Tesla is set to unveil the Model Y, its fifth car, in March of 2019. It’s expected to be a crossover SUV that’s smaller than the Model X, and will share lots of the Model 3’s underlying tech. With SUV sales through the roof in the United States, it’s likely to be a hit. And with a sticker price that will likely resemble the Model 3’s, the Model Y will launch in the US with very little direct competition when you consider the premium attached to the electric SUVs from Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche.
That’s not the case in China, however, a point underscored this week by two new vehicle announcements.
On Saturday, Chinese EV startup NIO launched the ES6 — the company’s second all-electric SUV. It’s a smaller five-seater successor to NIO’s first car, the larger ES8. In broad strokes, the ES6 is simply a more affordable, more approachable version of the ES8. It will start at 358,000 RMB, or about $51,000, and that’s before government subsidies.
NIO’s second all-electric SUV, the ES6.
The base model features a 70kWh battery pack that offers 410 km (or about 254 miles) of range, or 430 km (267 miles) in performance trim. NIO will also sell a version of the ES6 outfitted with an 84kWh battery pack that will muster about 480 km (298 miles), with the performance version eking out 510 km (or about 317 miles) of range on a full charge. (Though to be clear, NIO is basing these estimates on the now-outdated European standard known as NEDC, which was replaced by a more rigorous one this year — in other words, expect the ultimate range of each to be up to a few dozen miles lower.)
All different versions of the ES6 will be outfitted with dual electric motors, and will also be loaded with Tesla-style tech. An 11.3-inch touchscreen hangs between the dashboard and the center console, while another screen sits behind the steering wheel in place of a physical instrument cluster. The SUV also offers a heads-up display that places critical information (like speed) in the driver’s field of view as they stare out at the road. And, of course, the ES6 is outfitted with a suite of sensors that allow for driver assistance features (under the umbrella of “NIO Pilot”) like lane keep and adaptive cruise control.
Then there’s NIO’s more unique features, like the “in-car artificial intelligence system” called NOMI, a Nexus Q-looking robot that sits atop the center of the dashboard. NIO also built into the ES6 perhaps my favorite feature to be announced this year: an “intelligent fragrancing system” that offers a “more pleasant occupant experience.”
The Xpeng G3.
NIO wasn’t the only Chinese automaker to make a splash this week. Xiaopeng, another one of the literal hundreds of EV startups that have sprouted up in China in recent years, officially launched its first all-electric SUV, the G3. Backed by Foxconn and Alibaba, and valued at around $3 billion, Xiaopeng, or Xpeng, has gained some notoriety in the run-up to the release of its first car because its concept designs borrowed heavily from Tesla’s Model X. (The founders have even said that they took some advantage of the fact that Elon Musk open-sourced Tesla’s patents.)
But what Xpeng launched with this week was not quite as obvious a clone. It’s also dramatically cheaper than a Model X, or even likely what the Model Y will end up costing. The G3 starts at 227,800 RMB, or just shy of about $33,000, again, before any government subsidies. It will offer similar driver assistance features as NIO’s, boasts a massive Tesla-style touchscreen in the dashboard, and has a battery pack that should last somewhere around 230 miles (though full details are still scarce).
Xpeng has been taking orders for the G3 and claims to be ready to start deliveries. NIO opened up preorders for the ES6 this week, with deliveries slated to start in June 2019. Depending on where buyers live, both cars could cost as much as $10,000 less thanks to what are pretty generous government subsidies resulting from Beijing’s push to wean the country off of internal combustion engines.
Tesla’s timeline for launching the Model Y in China isn’t fully clear. It’s also not clear where the company will build the SUV. Elon Musk has said that 2020 is a likely target for production, but hasn’t announced if that will happen at the Gigafactory in Nevada, or at the Gigafactory that Tesla is just breaking ground on outside Shanghai for building the Model 3.
NIO and Xpeng have a lot of ground to make up when it comes to producing cars in large volumes like Tesla, let alone at the scale of other major automakers. NIO only began production of the ES8 in June of this year, and has made just 10,000 or so cars. Xpeng is even farther behind.
But both companies have a decent amount of runway to build up a customer base while Tesla brings its cheaper electric SUV into production. And while Tesla has exported the Model X (and Model S) to China for a few years, the company’s cars are tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than most Chinese cars, and the prices have fluctuated wildly as the government there introduced new tariffs this year as part of the ongoing trade war.
NIO and Xpeng are no “Tesla killers” on their own, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. They’re two of the more notable startups in a vast expanse of automakers in China, many of which have spent the last few years spinning up electric vehicle programs to comply with the government’s green energy mandates.
In fact, perhaps even more challenging to companies like Tesla, who are still largely on the outside of the world’s largest car market looking in, is that the Chinese government is starting a push to consolidate the national automotive industry. China’s National Development and Reform Commission is going to start throwing more weight behind car companies that perform the best, including ones that are ready to increase capacity, and are willing to invest heavily in R&D.
The NDRC has also said it’s committed to supporting companies that want to export their cars, too, a stated goal for NIO, which plans to eventually bring its cars to the US. Xpeng hasn’t announced plans to expand beyond China yet, but a number of other Chinese automakers — like SF Motors, a subsidiary of auto giant Sokon, or Qiantu, another startup that announced it’s targeting the US this week — have expressed similar ambitions. NIO, Xpeng, and SF Motors have already established R&D centers in the US.
Automakers around the world have spent decades worming their way into China in anticipation of an automotive boom, though those efforts were largely handcuffed by rules that forced outside companies to strike up 50-50 partnerships with Chinese counterparts. That effort, coupled with the recent government push to foster the development of companies dedicated to electric and hybrid cars, helped build up enough knowledge and momentum to give birth to companies like NIO and Xpeng.
China announced a plan to relax those partnership rules this year, which quickly resulted in moves like Tesla’s announcement of a Gigafactory in China, or BMW buying out a supermajority of its Chinese partner. It appeared to be something of an opening of the floodgates. But the heavy hand of China’s government is still tightly on the wheel of the electric car movement. That means Tesla will face formidable competition as it spins up production of the Model Y, the Model 3, or whatever else it chooses to build in China. It also means that, with China’s government at the wheel, Chinese automakers are closer than ever to trying to compete on US soil, too.