The phone maker that’s killing Apple in China arrives in the US

Chinese handset vendor Yulong, better known as Coolpad, is venturing out from its home territory to try its fortune in the U.S., with a little help from MetroPCS(s pcs). The prepaid, contract-free operator on Tuesday started selling Yulong’s Quattro 4G LTE Android smartphone (s goog) for $149.

Coolpad may be a virtual unknown here, but in China it’s the No. 3 smartphone maker. Not only is Coolpad besting Apple’s iPhone(s aapl), which ranks a woeful seventh, and Nokia(s nok); it’s even beating two of China’s hometown giants, Huawei and ZTE, according to IHS iSuppli.

Of course, Yulong has a long way to go before it can even dream of being that competitive in the U.S., but MetroPCS is a good place to start. The company is the largest regional operator in the country, and its focused on delivering cheap voice and data with no commitments (it recently started offering a promotional unlimited talk, text and data plan for $55 a month). But that also means that MetroPCS doesn’t offer the steep device discounts the major operators exchange for long-term contracts. To lure customers over to its new data services, MetroPCS needs cheap smartphones, which Yulong is prepared to deliver.

The Coolpad Quattro isn’t the Galaxy S III – which MetroPCS will also soon sell – but without subsidies it has a price tag that is $400 less than the Samsung phone. The Quattro runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), sports a 4-inch capacitive multi-touch screen and a 1 GHz single-core processor. It has both front and rear-facing cameras, the primary supporting 3.2 megapixels of resolution. It has 512 MB of RAM and a micro-SD slot that can take a 32 GB card.

The Coolpad Quattro and the LG Motion will be MetroPCS’s cheapest smartphones at $149 each, far undercutting its other 4G smartphones, which range from $229 and $459. Yulong is obviously crafting its U.S. strategy on selling budget devices. If it can continue to keep its prices this low it’s likely to attract attention from other operators.