FAW's my bet for No. 1 in U.S.

For Chinese automakers, the road to the U.S. market runs through Mexico. For some time, I've believed that Chinese automakers ought to test their vehicles in the Mexican market before bringing them to the States.

That would give them a chance to improve fit-and-finish, learn to work with dealers, and study the intricacies of warranties, service and marketing.

Well, it looks like First Auto Works is taking my advice. Last year, the Beijing-based company sold about 5,000 cars in Mexico. Its distributor is Grupo Salinas -- a Mexican financial and communications conglomerate with sales of $5.4 billion in 2007.

Subsidiary Grupo Elektra markets electronics, appliances, furniture, computers and other products from 1,900 "big box" stores in Mexico and Latin America.

A year ago, it started selling FAW's entry-level F1 car, plus two upscale models, the F4 and F5. Grupo Salinas also hired American automotive veteran Kathy Ligocki to help sort things out.

Ligocki, formerly of Ford and General Motors, says Grupo Salinas is learning how to sell cars out of "big box" stores. What's next? Canada? Ligocki smiles, but won't say. Well then, when might we see an FAW dealership in the U.S.? Ligocki thinks they're about five years away.

FAW may not be the first Chinese automaker in the United States. But they're setting the stage for eventual entry. And they have the deep pockets to make it work.

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