Report from Beijing Motor Show: China Accelerates Its Move Toward Electric Cars

By · April 26, 2018

Our visit this week to the floor of the Beijing Motor Show revealed how the center of gravity in the electric-vehicle world is shifting to China. While growth in EV sales in the United States continues on a steady but incremental path—roughly one-percent of the American vehicle market—sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids in China is expected to leap from 700,000 vehicles in 2017 to more than 2 million “new energy vehicles” by next year. The number of vehicles with plugs at Auto China 2018 show was staggering, even as the current presence of EVs on Beijing’s roads is minimal.

The future growth in EVs in China should be viewed in the context of the massive scale of overall car sales in the country, which is already the largest in the world. The U.S. market is steady at about 17 million vehicles sold per year, while Chinese consumers purchased about 22 million vehicles in 2017—a number which could reach as many as 29 million this year. The consequences for environmental impact (and congestion) are immediate and can be felt every day on Chinese roadways. This partly explains why the Chinese government will use its central authority to enforce a quota on its automakers that 10 percent of their sales must be EVs and plug-in hybrids in 2019. It will climb higher from there.

But electric vehicles are not strictly (or even primarily) a matter of environmental policy for China. It’s an industrial policy aimed at making China the world’s powerhouse producer and supplier of cars in the 21st century. While it would be difficult for China to gain an engineering lead in terms of internal combustion, the shift to electric powertrains is a new chapter in global automotive history—and an unprecedented opportunity. If the world adopts EVs, China could be its supplier (in addition to producing cars for its large domestic use).

China has already exhibited its willingness to go beyond modest purchase incentives to encourage growth in EV adoption. On top of those generous incentives, Chinese consumers have to decide between waiting several years to purchase a combustion vehicle as their single allowable family car or immediately drive home with an electric car. In some regions, such as Beijing, license plates are acquired on a quota-based lottery system. Imagine not being to drive on certain days—or at all—unless your car is powered by electricity.

Electricity on Display

Dongfeng Motors displayed a suite of affordable plug-in cars for every transportation function.(Photos: Brad Berman)

The cars at Dongfeng Motors’s display at Auto China 2018 provides one possible vision of the country’s automotive future. Vehicles sold by Dongfeng, traditionally one of China’s “Big Three” automakers, are viewed as practical and affordable. “Our price is a little bit lower than other brands,” Nate Wang, a vehicle designer at Dongfeng, told Keep in mind that the typical price point for a Chinese car can dip well below the equivalent of $10,000.

Wang stood before a suite of five generic, white vehicles: a compact, midsize sedan, crossover, cargo van, and a modest eight-passenger people mover. Four of them were pure EVs and the crossover was a plug-in hybrid. The style of the vehicles was bland enough to be a government-issue product. The fit and finish is not necessarily what American consumers expect—but perfectly acceptable to a first-time cost-conscious Chinese car buyer.

“The current range is about 250 miles,” said Wang. “At the moment, it’s the biggest challenge for electric cars.” As with many of the booths at the Beijing show, firm specifications, such as range, were hard to obtain. Wang said that charging infrastructure was also an issue, but he added, “Our government now requires that the charging stations be built in public places and garages.”

Nissan Sylphy Electric

Those utilitarian models might leave you uninspired, but just a few steps away the Nissan Sylphy indicates where things are going. Premiered in Beijing, the Sylphy is a 210-mile sedan built on the LEAF platform. A league ahead of the Dongfeng vehicles, the Sylphy (a branded model that has existed in gas form since 2000) is the EV we might wish that Nissan was offering now in the United States. Think of it as a more stylish, longer-range LEAF with a trunk. Moreover, it’s Nissan’s first mass-produced electric car in China (for China). “We’re unleashing a new era of EVs in China,” said Jose Munoz, the company’s chairman of the management committee for China. He explained that Nissan wants to provide Chinese customers with “electrified products that are safer, more stable, and offer a better customer experience.”

Nissan IMx KURO

The Sylphy is merely one of an incredible 20 electric models that Nissan plans to introduce in China over the next five years. The future direction for the other Nissan EVs could also be seen in Beijing in the form of its IMx KURO crossover on display.

Honda Li Nian EV

Meanwhile, at the Honda booth, the company premiered its own China-exclusive electric vehicle at Auto China 2018. The Li Nian EV, a design concept at this stage, was a sharp all-electric crossover that appeared ready for production—as soon as the end of 2018—under the Everus brand. It’s one of 20 new Honda electrified models expected in China by 2025.

Toyota Levin Plug-in Hybrid

In yet another example of a model familiar to American buyers that were displayed with plug-in capability in Beijing, Toyota showed a pair of plug-in hybrids. It was clear that the plugged-in Corolla and Camry-like Levin were steps toward electrifying high-volume models. The models with about 30 miles of all-electric range are bound for production next year. They mark Toyota’s first overseas production of plug-in hybrids.

A pure electric vehicle compact SUV is expected from Toyota for China by 2020, along with about seven other locally produced battery-power vehicles. “The Chinese government is putting a lot of effort into promoting the development of plug-in hybrids,” Huang Yongqiang, vice-president of sales and marketing for the GAC-Toyota joint venture, told “Three years ago, less than five percent of GAC-Toyota sales were hybrid. This year it will be about 20 percent, and we are now introducing plug-in hybrids.”

New EVs and plug-in hybrids are not only coming from Japanese automakers. Not by a long stretch. Nearly every display in Beijing had cars with plugs from both Chinese and global automakers—although it’s hard to make sense of the jumble of brands used in China. For example, as seen on the auto-show floor, the Chevy Volt sold in America is apparently the Buick Velite 5 in China.

Buick Enspire

In addition to the Chinese EVs already in high-volume production, and the soon-to-be-made models from Japan, Europe, and the U.S., there was plenty of electric concept eye-candy that is common at major international auto shows. Buick, a popular luxury brand in China, debuted the Enspire—a sleek, midsize, all-electric crossover concept with 365 miles of range and a whopping 550 horsepower. And BMW teased the iX3, a 250-mile all-electric SUV that could be produced as soon as 2020. The German automaker said it will be manufactured in China.

We’re used to seeing fantastical, high-end concepts like the Enspire and the iX3 at auto shows—sometimes becoming simpler production versions in low volume in the U.S.

However, having our feet on the ground in Beijing, and seeing how every dimension of the Chinese auto industry is fulling embracing electric vehicles, brings the country’s EV transformation into sharp relief. So do the pronouncements this week from Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Three Gorges Dam. He said he was proud of the country's technology workers and their ability to build such massive projects. And he declared that China must develop the country's capacity for innovation.

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