Best known as a manufacturer of batteries for gadgets, nobody took China's BYD seriously as an automaker—it only sold its first car in 2003. Eyebrows began to raise, however, when a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, bought a 10% stake in the company in September 2008.

Then, in December, BYD began selling a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in China for the equivalent of about $22,000—dramatically less, in other words, than any viable contender for the title of "paradigm-shifting EV." The specs are compelling too: a top speed of 100 mph and a 62-mile range on battery power alone. (And because it has a gas engine that recharges the batteries on long trips, range anxiety isn't a real issue anyway.) If it can pass U.S. safety tests—a big if—the Chevy Volt may be licked before it's left the garage.

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