Production of the Model 3 at Tesla’s Gigafactory 3 in Shanghai is scheduled to kick off next month. As the most prestigious name in the electric car business, Tesla has big plans for China, but it’s predicated on the company’s ability to fend off a slew of Chinese challengers in this space, including the world’s top-selling electric vehicle company.
But just what are all these Chinese alternatives to Tesla? China currently has more than 100 EV makers, but some are much bigger than others. Here are China’s six biggest EV makers that you should know.
By a margin of about 2,300 units, Shenzhen-based BYD edged out Tesla as the top EV maker in 2018, selling 247,811 vehicles. The Hong Kong-listed company backed by Warren Buffet is also the world’s biggest manufacturer of electric buses. This year, BYD is looking to sell more EVs than fossil-fuel cars.
Unlike Tesla, BYD was already an established fossil-fuel vehicle company before going electric. But before that, the company started as a manufacturer of rechargeable batteries, becoming one of the largest manufacturers of cell phone batteries in the world. The company remains one of the world’s biggest battery makers to this day.
BYD’s lineup of EVs ranges from highly affordable to mid-tier, although the company is looking to make luxury vehicles down the road. Over the years, BYD has become a household name in China even though the name was reportedly a meaningless string of letters designed to appear at the top of the phonebook. Now the company says it stands for ‘Build Your Dreams.’
BAIC, or Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co., is one of China’s many state-owned automakers. It’s also the Chinese manufacturing partner of Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler AG.
The company has been at the vanguard of China’s push for affordable electric vehicles. High-end BAIC vehicles are priced around US$17,000 -- and they make up 90% of BAIC’s total sales.
SAIC is another state-owned auto company. But this Shanghai-based company is China’s biggest car manufacturer and the local partner for General Motors and Volkswagen.
Both partners are looking to SAIC to further penetrate China’s EV market. The most notable example is the China-only Baojun, a brand owned by SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile -- a joint venture between General Motors, SAIC Motor and Liuzhou Wuling Motors.
Originally conceived as a cheaper alternative to existing GM brands Chevrolet and Buick, Baojun has become a popular brand for EVs among young consumers in recent years.
Volkswagen has also worked with SAIC to launch electric versions of many of its popular models. So instead of the traditional Bora, Lavida and GOLF, SAIC Volkswagen is rolling out the e-Bora, e-Lavida and e-GOLF in China.
Perhaps because of its high-end cars with a slick aesthetic, Nio is often referred to as China’s Tesla. The company has been happy to embrace that comparison, making the upcoming Nio ET look like a clone of Tesla’s Model S.
When Nio first started putting cars on the market, it generated a lot of optimism among Chinese auto fans. It also attracted investors, the biggest of which is Chinese tech giant Tencent. The bullish outlook on Nio’s future eventually allowed the startup to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last year, just four years after its founding, which raised about US$1 billion.
Over the span of four years, Nio racked up US$5 billion in losses, an impressive milestone that took Tesla 15 years to reach. The company’s stock has also dropped more than 70% since it listed.
Xpeng is another EV company that has created an image very similar to Tesla. And like Nio, it has a big tech backer of its own: Alibaba.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
Xpeng co-founder He Xiaopeng has openly acknowledged the influence Tesla had on Xpeng. Employees of the company reportedly tore apart Tesla’s cars to understand how they’re built. Tesla noted the similarities in a lawsuit against a former employee accused of stealing trade secrets, saying Xpeng has “transparently imitated Tesla’s design, technology, and even its business model.”
The Guangzhou-based company has somewhat of a cult following in China. In June, the company rolled out its 10,000th SUV. The Xpeng G3 SUV has a certified range of 365 kilometers (227 miles) on a single charge.
Byton is a Nanjing-based startup founded by former Nissan and BMW executives. It shocked the auto industry when it debuted an electric SUV at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show with a dashboard that includes a 48-inch curved screen.
This premium SUV, named M-Byte, can travel up to 270 miles on a single charge. Recent reports suggest that the M-Byte is now ready for production. It will first be released in China before rolling out to the US and Europe starting at US$45,000.