DETROIT – Chinese auto maker Brilliance Auto says it will position itself as a mid- to high-line auto maker, if it follows through on its goal to sell cars in the U.S.

Making its U.S. debut here at the North American International Auto Show, where it is highlighting four of its key cars in its main-floor exhibit, the auto maker says it won’t try to penetrate the market based on price.

“We will never take advantage of pricing strategy; we will not use low price to open the door here,” He Guohua, vice president of Brilliance stakeholder HuaChen Automotive Group Holding Co. Ltd., says in an interview. “We want to set up a mid- and up-level brand.

“Of course, we would like our pricing in the future to be competitive,” he adds.

He won’t disclose volume ambitions.

“If we can, we would like to sell more cars in America,” He says, speaking through an interpreter. “But the brand image with America’s consumers is the most important thing.”

Brilliance, formally known as Shenyang Brilliance Jinbei Automobile Co. Ltd., has a vehicle-building joint venture with BMW AG, and He says his company continues to learn from the German luxury-car producer when it comes to management practices and product quality.

But it is unclear whether Brilliance’s global volume aspirations ultimately will point closer to Toyota Motor Corp. than BMW.

Volume “depends on our development in the future,” He says.

Brilliance’s cars on display here, the M1 and M2 sedans, M3 sport coupe and FRV hatchback appear a cut above in design, materials and fit and finish than some of the Chinese vehicles exhibited at the NAIAS in past years.

Most were developed with help from international engineering specialists, with the M2 and M3 coming via assistance from Porsche AG, and the FRV and M1 benefitting from the work of Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The M1 and M2’s 1.8L engine was created with German engineering specialist FEV GmbH.

He expects Brilliance to continue to rely on outside help to support its own growing engineering capability, while focusing more of its own resources on upgrading manufacturing processes.

“To become a worldwide, big auto maker, product quality is the key thing,” he says. “So we will have a lot of technical cooperation with very good international companies. The other thing we want to do is guarantee our factories are good enough to produce a high-quality car.”

Brilliance won’t put a target date on its eventual North American debut, with He saying the auto maker will use the Detroit show in part to determine how well its cars stack up against the competition.

“We have been working on developing the North American market for several years (already),” he says. “The North American market is a high-level market. We need to do a lot of basic jobs to reach the American standard.

“Right now, I cannot give you a concrete timetable. If we are ready, we will come.”

He says Brilliance’s existing cars could be U.S. worthy – insiders say the M2 sedan is the closest to a globally competitive model, but it is more likely a new-generation vehicle will be needed for market entry.

The auto maker could sell cars elsewhere in North America before landing in the U.S., but no game plan has been determined.

“In terms of product quality, we will qualify our cars for the American market,” He says. “But in terms of sales, there are more ways for us to think about. We are flexible.”

Brilliance has 2-shift capacity for about 100,000 cars and 120,000 vans and other light vehicles annually, although the company reportedly sold 285,000 vehicles last year.

The auto maker says it mimics Toyota production methods in its Zhonghua, China, car plant. Technology used in the facility’s paint shop was borrowed from BMW, and the plant’s body shop is tooled with modern Kuka, Schuler and Schenck automation.

Brilliance’s engine-plant capacity totals 200,000 units annually and is set up to build powerplants ranging from 1.6L to 2.0L in size.

Working with Brilliance on its possible foray into the U.S. is its American importer, Brilliance Autokam North America LLC, based in Scottsdale, AZ.

Brilliance Autokam has been helping the auto maker understand regulatory and market issues and evaluate the readiness of its products for the market. It also will be in charge of recruiting dealers when the time comes, but executives say it is too early to begin the search for retailers.

Despite the global economic downturn, the Brilliance executive expects international sales to increase 50% this year, from a modest base of 23,000 units in 2008.

“The world is in an economic crisis, so of course our company is affected,” He says. “But there is opportunity along with challenge.

“We would like to capture some of the business other auto makers have lost. Like at this auto show, we are on the main floor because other companies have pulled out.

“That is a great opportunity for our company.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com