Plug-In Hybrid Goes On Sale, In China Only

By · November 03, 2008

A Chinese carmaker claims it’s pulled off a coup: This month, BYD Auto will sell the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid. But it’s only offered in China, and will likely stay there until Chinese cars are ready for global primetime.

The BYD F3DM will land in showrooms at the end of the month. It’s expected to cost roughly 150,000 yuan ($22,000), and go as far as 70 miles (110 kilometers) on electricity when fully charged.

BYD F3DM

The BYD F3DM unveiled at the 2008 Geneva International Motor Show.

Parent company BYD Co.—it stands for “Build Your Dreams”—claims to supply 65 percent of the world’s nickel-cadmium batteries, and 30 percent of its lithium ion mobile phone batteries. In September, fabled investor Warren Buffett bought a 10 percent stake in BYD for $230 million.

Its auto arm has only been making cars for four years; it’ll sell about 120,000 this year. Its hybrid batteries use iron-phosphate lithium-ion chemistry, rather than the higher-energy cobalt versions that can instantly combust from internal short circuits, a hazard that has generated widely circulated pictures and videos of flaming laptops.

In January, BYD Auto showed the F6DM—a larger plug-in hybrid sedan—at the Detroit Auto Show, quoting a 60-mile electric range. It hopes to sell cars in Europe and the US by 2010, but no Chinese carmaker has a firm date for US sales.

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BYD F6DM on display at 2008 Detroit Auto Show.

Crash Test Disasters—on YouTube

The latest crop of Chinese cars is better built than early efforts, but their interior quality and materials are still only equal to Korean cars of the 1990s—hardly competitive. On top of that, they’ll have to meet US crash safety and emissions standards.

Industry analysts dismiss, or sneer at, the idea of US sales by 2010. Chinese makers will need years of experience elsewhere, said Aaron Bragman of Global Insight, before tackling the world’s most competitive auto market.

Even worse, all Chinese makers are fighting tough odds in the PR department. A reputation for unsafe cars has preceded them into Europe, courtesy of YouTube.

Three years ago, the German auto club Club ADAC tested a JiangLing Landwind SUV, the first Chinese-built car sold in that country. The outcome was "a catastrophic result,” it said. "In our 20-year history, no car has performed as badly." The driver was likely to be killed in a 40-mph head-on crash.

Then in June 2007, the Russian magazine AvtoRevu crash-tested a Chery Amulet compact at 40 miles per hour. Again, the video it released showed the results in horrifying detail. As the magazine said, the front door sills “crumpled like newspaper” and the crash-test dummy became so embedded in the wreckage that it had to be removed in pieces.

But the Chinese makers are learning fast. Brilliance swiftly re-engineered its BS6 sedan, which did catastrophically badly in a mid-2007 ADAC test. Its performance improved enough to give it 3 stars on the EuroNCAP frontal and side impact tests performed later that year. Remarkably, the company issued a video showing the results of the old and the new tests.

While they may be quick studies, Chinese automakers still have far to go before they can sell competitive products in the US. If you want to drive a BYD plug-in, for now, you’ll have to travel.

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