Chinese electric car brands expand
BYD Auto is part of a wave of Chinese electric car exporters that are starting to compete with Western and Japanese brands in their home markets. They bring fast-developing technology and low prices that Tesla Inc.’s chief financial officer says “are scary.”
Furukawa said he ordered an ATTO 3 when it went on sale Jan. 31, 2023 for its user-friendly features and appealing price of 4.4 million yen ($33,000) — or about one-quarter less than a Tesla.
Other ambitious Chinese EV exporters include NIO, Geely Group’s Zeekr and Ora, a unit of SUV maker Great Wall Motors.
Some compete on price. Others emphasize performance and features, putting pressure on Western and Japanese premium brands.
NIO Inc., which has persuaded buyers in China to pay Tesla-level sticker prices of up to 555,000 yuan ($80,000), says its latest SUV goes on sale this year in Europe. The ES6 boasts voice-activated controls and a range of 610 kilometers on a charge.
Sales of battery-powered vehicles and gasoline-electric hybrids in China almost doubled last year to 6.9 million vehicles, or half the global total.
That was supported by multibillion-dollar subsidies from the ruling Communist Party, which is trying to make China a creator of clean energy and other technologies. That rattles US and European leaders who see China as a strategic and industrial competitor.
Chinese brands are “serious competition,” according to David Leah, an analyst for GlobalData.
They have “more competitive battery technology” and can “achieve greater economies of scale,” Leah said in an email.
BYD Auto, owned by battery maker BYD Co., edged ahead of Tesla in total 2022 sales at 1.9 million vehicles. Half were gasoline-electric hybrids, while Tesla’s fleet is pure electric.
“We have a lot of respect for the car companies in China,” Tesla chief executive officer (CEO) Elon Musk said in a Jan. 25 conference call with financial analysts. “They work the hardest and they work the smartest.”
Chinese brands are developing EVs to compete without subsidies as Beijing shifts the burden to the industry by requiring them to earn credits for selling electrics. Prices start as low as 100,000 yuan ($14,500) for a compact SUV with a 400-kilometer range on one charge.
“The Chinese are scary,” Tesla chief financial officer Zachary Kirkhorn said on the analyst call.
Research and design
Chinese EV brands mix research and design centers in the United States and Europe with factories in China.
Geely’s Zeekr plans to launch an all-electric sedan and an SUV this year in the Netherlands and Sweden. Its mini-United Nations of Chinese and European designers is in Gothenberg, Sweden, adjacent to Volvo Cars, another Geely brand, while its factories are in China.
CEO Carlos Tavares of Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Peugeot and FIAT, warned in January that Europe needs a strategy to compete with China’s lower prices.
European-made electrics cost 40 percent more than Chinese models, according to Tavares.
“It’s a very bleak scenario,” Tavares told German magazine Automobilwoche. “But it doesn’t have to go that way.”
BYD Auto’s exports quadrupled last year to 55,916 sedans, SUVs and hatchbacks. Most went to India, Thailand, Brazil and other developing markets. BYD announced a 1,000-vehicle sale last year to Mexico’s Vemo for the biggest EV taxi fleet outside China.
State-owned BAIC, headquartered in Beijing, said a dealer in Jordan ordered 1,000 units of its compact EU5 sedan in January. The company said it plans to launch two to three more electric vehicles in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe.
What about the United States, the biggest, richest market?
Chinese EV brands are skittish about a sprawling country that demands big investments in dealerships and charging networks, especially while Washington and Beijing are feuding over security, technology and human rights.
BYD Auto has been in the US market for a decade selling battery-powered transit buses assembled at a factory northeast of Los Angeles.
It is “still in the process” of deciding whether to sell SUVs and sedans to Americans, the company said in a written response to questions.
Political tensions “make it difficult for a Chinese company to launch, EV or otherwise,” in the United States, Leah said.
In Europe, Great Wall’s Ora sells its 03 model starting at 140,000 yuan ($20,000). Ora tries to stand out among dozens of fledgling brands by marketing its cars as being designed for women, their body sizes and daily needs.
In Europe, BYD Auto has partnerships with dealership chains in Britain, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.
The company says it also has delivered cars in Belgium, Denmark and Austria. It has a deal with European rental company SIXT that BYD says will lead to sales of up to 100,000 vehicles over the next six years.
In Japan, BYD Auto plans to have 100 showrooms by the end of 2025. Its Dolphin hatchback and Seal sedan are due to hit the Japanese market this year.
The company says it also has exported some 4,000 ATTO 3s to Australia.
Furukawa’s OZ Co. converts Volkswagen Beetles and other classic models by replacing gasoline engines with batteries and electric motors. Furukawa said he drives his ATTO 3 every day and has gone as far as Osaka, 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.
BYD Auto’s Yokohama showroom, which opened Feb. 2, is surrounded by dealerships for established brands including Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen and Chevrolet. / AP