European consumers use Chinese products every day. Will they also embrace cars by companies such as BYD that have their sights set on the European market?
October 18, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“These are Chinese cars?” one mall shopper asked, stopping at the showroom entrance.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Charlotte Ejlertsen, the sales manager.
The shopper, Michael Christiansen, pursed his lips.
Ejlertsen said China already made so many of the products central to his life, including, most likely, the phone chips in his pocket. So what’s one more?
After gaining a dominant hold on the raw materials and batteries necessary for electric vehicles, China is now making a play for the one thing it doesn’t have: cars on roads in the West. Chinese automakers have been pushing into new markets, particularly in Europe, building showrooms and inking deals with existing dealers everywhere from Paris to the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The implicit sales pitch is that those vehicles are an essential part of the world’s clean energy goals.
But in Europe, which aims to ban the sale of traditional gasoline cars by 2035, the Chinese EVs are a solution and problem all at once.
The Chinese brands are poised to offer something that Europe’s famed automakers can’t yet match — low-cost EVs for the masses. As in the United States, many climate-attuned European consumers are hungry for a vehicle that helps them cut their dependence on fossil fuels without a premium price tag.
While that makes the Chinese imports attractive, they also pose a clear threat to one of Europe’s biggest industries, which underestimated the speed of the electric revolution. Brussels, amid an investigation into potential subsidies, is weighing whether to raise tariffs on Chinese vehicles. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the global market is now flooded with “cheaper Chinese electric cars.” Auto executives have talked about a period of unprecedented upheaval, influenced in part by one question: How many people are willing to buy a Chinese car?
The underbelly of electric vehicles
That answer is emerging day after day in places such as the Copenhagen showroom of BYD, where three models sit under rectangular lights, with the cheapest — named the Dolphin (starting at $33,000 in Denmark) — closest to the entrance. A sign on the wall says the company’s EVs “are among the best in the world.” The showroom is staffed solely by Danes, including the manager, Ejlertsen, whose parents ran a Peugeot dealership. She said she has “petrol” in her blood, but recognized two years ago that if she wanted to stay in the business, she’d have to find a job in EVs.
“Hello,” she said to the next person who walked in.
“Just looking around a bit,” the person said.
Little known in the United States, BYD has become the face of the Chinese auto boom, with global sales last year of 1.86 million plug-in vehicles, including hybrids. Just 20 years ago, the company had been foremost a manufacturer of phone batteries. Even 12 years ago, after it started making EVs, Tesla’s Elon Musk had scoffed about the idea of BYD as a competitor, saying: “Have you seen their car?”
But that was before BYD started recruiting European designers to revamp the fleet and designed an acclaimed battery, innovations that prompted a lieutenant of billionaire Warren Buffett to call the company his best-ever investment. BYD is now the top car brand in China’s domestic market and is nose-to-nose with Tesla as the largest global seller of EVs. The company’s market value is higher than that of BMW, Ford, Mercedes or Volkswagen.
Musk now says, vaguely, that Tesla’s biggest competitor is “some company out of China.”
BYD has made quick progress in other countries where it launched: Brazil, Thailand, Israel. But those countries lack gigantic homegrown brands. Chinese carmakers haven’t seriously pursued expansion in the United States, where they would face significant tariffs, and where consumers get tax credits when purchasing EVs assembled domestically. And in Europe, sales numbers have been low so far.
Ejlertsen said it takes time to launch a car brand with little name recognition, and BYD waited until last month to release the Dolphin in Denmark, where it has quickly become the bestseller in the fleet. (BYD’s cheapest EV, the Seagull, retailing for $10,000 in China, is not yet available in Europe.)
“I have no doubt it’s going to work,” Ejlertsen said.
On this recent weekday, a plumber from a rural area strode into the showroom, explaining: “I just walked in because I saw there were cars.” A man with a Zara bag wandered in and out in 30 seconds. A Volkswagen owner said he wouldn’t buy any car brand without an established European service network.
One man, who was with his daughter, said he wanted an up-close look at the Dolphin after seeing a “very good review” from a Danish auto influencer. One family came close enough to buying a BYD that they sat down at a computer to go over some numbers. Another couple said they wanted to purchase a sedan model called the Seal, available next month.
Across 10 hours that day, there were no sales, no scientific conclusions. But only one person among more than a hundred, Christiansen, seemed opposed to the idea of a Chinese car. A Danish navy commander, he said he considered China to be “already too powerful,” benefiting from cheap labor. Still, Ejlertsen said her conversation with Christiansen at the entrance was a success.
Despite his skepticism, Christiansen went into the showroom and looked around.
The cars, he allowed, look nice.
China’s ‘leapfrog strategy’
China’s automakers went all-in on EVs because they had so much to gain, and so little to lose.
Few people, in China or elsewhere, wanted the nation’s traditional automobiles. Beijing as early as 2009 encouraged the EV push, providing subsidies for buyers, encouraging local governments to purchase electric fleets, helping build charging infrastructure, and essentially creating a mass market years ahead of Europe or the United States.
“It was a leapfrog strategy,” said Ferdinand Dudenhoffer, director at the Center for Automotive Research in Germany. “They realized, ‘If we go for combustion engines, the Europeans are much stronger. So let’s go for the next decade.’”
In the meantime, China gained a stranglehold on raw minerals such as lithium, cobalt and manganese, leveraging that into a battery industry that latecomers have no chance to replicate. In a recent report, Morgan Stanley said that 90 percent of the EV battery supply chain relies on China. Allianz, the insurance company, said that European carmakers could collectively lose $7 billion in profit by 2030, both because of Chinese EV growth in Europe and because Chinese companies are expected to lock down their domestic market, where Volkswagen once reigned.
The West’s auto companies are playing catch-up — and in turn doing more and more business with China. BMW and Renault, among others, assemble their electric vehicles in China. Yet a longer list of companies depends on Chinese batteries. Whereas in earlier decades China was soliciting Western know-how to build up its car industry, now it is constructing battery plants in Hungary and Germany — with Chinese managers working on-site to share their expertise.
EV makers’ use of Chinese suppliers raises concerns about forced labor
If any legacy company is trying to keep pace with the Chinese upstarts, it’s Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest carmaker, as well as the best-selling brand in Denmark. Among the big players, it was one of the early movers. It drew up plans to build its own in-house battery plants and its own technology systems for EVs. But turning around a big “rigid” company is hard, said Philippe Houchois, a global auto analyst at Jefferies.
The on-screen software in Volkswagen’s EVs has been often described as clunky, unresponsive. The gigafactory plans are longer-term; the company isn’t yet producing batteries.
Volkswagen’s parent company, Volkswagen Group, which also includes brands such as Porsche and Audi, says it aims for one-fifth of its cars to be fully electric by 2025. And in downtown Copenhagen — three miles from BYD’s mall showroom — Volkswagen last year built a glassy, street-level studio, where it displays only its EVs.
“An open-door advertisement,” said one sales representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to give interviews, as tourists walked by.
The studio has informational pamphlets, trinkets, an electric version of the Volkswagen van, as well as its lowest-cost model, the ID.3 ($45,500 in Denmark). On the wall, the company displays a battery — the kind Volkswagen is for the moment forced to buy from abroad.
“We get them from LG and CATL,” the representative said, naming two companies, among others.
One Korean. The other Chinese.
Will Danes dig these EVs?
Across town, among the people at the mall, at least one person had come specifically to see BYD’s vehicles. Naji Dyndgaard, 55, had booked a test-drive.
“I need a new car,” he said. “Right now I only have a bike.”
So Ejlertsen, the manager, led him out of the showroom, down an escalator, and into the mall garage, where several BYD models had permanent parking spots. Dyndgaard stepped inside of BYD’s midrange option, the Atto 3, with synthetic leather trim and subtle blue lighting outlining key features. He played with the touch screen, the navigation, the side mirrors. Then he started the car.
“If you go right you can drive into the city,” Ejlertsen said. “Go left and you can be on the highway.”
“I want a little of both,” Dyndgaard said.
He explained, as he drove, that his family had been through a lot over the last few years. His wife had suffered a brain injury. Her recovery had been incomplete. Their social lives shrank. Dyndgaard worked as a mathematician, teaching carpentry on the side, living with his family in an apartment. He became convinced that what they and their children needed was a fresh start: getting out of the city, moving into the open countryside, taking care of animals and a garden. He’d already brought the property. Now he just needed the car.
Already, he’d test-driven several others.
“It’s good to see how it performs,” Ejlertsen said from the back, as Dyndgaard drove along the glass office buildings and trim apartment blocks of outer Copenhagen.
Dyndgaard asked a question about charging stations.
Ejlertsen showed him how to find them with a map on the touch screen.
Dyndgaard returned to the mall after 35 minutes, saying goodbye to Ejlertsen, not committing to anything. He still had a few weeks to make up his mind. But he said that the BYD model was one of two contenders. He didn’t mind that it was Chinese. It fit his budget, and he liked the way it drove, he said. A week later, reached by phone, Dyndgaard said he’d all but made up his mind on the BYD, though he hadn’t signed anything yet.
“I don’t care who the producer is,” he said. “Europeans are not at the forefront anymore. Actually, they are far behind.”