By Marc Lachapelle
Chinese carmakers were by no means at their first visit to the North-American Auto Show. This time, though, they would not be relegated to the lower level or outside corridors of Detroit’s Cobo Hall. No doubt aided by the absence of several prominent manufacturers, carmakers BYD and Brilliance would set up their wares at the heart of the show, between the giant spaces of Ford and GM.
Bound for Glory?
BYD (for Build Your Dreams) is a leading Chinese battery maker that started developing electric-vehicle batteries in 1996. Six years later, it started work on pure electric vehicles. It led to the launch of the e6 model that was the centerpiece of BYD’s display in Detroit. The company got a double boost of capital and publicity when legendary American investor Warren Buffett – still the richest man on this planet – injected $237 US million in BYD through Mid-American Energy Holding, a division of his famous Berkshire-Hathaway holding.
The electric-powered BYD e6 is a compact crossover built to showcase BYD’s Fe battery, said to deliver an exceptional 400-km range along with 0-100km/h times of less than 8 seconds and a projected top speed of 160km/h. The Fe battery pack can regain half of its power with a 10-minute quick-charge and get a full charge in just 60 minutes. In addition, BYD claims that the battery’s production is virtually pollution-free and that of its chemical components can be recycled.
BYD Auto has launched eight models in only five years and now wants to add crossovers and minivans to the mix. In Detroit, in addition to the e6, BYD exhibited the F3DM and F6DM, both gas-electric hybrid versions of compact sedans that are quite popular in China. The cars share a powertrain that combines a 1.0-litre gasoline engine and an electric motor for a combined output of 168 horsepower and a range of 580 km.
The F3DM and F6DM can also reportedly go 100 km on battery power alone, which is substantially more than GM’s target of 60 km with the Chevrolet Volt. Yet, the F3DM started selling in China last December. That said, the car displayed in Cobo Hall was a dismally-built knock-off of the previous-generation Toyota Corolla. It certainly is not ready for prime-time in a cut-throat North- American market where competition is fierce.
At the bottom end of the BYD range is the F0, a subcompact that is the spitting image of the previous-generation Toyota Yaris. It has an all-aluminum 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine. BYD also makes the F6 CVT, a larger sedan powered by 2.0-litre gasoline engine mated to a CVT transmission. BYD’s current plans are to launch in Europe and Israel by 2010 and only “eventually” in North America. Beware the competitor that does not take the fledgling carmaker seriously. Remember Hyundai’s humble beginnings and see the gigantic banner it flew in Detroit this year, for its Genesis sedan’s victory in the North American Car of the Year awards.
Brilliance by association
The story of Chinese carmaker Brilliance Auto is quite different and so are its cars. By outsourcing substantial chassis and powertrain work to the engineering wizards at Porsche, by setting up joint ventures with BMW, by letting Giorgetto Giugiaro’s troops take care of styling and design and by using Toyota TQM system for manufacturing, Brilliance Auto has is quietly putting itself on the world map of car manufacturers. While not a global automotive powerhouse yet, its 300,000 sales in 70 countries last year are nothing to sneer at.
The cars themselves are rather attractive, although not yet design leaders. Brilliance displayed four models in Detroit: the M1 and M2 sedans, the M3 coupe and the FRV, a compact hatchback sedan designed by Giugiaro that looked like a Lancia, somehow. The sedans are ok and the M3 coupe quite decent-looking and powered by a Porsche-engineered 1.8-litre engine. Its closest equivalent would be a Hyundai Tiburon.
All four cars show much better build quality and materials than their BYD compatriots. In the past two years, Brilliance has been a presence at the Detroit, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt and Moscow auto shows, in a quest to raise public while actively seeking partnerships that would prove mutually beneficial. No timeline has yet been set for sales in North America, but we most likely have not heard the last of Brilliance Auto, nor of its charged-up neighbour.