–by Mac Gordon, CBU/CAR Detroit Correspondent
DETROIT – “Eye-popping” was the adjective used by veteran auto reviewer Jim Dunne to describe the displays and products of the first Chinese-built cars exhibited in prime space at Detroit’s North American International Show in January.
Dunne, for over 50 years a photographer and reviewer of newly-introduced and as yet unreleased new cars and trucks, said it was “surprising” to see updated styling lines and body paint colors on new models from automakers so “young” in the business.
No plain-Jane vehicles
“Brilliance Auto and BYD Auto have come up with contemporary designs second to none,” said Dunne, whose son Mike is a J.D. Power & Associates regional vice president based in Beijing. “They are certainly ready to compete product-wise in the U.S. market, artistically and technologically.”
Dunne’s comments were seconded by key auto writers and dealers on hand for the Brilliance and BYD stands, which were located between the giant General Motors and Ford Motor Co. displays. Competitor executives, stealing away from the stands of domestic and other Asian automakers, agreed that the Chinese automakers “could make waves”—as GM president and COO Fritz Henderson put it—“as global players in all markets from here on.”
The first Chinese car exhibits in the Detroit show, presented in 2006-2008 by Geely and Changfeng, were isolated in the concourse and basement of downtown Detroit’s Cobo Center. Vehicles on display then lacked the appealing styling brought by Italian studios Giugiaro and Pininfarina to the four Brilliance cars, as well as the technology savvy of the battery pack that powers BYD dual mode and pure electric vehicles.
“It was Brilliance’s first show in Detroit and they could’t have rated so high with the media and consumers with plain-Jane vehicles,” said one of Brilliance Auto’s first U.S. dealers, Tom Kelley, owner of a nine-brand GM and Japanese vehicles based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“Brilliance’s car colors are dazzling and their video impressed would-be dealers by underscoring its BMW partnership in China. They’re ready to compete with the best on the American market if their durability and quality hold up, and they have no one better to help them meet all the federal standards and consumer-pleasing challenges than BMW.”
John Mardello, a dealer group principal headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, is building a “stand-alone” dealership for Brilliance only.
“California will be a great market for them, and the No. 1 Ford and Jaguar dealer in the country, Bert Boeckmann (owner of Galpin Motors in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles), is taking a Brilliance franchise,” said Mardello.
Boeckmann is also known to have signed a letter of intent for a franchise with India automaker Mahindra & Mahindra, which is planning to export diesel trucks and SUVs to the U.S. starting in 2011.
“I am looking at all the major overseas brands looking for U.S. dealers,” Boeckmann told CBU/CAR.
“But they have to be good from the start, and I’m impressed by both Brilliance with its great-looking sedans and BYD with its electric cars, which may beat Chevrolet and Toyota in the market.”
Overseeing the Brilliance dealership recruitment operation is a U.S. industry veteran, David Shelburg Sr., who is headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Shelburg led dealership collection programs for onetime U.S. automakers Kaiser-Frazer and Malcolm Bricklin, the founding chairman of Subaru of America.
“Subaru dealers are high on Brilliance’s dealer prospecting list,” said Shelburg, “because of that brand’s success.
“And so are leaders of top dealership groups, like former Chevrolet dealer and auto racing mogul Roger Penske, who’s importing Mercedes-built Smart mini cars, and AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson, a former executive of Mercedes-Benz of America. Jackson said he was “impressed” by the Brilliance and BYD exhibits and could see a future for Chinese cars in the U.S. if their quality holds up.”
With “electrification” a focus of industry and audience interest at the Detroit show, BYD drew exceptional buzz for its plug-in F6DM and F3DM as well as the pure electric e6.
“BYD stole a lot of space with two electrics ready to go on the market,” said show co-chairman Joe Serra, a GM dealer based in Grand Blanc, Michigan, “but more power to them.
“This show since 1912 has been a curtain lifter for new cars and technologies. The 2009 show is timed perfectly to showcase the coming wave of electric hybrid plug-in cars and underlines Detroit’s historic role as an auto industry innovator.
“We launched Lexus, Infiniti and Saturn in the early 1990s and now it’s China’s turn.
“BYD and Brilliance will sign up a lot of dealers, based on the vibes I’ve heard. Next year, I predict we’ll have six or seven Chinese automakers here.”
On December 15, 2008, BYD launched its F3DM plug-in at its home town of Shenzhen and let reporters from China and the U.S. test-drive world’s first mass produced plug-in.
“That whetted my whistle,” said Jim Dunne. “I think everyone in the industry and all the Detroiters coming to the show feel the same way. Electric cars are a wave of the future, starting right here in Motown and coming on strong from China.”
“Still not ready”
Despite general praise by the media, industry and consumers, a negative reaction was voiced by a retired product development veteran at Ford Motor, Jaguar and Land Rover, Al Kammerer.
In a quote picked up by Crain Communications publications, Kammerer said that Brilliance Auto “is three to five years away from manufacturing cars suitable for sale in the U.S.”
“While the Brilliance cars are assembled well,” Kammerer argued, “some trim components are not acceptable. Things like air vents, which should be flush with the dash, are not. The cars’ interiors have a noticeably unpleasant odor.”
A Crain report on the Brilliance and BYD displays played up “questions” about when their cars would go on sale in the U.S. BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu and Brilliance vice chairman He Guohua were quoted as saying neither had a “timetable” for launching U.S. sales because of ongoing safety and emissions compliance tests and continuing research by BYD on its new-design Lithium-iron phosphate batteries for the F6DM, F3DM and e6.
BYD’s Wang said he plans no sales of small cars in the U.S., although it displayed its mini-compact F0 model in Detroit. Wang told CBU/CAR at BYD’s press conference that the company plans to sell the e6 in the U.S. in 2011 and it would be priced between $30,000 and $40,000.
BYD continues to evaluate how to distribute its cars in the U.S., according to Wang. Brilliance is assembling a U.S. dealer network, with 36 signed up in the U.S. already.