out a presence at next month’s National Automobile Dealers Assn. (NADA) convention in San Francisco, as it kicks off a drive to grow its U.S. dealer body to 400 over the next three years.

CHAMCO also will appear at other U.S. auto shows later in the year, Pollack says.

“Everyone is watching us,” he says of the pressure associated with being the first to bring Chinese cars to America.

“The other Chinese manufacturers that will follow us need us to succeed, because if we are there first with a poor reputation for quality or service or anything else, that will be a tremendous hurt on (them),” Pollack says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com