BOGOTA, Colombia -- Think of Jesus Caro of Bogota as a guinea pig in Chinese auto manufacturers' grand plan to conquer the U.S. market someday.
Last month Caro, a 29-year-old electrical engineer, drove a spiffy new blue Chery QQ compact model off the PracoDidacol dealership lot near El Dorado international airport in Bogota, joining the growing ranks of first-time car buyers in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.
What made his purchase especially notable was that the vehicle he bought was a relatively unknown Chinese make and not a Chevy, Mazda or Renault, this country's dominant locally assembled brands.
Caro said his decision to buy Chinese over more widely known makes wasn't an easy one. The key consideration was the purchase price of $9,200 -- $4,000 cheaper than the comparable Renault Twingo and $3,000 less than a similar Chevy Spark. He took the plunge only after receiving assurances from other Chery owners that service was reliable and spare parts were easy to obtain.
"I never thought much about buying a car, but the low price of this one impressed me," said Caro. "It's not the most powerful car around, but it will get me around town, which is all I need it for."
Industry analysts see Latin American buyers such as Caro as precursors of U.S. customers.
"It's only a matter of time before Chinese manufacturers break through," said Brian Irwin, a partner at A.T. Kearney Americas. "For now you will see a continuing focus on emerging markets because [Chinese manufacturers] know product quality for the U.S and European markets isn't there yet. But they're learning to be patient."
Patience is paying off in the Colombian market, where, five years after entry, Chery and a dozen other Chinese auto manufacturers are luring increasing numbers of buyers like Caro.
Last year the 14 Chinese brands here accounted for 15,400 units, or 4.7 percent of the total 325,000 new cars and light trucks sold in Colombia. In Peru, the more than 80 Chinese car brands available have taken an even bigger share: nearly 15 percent of 150,000 new units sold in 2011, up from zero six years ago.
And in Brazil, one of the most dynamic markets on the planet with 2.9 million new units sold last year, Chinese makes of cars and trucks such as JAC, Chery, Foton and Great Wall accounted for 62,000 units, or 2.1 percent, of all new unit sales, up from virtually nil in 2006.
As Latin America's biggest economy, Brazil naturally is the country on which Chinese carmakers are focusing most intently. Both Chery, which is China's most successful exporter to date, and Great Wall are building multimillion-dollar factories there, and truckmaker JAC will start construction of a plant by 2015. By assembling cars there, the three companies will avoid the new 35 percent import duty that President Dilma Rousseff imposed last year on all foreign-made cars, a move made to stimulate creation of auto jobs.
Chinese automakers' rising presence in Latin America reflects the increasing importance the companies are placing on expanding their global reach and raising manufacturing volumes to a critical mass.
"In the auto industry you need scale to support growth," said Jian Sun, A.T. Kearney's Shanghai partner.
Car manufacturers in China exported about 500,000 cars and trucks in 2011, and Latin America was the fastest growing foreign market. Their goal is to sell 2 million cars abroad by 2015 and as many as 3 million in 2020, Kearney's Sun said.
By ramping up exports, Chinese makers are hedging against the vagaries of their domestic market, where sales grew a disappointing 4.5 percent to 18.5 million units in 2011, Sun said. Although China led the world in unit sales, the growth rate was down from the double digit rates that the Chinese market has shown in previous years.
"It was a slow year by Chinese standards," said Sun, adding that Chinese makers also are driven to extend sales overseas by another trend: increasingly affluent domestic buyers' preference for "joint venture products" made by GM, Volkswagen and other foreign manufacturers in partnership with Chinese companies.
Analysts generally see Latin America as a proving ground for Chinese automakers' eventual invasion of the U.S. car market, an event that still is unscheduled but likely will follow what Kearney's Irwin calls the "Korean model" -- a reference to how Hyundai entered Canada and other countries to gain market experience before it dared set foot in U.S. showrooms, Sun said.