First Drive: BYD F3DM Chinese Plug-in Hybrid Is the Real Deal

By · February 18, 2011

BYD F3DM

The BYD F3DM in Los Angeles's Chinatown. (Photos: Brad Berman. All rights reserved.)

Update: The stories are now live on NYTimes.com. The main piece focuses on driving impressions and there's a sidebar for a technical rundown. The Times also posted a web-only article about the prospects of Chinese car companies coming to America.

Last week, I had the unique opportunity to drive the BYD F3DM, on assignment for the New York Times. I believe that it’s the very first on-the-road review of what could be the first Made-in-China car in the U.S.A.—and it’s a plug-in hybrid.

The review and related technical sidebar will run on Sunday in the paper’s auto section. I don’t want to out-scoop myself, so you’ll need to wait until the paper lands on your driveway or NYT posts the story online to get the full story. But in the meantime, I’ll share a few observations, and some photos from the day. (More pics will follow soon.)

Our good friend ex-EV1-driver—familiar to PluginCars.com readers—came along for the ride, so hopefully he’ll offer his views on the F3DM. Fortunately, in the past few weeks, I’ve also had the chance to drive both the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, so the comparisons are clear in my mind.

BYD F3DM

Ex-EV1-driver and I had a chance to speak with BYD F3DM engineers, recently arrived from China, at the Cars 911 used car dealership in Glendale, Calif., where BYD has temporarily set up its business operations. The dealership will sell BYD electric cars starting next year.

Quality: The biggest concern before seeing the car was potentially shoddy build quality and materials. That was not the case. Don’t think Yugo. Think Hyundai 1.0. The styling and feel was not terribly exciting. The car reminded me of an Y2K-era Toyota Corolla. But it felt solid and quite adequate for normal driving. I would have no problem using the F3DM as my daily commuter car.

Electricness: Thanks to driver-controlled buttons for “EV” and “HEV” mode, we were able to choose whether or not to engage the engine or stay in pure EV mode. No matter how hard you push the F3DM, if you want to stay in EV mode, it will—as long as there’s sufficient charge in the battery. We managed 31 miles of uninterrupted electric driving. Unfortunately, the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid doesn’t have an “EV” button—so the engine comes on with a quick burst of acceleration. Therefore, the F3DM beats the Plug-in Prius in that respect. It was also great to see how often the F3DM stayed all-electric even when the “HEV” button was lit.

BYD F3DM

The BYD F3DM fit and finish is not Lexus-quality, but it's fine for everyday purposes.

Affordability: In terms of many factors, including EV range; MPG after battery depletion (we measured 33 mpg for the day); size of battery pack; and combined gas and electric range, the F3DM matches the specs of the Chevy Volt. Yet, it’s entirely stripped down and basic. As a result, the F3DM is expected to cost $28,800 (before incentives) compared to $41,000 for the Volt. In the NYT story, I call the F3DM a Chevy Volt with a Wal-Mart price tag. Of course, the Volt is a vastly superior automobile—but will a Chinese company really be the first one to offer an affordable fully capable plug-in hybrid? Or will another company see the wisdom of dressing down an EV so that it can provide gas-free mobility at the most reasonable cost?

Biggest Gripe: When the F3DM’s 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine comes on (to charge the battery from 20-percent to 30-percent), it’s very loud. The transition from electric to gas is anything but smooth and subtle. I know that BYD is aware of this problem, but until it demonstrates that it can dampen the noise and vibration, the F3DM has a major strike against it.

Biggest Obstacle: BYD is talking about opening five dealerships in Q1 2012. Yet, the company has only performed internal safety and emissions testing. BYD has not yet filed paperwork with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or environmental regulatory agencies. I believe that BYD is further along in the process of entering the U.S. market than any Chinese car company has come before. But it remains to be seen how long BYD will need to get all the necessary regulatory approvals—and how the process might delay product introduction.

BYD F3DM

If BYD can get past these hurdles—and improve its grade on quality from a passing C to a B or B-plus—then the company could become a real player in the plug-in market. In fact, it could achieve what no other global automaker has previously been able to do: offering a common sense no-frills but very affordable electric car for everyday folks.

Check back for a link to a full narrative about the BYD F3DM in this weekend’s New York Times—and feel free to ask questions about the driving experience.

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