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I have never owned a new car. My first automobile was a Jeep Wrangler,
11 years old when I bought it. It was a fine car, but it had a broken
passenger door, and one time someone fell out in the parking lot of an
ice skating rink.

I bought my second car just out college. It was an Oldsmobile Intrigue, 4 years old. It was intriguing in name only, but was a boat of a car and, at 6’2”, I loved it for its boatyness. Our relationship, though, was short-lived. I fell asleep one night while driving home, swerved across the opposing lane of traffic, and crashed head-on into a telephone pole. I walked away unharmed, but the Intrigue died on impact.

That brings me up to my current car, a ’97 Dodge Stratus that was already 6 years old when I bought it. It, like the Jeep, is a fine car, though it’s often mistaken (not unfairly) as the car of someone 40 years my senior.

It’s with this lack of first-hand experience in new car-ownership that I came to the 2008 North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s COBO Center, to see the newest of new cars. It’s a nervous time for auto manufacturers, especially those American. Environmental pressures and high fuel costs have turned dual screws. Competition from abroad has tightened, too: Toyota recently passed Ford as the No. 2 auto seller in the U.S., and, for one quarter in 2007 at least, was No. 1 in the world, just ahead of General Motors. I came to the show to see the American car in flux — where it is, and what sense of its future can be gleaned from the plush-carpeted floor of an unremarkable convention center.

But not so fast. Before it even began, it seems, one of the most interesting items of note surrounding the Auto Show had nothing at all to do with the Americans. At least not on the surface.

The Chinese are coming. This wasn’t my own observation so much as it was the declaration running across the cover of China Automotive Review, the magazine “Serving the World’s Largest Emerging Automobile Market” that was stacked by the elevator when I checked into my hotel.

The auto show features the largest appearance by the Chinese since they started coming to Detroit two years ago. There are five Chinese auto manufacturers at the COBO Center this year, to be exact. And for those of those of us with excessive pathos for underdogs, there’s a lot to fall for when it comes to Chinese cars and the people assigned the seemingly thankless job of representing them here in the harsh birthplace of the automobile.

In Detroit, nobody asks a stranger if he’ll take a picture of two buddies posing with their thumbs up in the front seat of a Chinese car. Nobody asks the girl in a miniskirt and knee-high leather boots to pause for a photo on the spinning stage of a Chinese car, because there are no girls, in leather boots or otherwise; there’s not even a spinning stage for these automobiles. Chinese cars don’t have a fountain that spells out model names, as Jeep does. They don’t have a Wii video game station, as Dodge does. They don’t have Ford’s private bar or the Lexus Lifestyle Experience, both of which overlook the showroom floor. In fact they’re not even on the showroom floor.

Two of the Chinese carmakers — Geely and Chamco Auto, which is really just the American distributor of the Zhongxing brand of cars — set up shop in the lobby outside the ticketed portion of the auto show, next to a local NPR affiliate and Baskin-Robbins. The other three — Changfeng Motor, BYD Automobile, and Bei Jing Li Shi Guang Ming Automobile Design Co., Ltd. (which we’ll call Li Shi) — were hidden away in Michigan Hall (which is what the COBO Center calls its basement), alongside the University of Michigan Solar Car team, State Farm Insurance, and a promotional booth for the soon-to-be-released Speed Racer movie.

Visitors to the auto show approach the Chinese cars with a skepticism they don’t have for, say, Mini Cooper, Hyundai, or even Kia, for that matter. A lot of them walk around a car, tapping it with two knuckles, giving up a “Hmph” every so often. I saw one man rub the side mirror on a Changfeng Kylin and, realizing it was loose, shake it to see just how loose it was. I watched another open and slam the passenger door of the Chamco 4-door pickup. When it didn’t shut fully, he tried again, harder this time, but had the same result. After a third failed attempt, he turned to me and rolled his eyes, as if he thought himself a fool to have ever expected anything but a faulty door from a Chinese car.

I cringed, in anticipation of the jokes I knew would be cracked over the course of the next week, when I looked under the Zhongxing hood and saw stickers that read, “Danger!!! The fan will start-up at any time. Prohibit touching it!” and “Make maintenance once at each 5,000km.” I felt sorry for the representatives handing out expensive-looking Changfeng Motor booklets when I flipped through and saw that “The Liebao CS6 can drive fast even on bumpy roads,” and that, in fact, “There are no roads on which the CS6 cannot go.”

But wait. Put it in reverse. It’s easy for people to laugh off Chinese cars because they do, admittedly, feel cheap. The interiors lack the frills drawing people onto the showroom floor (the retractable bench and seats on the back of the Ford Explorer America; the white leather interior of the Maybach). A tap on the plastic consoles comes back as a hollow sound; there’s even a hollow plastic steering wheel on one model.

The surprise is that the Chinese car companies seem to know this, even if they don’t come out and say so (and really, who would?). When I asked the Chamco representative how much the pickup — considered by many to likely be the first Chinese car available in the U.S., probably sometime in late 2008 or early 2009 — how much it will cost, he shrugged.

“We don’t have a price set yet,” he said. “When it comes out we’ll take a look at comparable models out there, and price it 20 percent lower than the cheapest one.”

And with the exception of Li Shi — and its golf cart-like cars with names like Detroit Fish and A Piece of Cloud — there’s nothing special about the design of any of the Chinese automobiles.

But maybe that’s just the point. Chinese cars don’t need to differentiate themselves the way Chevrolet or Pontiac do. To pity the reps of Chinese car companies for having what seem like squirmy jobs is to ignore the fact that, in the end, cheap always wins. These people, who stand quietly on their small piece of carpet at the sideline (or in the basement), know that those cars spinning under 30-foot plasma screens in the showroom are the girl every guy hopes to take home from the bar, but that theirs is the one he ultimately settles for at last call.

This fact does not appear to be a secret. I walked around that Changfeng CS6 with a group of men, one of whom said he was with Ford. His friend laughed at just how cheap he thought the CS6 looked, but to the guy from Ford, its quality was irrelevant.

“Mark my words,” he told his friend. “Fifteen years from now you’re going to be driving one of these Chinese things.”• 17 January 2008