LUCA CIFERRI

Why China is by far the world's largest market for full-electric cars

More than 90 full-electric vehicles are available in China, where EV sales could top 1 million this year.
Luca Ciferri is Editor of Automotive News Europe.
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The formula for boosting vehicle electrification is not complicated: Combine hefty purchasing subsidies with a vast recharging network and sales will take off almost immediately. China did this, not only to clean the air in some of the most polluted cities in the world but also to accelerate development of a domestic auto industry that was lagging Western competitors in terms of internal combustion engine technology.

The result? Almost 40 percent of the 3.2 million full-electric vehicles worldwide are in China, where consumers can choose from 92 models. They also can use one of the more than 241,000 charging stations -- more than half of the 424,000 available worldwide, based on data from turnaround specialist AlixPartners.

A mix of state, provincial and city incentives have boosted the so-called new-energy vehicles (NEVs) -- a category that in China encompasses full-electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel-cell automobiles. Sales reached 777,000 units last year and could surpass 1 million this year, according to estimates by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The government’s target is 7 million a year by 2025. How do these figures compare with Europe? Last year, sales of full-electric and plug-in hybrid cars totaled a mere 280,767 units, with just 23 battery-powered models available, according to data from JATO Dynamics.

Higher volumes mean that Chinese domestic automakers are already ahead of their European competitors and are offering a wider product spectrum of full-electric models, including hot-selling crossovers of different sizes. In terms of full-electric cars, Europeans can buy only minicars, small and compact cars, plus some derivatives of not-so-hot light commercial vehicles.

The Roewe eRX5 crossover offers a 320-km range from its 48 kilowatt hour battery.

A day spent at a test track near Beijing driving seven full-electric cars from local brands showed that the technology is mature, as is the fit and finish and overall quality of the vehicles. As for range, estimates will have to rely on homologation data calculated under the New European Driving Cycle because there was no time to test the cars’ real battery range. Also in China, several EVs are mainly for urban commuting. And not surprisingly, many are clones of Mercedes-Benz’s Smart brand and also the Mercedes brand’s own battery-powered variant, the EQ.

The Zhidou D2S has an 18-kilowatt hour battery and delivers an estimated 155 km range under the NEDC. But its overall quality is modest, driving dynamics are underwhelming and the price – equivalent to 24,400 euros before incentives – is expensive even for China.

The Zotye Zhima eZ is inspired by the Smart ForTwo in terms of proportions but has a more modern look thanks to crisp lines and thin headlights. The car, equipped with an 18-kWh battery, offers a 210km range plus much better driving dynamics and overall quality than the Zhidou, despite being priced at a much more affordable 14,300 euros. By comparison, the Smart EQ ForTwo, whose battery has a similar capacity (17.6 kWh) resulting in a range comparable to the Zhidou (up to 160 km), costs 21,940 euros in Germany before incentives.

The real surprise was a just-launched model. The BAIC Motor Lite, designed and engineered in Germany by the Edag Group consultancy, is a tiny (2986-mm-long) two-seat EV featuring a convincing modern design as well as go-kart-like driving dynamics reminiscent of a Mini. The Lite’s battery is a bit smaller (16.4 kWh) than its Chinese rivals; thus its range is just 150 km. But the price is equivalent to 11,275 euros before incentives, making it a bargain for Chinese consumers.

On the crossover side, the small JAC iEV7S was a convincing product overall, with a 39-kWh battery that assures a range of 280 km under the NEDC test cycle. It’s offered in China at a reasonable price, equivalent to almost 27,000 euros before incentives. The driving dynamics were surprisingly good, given the weight (1460 kg) for a 4135-mm-long battery-powered vehicle.

European buyers have no battery-powered small crossover to compare with the JAC or to two midsize models also tested near Beijing. The 4565-mm-long BYD Song EV300 has a 48-kWh battery that promises a 270 km range. With a motor in the front and one in the rear, it also delivers four-wheel drive when needed. It starts at the equivalent of 34,500 euros.

For 500 euros more, you can get the better-refined, 4554-mm-long Roewe eRX5, with a similar 48 kWh battery that delivers a longer range — 320 km — but offers only front-wheel drive.

The competitiveness of Chinese domestic EVs was clearly demonstrated by driving an aging model based on European technology. The Denza 400, launched in 2014, is a rework of the Mercedes B class made in China by a joint venture between Mercedes and BYD. After receiving a face-lift this year and being renamed the Denza 500, it fell short of being competitive with its more modern domestic rivals. The Denza 500’s new, bigger battery (70 kWh) promises 452 km under the NEDC cycle and offers stunning acceleration, but the model is old and dull.

Chinese consumers are also crossover-hungry when it comes to full-electric cars, and the JAC iEV7S, BYD Song and Roewe eRX5 are a much better buy than the outdated Denza. European buyers looking for a full-electric crossover right now have no choice but to wait. Or buy a model powered by an internal combustion engine.

This story is from Automotive News Europe's Electrifying Europe special edition. You can download the issue by clicking here.

You can reach Luca Ciferri at lciferri@crain.com.

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