Chinese battery-maker-turned-auto maker BYD Auto Co. Ltd. showed off a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle that can travel up to 62 miles (100 km) on battery power and a pure-electric concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, boldly declaring it would sell both in North America by 2011.

Chairman Wang Chua-fu says BYD's proprietary lithium-iron battery technology will enable it to leapfrog the rest of the world's electric vehicles in price and range.

The announcement excited bloggers and environmentalists and got a lot of play in the mainstream media. But few car-savvy analysts believe the auto maker will hit its U.S. sales goal.

“No, not by 2011,” says Stephanie Brinley, senior manager-product analysis at AutoPacific, an automotive consulting firm, citing product-development, retailing and consumer-acceptance hurdles she does not think the auto maker will be able to overcome in just two years.

Sean McAlinden, director-Economics and Business Group at the Center for Automotive Research, also expresses skepticism, mentioning safety-testing problems that no Chinese auto maker has yet overcome, the lack of a distribution partner and no brand identity.

BYD says it will sell a PHEV with a gas-electric powertrain similar to that in General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Volt, called the F6DM, for as little as $22,000, and a cross/utility EV called the BYD e6 capable of driving up to 250 miles (402 km) on a single charge for $30,000 to $40,000.

The auto maker BYD is a subsidiary of BYD Co. Ltd., the world's second-largest producer of rechargeable batteries, and it has been selling a small PHEV sedan called the F3DM to fleet customers in China since December for $22,000.

By comparison, the Chevy Volt is expected to debut in 2010 with a price tag of about $40,000 and have an electric-only range of 40 miles (64 km).

Henry Z. Li, BYD's general manager-Auto Export Trade Div., tells Ward's BYD's ferrous lithium-iron batteries, which feature different composition and chemistry than lithium-ion batteries, are safer and 50%-60% less costly. They also are the same weight and only slightly larger in volume.

“Battery technology and motor control are key to this vehicle (e6),” Li says. “We have quite a lot of experience and knowhow in this process.”

He also says he is confident the auto maker's new vehicles will meet crash-test requirements.

BYD currently is talking to dealers about setting up a distribution network, Li adds.

Nevertheless, Brinley echoes other analysts who took a close look at the BYD vehicles on display during Detroit's auto show press days. She says the auto maker does not yet appear to have the product-development expertise or retail organization to launch products only two years from now capable of meeting U.S. standards for quality, reliability and safety.

In other words, it is the shortcomings of the vehicles, themselves, not so much their advanced powertrains, that appear to be the biggest stumbling block.

That should not be surprising, given BYD only got into the automotive business in 2003. Last year, it produced 20,000 vehicles, double the number it manufactured in 2007.

While CAR's McAlinden is skeptical of BYD's timetable, he says in today's marketplace, it would be unwise to write-off any auto maker with deep pockets, advanced batteries and big ambitions.


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