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Chinese automakers hit Detroit

Two more Chinese automakers showed off their models here yesterday, but it remains unclear when any of them will actually jump into the North American. market.

  • Power supply for electric car charging. Electric cars charging station. Power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

DETROIT- Two more Chinese automakers showed off their models here yesterday, but it remains unclear when any of them will actually jump into the North American. market.

Joining a growing list of potential Chinese automakers eyeing the world’s biggest market, BYD Auto Co. and Brilliance Jinbei Automobile Co. Ltd. introduced several cars including hybrids and even an electric model at the North American International Auto Show.

BYD, whose motto is “Build Your Dreams” said it would enter the U.S., Canadian and Mexican markets in 2011 with only hybrids and electric cars.

“We will start to develop sales and distribution networks in North America,” said Wang Chua-fu, BYD’s chair and president, through an interpreter.

“Our goal is to introduce BYD electric vehicles here in 2011.”

The company, which started in 1995, told reporters that its sales reached 200,000 last year and it is actively scouting export opportunities. BYD launched its first plug-in hybrid in December and introduced the e6 electric model here yesterday morning.

Regarding the possibility of setting up a manufacturing operation on the continent, Wang would only say the company plans to move here “when it is appropriate.”

Nearby, Brilliance officials were more cautious on when they would come to North America after unveiling four models.

“They’ll come when they’re ready,” said Brilliance spokesperson Jack Gerken. “But someone will be here in five years.”

Analysts say that it could be longer before there are dealerships with Chinese nameplates because of numerous obstacles that they face.

They say it will take time to attract investors to build viable dealer networks and for the Chinese to meet a long list of government safety and environmental standards for North America, which is filled with intense competition.

Furthermore, there are serious questions about whether the quality of Chinese vehicles can readily meet the quality and reliability needs of demanding North American consumers, despite significant improvements in recent years.

In interviews with reporters at the show, Chrysler president Tom Lasorda raised the quality issue while partly explaining why his company backed out of a potential deal with Chery Automobile to market its Chinese-made small cars in North America.

Chery itself had indicated it would start retailing in the U.S. in 2007, but the cars and stores never arrived.

Geely Automotive became the first Chinese automaker to promote a car at the show in 2006 – with a tiny booth and a single model off the main floor.

Geely officials said the company would start selling the least expensive compact car in the U.S. and Canada in 2009.

The company returned to the show in 2007 and again last year, with more modest predictions.

A company spokesperson said at that time 2011 would be the earliest date for delivery of cars here.

State-owned Changfeng Group, whose symbol is a leaping tiger, opened its first exhibit at the show in 2007 and also predicted it would establish a beachhead in 2009 with a line-up of sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks. It repeated that forecast last year, but nothing has happened yet.

This year, BYD and Brilliance are the two first Chinese automakers to acquire main display space on the main floor of the show, one of the world’s premiere auto promotion events. They are the only two Chinese automakers at the show. Geely, Changfeng and others have not returned.

Last year, BYD told reporters that it would enter the market by 2011 or 2013, but Wang appeared more emphatic this year of the earlier date.

A firm controlled by Warren Buffett recently made an investment in BYD. The companies have not revealed the size of the investment.

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