Two BYD F3DM Chinese built cars

Two new BYD F3DM Chinese built cars sit in the parking lot of Cars 911 in Glendale on Monday, March 14, 2011. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)

The next big thing in the automobile industry is off to a small start in Glendale.

Chinese carmaker BYD Co. is using a Brand Boulevard dealership to help launch its American sales effort. For several months a handful of BYD workers have occupied an office off the showroom of Cars 911 at 400 S. Brand Blvd. They’re planning the North American debut of the company’s all-electric and gas-sipping economy cars.

The team also has been servicing a fleet of 10 BYD vehicles leased to the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.

Bill Wang, a business development manager in Glendale, said BYD has lined up about 10 dealerships across the country for fleet and consumer sales slated to begin in late 2011 and early 2012.

Micheal Austin, Chicago-based vice president of BYD America, credited Onnik Mehrabian, owner of the Cars 911 lot, for welcoming his operation.

“Onnik’s a great corporate citizen,” Austin said. “He was willing to let us train our technicians and service the vehicles there.”

Mehrabian has expressed an interest in hosting a BYD dealership in Glendale, according to Cars 911 lot manager Patrick Shah. Austin said it is too early to comment on whether that will happen.

Mehrabian could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, BYD — fourth-largest carmaker in China — is building its North American headquarters on Figueroa Street downtown, using several alternative-energy and energy-saving features.

Despite a rough fourth quarter — a 94% drop in profits off of slumping sales in China — the company is staging an aggressive effort to enter the U.S. market. It also has a high-profile investor in Warren Buffett.

Austin said the company decided to establish headquarters in L.A. because of the city’s glamorous reputation in China, and because it’s a good place to launch a green technology business. BYD hopes to sell as many as 20,000 cars in the U.S. next year, about 4% of what it sold in China last year, he added.

The company’s all-electric E-6 can go nearly 200 miles without a charge and will sell for about the same price as a Nissan Leaf, Austin said. A new Leaf retails for roughly $32,000.

But breaking into the American market might not be easy.

“The paradigm of driving a Chinese car in the U.S. is going to be hard to break,” Austin said.

But he said Kia and Hyundai have proven that Americans will take to new makes and models, adding that high gasoline prices were stoking consumer interest.

“The American public has been tolerant through several entrances, and we are hopeful they are just as tolerant with us,” he said,