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China’s top electric vehicle could be car of the future

At the Detroit auto show, I finally got to touch, although not drive, China’s top electric car.

Among the first things I noticed were, at various places on the body, bits of soiled clear tape.

Not a big deal, except that those in charge of a showcase vehicle at one of North America’s premier automotive exhibitions hadn’t removed obvious remnants of transport packaging.

Photos: Green cars of the future

I also spotted (it took little looking) uneven seams and clunky black rubber seals. And I noted the vehicle’s Hummer-like 2.3 tonnes.

It seems that neither this car, the E6 seven-passenger crossover, nor its manufacturer, BYD Co. Ltd., are quite ready for prime time.

Still, both are worth watching since they’re the leading edge of China’s push to dominate the electric-vehicle world. BYD (for Build Your Dreams) is especially intriguing, because its cars are part of a grand vision and business model, unique to the industry, of a green society based on renewable energy.

When I last wrote about BYD, 16 months ago, it planned a 2010 U.S. launch and was attracting attention because mega-investor Warren Buffett had purchased 10 per cent of the company. The arrival is now scheduled for 2012. Meanwhile, though, the company has rented a Los Angeles headquarters, to open in August, and has E6s on the road at home.

More important, the Chinese government just announced plans to spend the equivalent of $15 billion by 2015 on developing highway-speed, battery-powered cars as well as charging stations and other infrastructure to support them. It expects that amount — part of a $435 billion environmental package — to be multiplied by investments from other government and private sources.

Manufacturers get tax breaks and preferential deals on land and money. Local reports say the government will even rescind a law requiring firms to have at least 51 per cent Chinese ownership. Purchasers will get tax deductions as well as incentives that can cut the vehicle’s $40,000 cost roughly in half.

So far, it’s baby steps, Only a few hundred of the 18 million light vehicles sold in China last year were battery and plug-in hybrid models and all but a handful were sold to government agencies and taxi companies.

BYD moved 500,000 internal-combustion units but only 250 of its F3DM plug-in hybrids and perhaps 100 E6s, most to a taxi fleet partially owned by BYD in the southern city of Shenzhen.

But the E6 is starting to toddle; about 50 cabs are in use. The company says they’ve covered 2 million trouble-free kilometres, although their range is reportedly well under the 300 kilometres claimed.

Chinese customers apparently don’t mind rear seats elevated to accommodate the beast’s massive battery pack. But BYD discovered that western consumers would balk at the arrangement, so it’s redesigning the platform — the main reason, it says, that the U.S. launch was delayed.


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