In the car business it is wise to keep looking in the rear-view mirror because someone may be gaining on you. That was the case at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month when newcomer BYD Auto stole much of the attention from mainland rivals Geely and First Auto Works with its plug-in hybrid mid-sized car, the F6DM (for dual mode). 'I'm impressed by BYD's hybrid with its modern design and high technology,' said Uwe Achterholt, global chairman of automotive at KPMG Germany. 'Cheap, hi-tech cars will be the first step for Chinese carmakers to tap into the US market.' BYD said the F6DM could go about 100km on one charge and almost 435km using the petrol engine, which recharges the battery. The batteries can be quickly charged to 70 per cent of capacity in 10 minutes. Three years ago, mainland carmakers thought that having small, inexpensive economy cars was enough to win a share of mature markets, like the United States and Europe. In 2006, Geely Holding Group became the first Chinese carmaker to take part in the Detroit Car Show, but it faced criticism for failing to pass US safety and emissions tests. Five mainland car companies - BYD Auto, Geely Holding Group, Li Shu Guang Ming Design, China America Automotive and Changfeng Motor Group - were back this year, and their displays were no longer tucked in the far corners but up near the entrances to the show. Still, it may be some time before the mainland's cars are common on US roads. Geely and Zhongxing Automobile have said US exports are a goal, but they have not disclosed details such as the level of their investment, production capacity or sales targets. 'Realistically, it would take more than five years to see a competitive Chinese lineup in the US,' said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting for JD Power and Associates. 'And the recent Chinese product recalls are certainly not helping create the right landscape for Chinese cars entering the market with success.' The US market was often less forgiving than the domestic market, Mr Schuster said. 'It means if the business plan, the product lineup, quality and all other aspects [of the Chinese cars] are not perfect or near perfect from the beginning, it will be much more difficult,' he said. At least the mainland has the advantage of size. It sold 8.8 million vehicles last year, up 22 per cent, and it expects sales to reach 10 million units this year. The competitive landscape on the mainland has pushed carmakers to enlarge their exports, and successfully bringing made-in-China vehicles to the US and European markets also will help bolster brand reputations domestically. But several carmakers unveiled plans to land their cars in those markets gradually. Geely and Jilin-based First Auto Works Group recently announced investment plans in South America to pave the way to start their business in the North American market. 'It's necessary to build plants in places around the US,' said Mr Achterholt, 'because that can help Chinese carmakers understand the tastes and standards of the market.'