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A test ride in BYD F3DM–it needs some work, especially the battery

March 13, 2011

I figured I should give the BYD F3DM hybrid car a chance to prove itself, so last week I dropped by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. The HACLA has ten F3DM cars (and some Toyota Priuii) in its fleet.

The visit proved to me that BYD still has some work to do.

Lowie Bacierto, a housing inspector, is driving one of the BYD cars on his rounds. He took me for a spin around the neighborhood.  Bacierto,  an amiable guy who drives a Toyota Tacoma pickup when he is not at work, said he had no real complaints about the F3DM.

“It brings me from point A to point B. I’m happy,” he said.

Will that be enough for American consumers to spend their own money on this car? I think not.

For those of you who aren’t up on BYD models, the F3DM (DM stands for “dual mode”) runs on pure battery power for a while, then switches to a gas engine. BYD claims the battery recharges in about 7 hours on a 220 volt outlet. (Bacierto confirmed this.)  With a special outlet –and it must be a really, really special one— BYD claims the battery can recharge 50% in 10 minutes.

One of the HACLA's fleet of BYD hybrids recharges in the garage. Takes about 7 hours at 220V.

BYD issued the hybrid to a few corporate entities in China in 2008.  In March of 2010, it made the car available to private buyers. By the end of 2010, it had sold fewer than 1,000 units.

That’s not surprising—the technology was new, and at RMB 169,800 (about US $25,800 at current exchange rates) before rebates–the price relatively high.  The car is about the size of the Toyota Corolla, and it looks a lot like the Corolla, too (more on that later). The non-hybrid version of the F3 starts at around RMB 60,000. 

Okay, pioneering technology costs money.  But the technology has to be worth the extra cost, and I don’t think BYD’s F3DM is worth that premium.

To be sure, the F3DM feels okay to ride around the block in. That’s not a true test of a car, natch, but it didn’t make any ugly noises or stop unexpectedly. We ran on pure electric power for a few blocks, then Bacierto manually switched it to the gasoline engine. No loud noise, though he said that when the car makes the switch automatically , which occurs then the battery has about 25% charge left, it does sound like a car whose engine is cold in the morning trying to start up.

(That’s a much kinder description than that of Brad Berman, who reviewed it for the New York Times. He said it “screeches like a banshee.”  We didn’t drive for very long, so I didn’t hear any screeching. )

Indeed, we only drove the F3DM for about 2 miles. The battery was 100% charged when we left the underground garage that houses the fleet. When we returned, the battery charge was down to 88%. Hmmmm.  BYD claims the car will run on pure battery power for 62 miles. Perhaps, driven carefully on the highway with few stops.  Bacierto said he drove it to San Pedro, about 49 miles, on all electric.  

Bacierto said he always tries to drive the F3DM like a conscientious environmentalist. Okay, he didn’t put it exactly that way. But he did say that since it wasn’t his car, he tried not to stomp on the accelerator. Doing that drains the battery, he said.

Clearly,  BYD’s Fe battery needs some improvement. Maybe a lot of improvement.  To harp on a popular theme of mine, BYD should have its battery tested at Argonne National Lab  or a similar type of testing facility so we can know what it is truly capable of.

As for the F3DM’s appearance, “The first thing I said is it looks like a Corolla,” said Bacierto.  And it does.  An older Corolla.  You be the judge.

The interior is okay.  Not bad, just boring and tan.

Very much like the Coda electric car , the body and interior of which is produced in China . Must be a Chinese characteristic.

The display isn't exciting and high-tech like the Leaf, but it does provide the info you need, like the battery state of charge.

There are some issues with the design, however.  The F3DM is not very roomy. One of the housing inspectors is nearly 7 feet tall, and he can’t fit in the F3DM at all, said Bacierto.  Also, “the Chinese must drive on the opposite side of the street, the side mirrors are backward on this car,” said Bacierto.  That is, the driver’s side mirror was for distance; the passenger side mirror for close up. No, the Chinese drive on the same side of the street as we do, I said. Oops. 

A little whine—there are no cup holders in the middle. Not round ones, anyway. I’m not in Texas anymore so I don’t drink as many Diet Coke Big Gulps. Nonetheless, we Americans love our round cupholders.

BYD has said it is leasing the hybrid cars to the Housing Authority to learn about and work out these bugs. The design is tweakable,  obviously.  Still, how many tries does BYD need to get these simple things right?   BYD has already redesigned the chassis so the battery pack hump doesn’t take up lot’s of room in the back seat. (Full disclosure: I forgot to check out the rear seat room.)  

Those are very minor issues compared with the battery technology, however.  And I’m not convinced BYD’s battery technology is very good.

Already, American consumers are disposed not to trust China-brand cars. His fellow inspectors didn’t want to drive the BYD car, said Bacierto.  To overcome that skepticism,  BYD needs to get it mostly right all at once, not incrementally. It needs to show us a really nice-looking hybrid or electric vehicle, with an interior that meets or beats the highest demands American consumers have for a non-luxury car that size. Since the F3DM looks so much like a Corolla, BYD could at least benchmark Corolla quality! 

BYD people are meeting with Bacierto and others from the Housing Authority later this month for feedback.  I don’t think they will like what they hear if he and others tell BYD hard truths.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Scott permalink
    March 13, 2011 8:17 pm

    I’m surprised, and a little disappointed BYD hasn’t brought in some talented designers and engineers who know how to build a good car. With their money, they could easily poach some of Toyota, Nissan or Honda engineers to get to the end game faster. This incremental approach is not a viable one given the timelines we need to hit for getting well made EVs on the road.

    Also, I’d request that any discussion of any plug-in car always provide the kWh capacity of the battery. This is a crucial point as we can’t make any judgements about efficiency given only the distance the car will travel on all electric mode. Is that on 10 kWh, 20 kWh, or? It’s akin to saying a Corolla will travel 1,000 miles on a tank of gas. Is that a 20 gallon tank, or a 100 gallon tank?

  2. Michael Schulthes permalink
    March 15, 2011 9:24 am

    OK, the design is not up to date.
    OK, BYD has reversed the mirror glasses.
    OK, from the outside the F3DM looks like an older Corolla.

    However, it does not when you look under the hood.

    IMHO the technical performance is what counts and I’m impressed regarding that.

    Not only Bacierto confirms that you can drive more than 50 miles all-electric but and the tester of did so as well.

    You drove just for 2 miles and complain about the battery performance? Why?

    I find the technical concept of F3DM absolutely convincing and the Chinese technicians learn quickly from mistakes.

  3. Katherine permalink
    March 20, 2011 9:34 am

    This post made me laugh – especially the part about the mirrors and the typical Chinese opaqueness with numbers. The fact is that in China BYD makes cars for peasants in the countryside, so they wouldn’t have the feedback about the interiors (yet). Have you looked at Shanghai Motors’ cars based on the Rover and MG? They’ve gotten a lot better in past few years – a lot of wood paneling isn’t my thing, but better than beige vinyl. We’ll get there, I guess. Actually asking for feedback from the consumer is a big step for these companies. That part is impressive.

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