Last year at BYD Auto's Cobo basement stand, TheCarConnection.com paused for a few minutes and watched members of the press gawk, gasp, laugh, or snap a picture of the more-than-passing resemblance of BYD’s cars to other established models from other world automakers.
What a difference a year makes. BYD Auto is on the main floor this year, the fit and finish of its products have improved greatly, and Warren Buffett now has a ten-percent, $230 million stake in its parent company, BYD Company Ltd.
The reason, for the most part, is batteries. BYD is the world's second largest producer of rechargeable batteries and supplies Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung. They’ve been working to develop electric vehicle batteries since 1996, and the vehicles themselves since 2002.
BYD Auto claims to be “a world leader in green technology,” now with more than 8,000 dedicated research and development engineers, and is introducing several new models.
BYD Auto President Wang Chua-fu, in an address on BYD’s Detroit stand, referred to energy shortages and CO2 concerns, and said that the company “believes that the auto industry has the responsibility as well as the capability to be a significant part of the solution.”
As such, BYD previewed three so-called new-energy vehicles—two of them plug-in electric vehicles with range-extending gasoline engines, and one pure electric vehicle.
The first of those is the F3DM, a small sedan and one of the company’s Dual Mode (DM) electric vehicles. The F3DM went on sale in China last month and costs about $22,000—in the vicinity of a base Toyota Prius. That might seem like a bargain in the U.S., but the non-plug-in F3 sells in China (with a 74-hp, 1.6-liter Mitsubishi engine) at a base price of around $7500.
The DM can go about 60 miles—enough for some to make a round-trip commute—on electric power alone. Then an economical 1.0-liter gasoline engine kicks on to recharge the system of a hundred 3.3-volt cells strapped together under the back seat, where it's isolated well from crashes.
According to BYD, the F3 “resembles the Toyota Camry,” but we’d say it’s almost a mirror image from some angles (and inside) of the last-generation Toyota Corolla—right down to the font used on the climate controls.
The F3DM can reach about 100 mph and get to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, according to the automaker. And it can be recharged fully with a standard household outles in just seven hours, but a 50-percent quick-charge takes only ten minutes.
The second range-extended electric, the F6DM, is a larger, mid-size sedan that will go on sale in China sometime later this year. Since the F6DM uses the same powertrain as the F3DM but weighs 700 pounds more, acceleration is a much more leisurely 13.5 second to 60 mph.
The company first showed the e6 pure electric concept at last year’s Beijing Motor Show, but it made its American debut at Detroit. It's a small crossover, somewhere around a Kia Rondo or a Mazda5. Lithium-ion batteries provide 0-62 mph in about ten seconds. It has a range of 186 miles and can reach almost 100 mph. However this concept looked not yet ready for production, with a rear floormat that was bulging with something that wouldn’t allow a level floor and a protruding battery pack underneath that would have been left vulnerable to speed bumps.
Unlike almost every other electrified vehicle at the show, the BYD vehicles do not employ lithium-ion cells, like most other renge-extended vehicles at the show. Instead it uses a BYD creation—the ferrous (iron) battery. BYD says that it has no heavy metals, is safer in operation than lithium-ion, lasts more than ten years, and can charge quickly.
BYD aims to bring its products to the U.S. sometime in 2011, and is looking to establish a U.S. distribution network next year. Chrysler, are you listening? which means that it faces meeting a host of regulatory hurdles between now and then. Check back with TheCarConnection.com for the latest.