The electric car, a revealer of economic patriotism?
What does an electric Chinese car look like? Another Chinese electric car. Especially if it is an SUV.
An observation made by many observers as long as they are interested in the abundant EV market in the country of the Middle Kingdom, and even more so if they have had the opportunity to survey the bays of some motor show in the course of the past three years.
Lynk & Co 01, MG Marvel R, Aiways U5, XPeng G9, NIO ES8, Li One, GAC Aion LX Plus and others all have a bit of a family resemblance, whether it’s the line with the slender front end without grille and line-shaped LED lights or the interior design and the layout around a large central Tesla-style touch screen, integrated with more or less success on a necessarily minimalist dashboard (the term “dashboard” has never been so appropriate as since the arrival of the Model 3).
Design and technical design codes which are not there by chance, and which, beyond the effect of fashion, respond on the one hand to budgetary constraints (the single central screen is probably a source of monumental savings) and on the other hand to an obligation of efficiency if indeed it is possible to make an SUV a little more aerodynamic and light than a Norman cabinet which would have swallowed whole a family of anvils.
China, from cut-and-paste to innovation
But it’s not just that. Chinese industry is gradually shedding its image as a factory of the world with the biases of counterfeiting and copying low cost which he was accused of until recently, to gradually build a real reputation in creation and innovation. This had already been the case for a few years in the field of high-tech where solid and innovative leaders quickly imposed themselves (Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, Lenovo, TCL, DJI drones, etc.), and it would seem that the sector automobile, whose growth is driven (or more or less kept afloat) by electricity, is following suit.
Except that this country does not have the design culture that we know in Europe, or more widely in the West. Far be it from me to say that there are no talented designers in China or that their cars are ugly. Simply, their graphic codes are more of a choice of use for a clientele that for the most part doesn’t care about our sense of aesthetics and haute couture. As we have seen recently, China is turning away from the European model, and this is all the more striking among the younger generations, the famous millennials, totally imbued with digital technologies, and for whom everything passes through screens and apps. Basically, the “WOW” effect will be triggered more by the quality of a touch screen, the precision of an autonomous driving system or the spaceship-like stripping of a cabin than by the line or the performance. Admittedly, this is an observation that can also be made among young Europeans or Americans who discovered the automobile with Tesla, but which is even more significant among young Chinese, whose entire life is regulated by the smartphone and a few applications that allow you to do EVERYTHING. And without which nothing can be done.
In other words, for the choice of a car in China, it is first the tech, the screen and the apps, then the autonomy, and at the end, possibly, the look and the performance. Of course, this is a bit caricatural, since some European premium brands like Porsche or Audi still score well there, but this mainly concerns the very top of the range… and combustion engines. In terms of electrics, the mass seems to be over: for the domestic market, the many local manufacturers are leading the dance, with new brands for the most part unknown here, and above all brands born with and around electrics, including offices studies therefore start from a blank page, which gives the advantage of not being “polluted by experience” as one of my former marketing professors said.
In Europe, the best soups are believed to be made in old pots
On the other hand, old Europe, which experienced some failures at the start in terms of electrification, first relied on the existing system to design its first electric models. To my knowledge, no manufacturer started from scratch, and all relied on proven platforms and existing technologies to develop their first electric models, which for the most part – at least at the beginning – were only variations of thermal models, with the possible exception of the Zoé, which benefited from its launch from its own platform, and again, it was adapted from that of the Clio.
And even if today things have evolved and dedicated platforms are developing at a rapid pace, European manufacturers have not really drawn a line under their history and their thermal heritage, made of design, performance, and ‘Art of living. Thus many electric models are still just one more line in a catalog where the same thermal and hybrid range rub shoulders. Some examples ? Do you want some here: Fiat 500, Mini, Smart, Peugeot 208, Citroën C4, Renault Twingo, Volvo XC40, BMW i4, so many models that coexist in thermal and electric versions.
In the end, it is perhaps within the VW group that the conversion to electric power is the most radical, with the construction in the mid-2010s of real dedicated platforms, which have given rise to “real” electric novelties. , such as the Porsche Taycan, the Audi e-tron and e-tron GT and even the ID.3 4 and 5 series from Volkswagen. Even if being teasing we could say without going too far that the Audi e-tron Q4 looks a lot like an electric version of the Q3 or Q5. Except that it is manufactured on its own 100% electric MEB platform. And Bam.
Models which have however kept the DNA of the brands in question, since the Taycan evokes both the 911 and the Panamera, and the VW ID.3 is seen by some as the “electric Golf”.
So, are Europeans right or wrong not to make a clean sweep of the past? It’s hard to imagine that with the means at their disposal they haven’t invested in a few market studies that guide their product strategy. The European consumer is not the Chinese consumer. First of all, the average age of a new car buyer is much higher here than in China (52 compared to 36!) and therefore probably sensitive to respect for a certain tradition that is found in the line and especially the interior layout, which even in the most recent models, remains relatively classic, except that there too the screens have replaced the good old analog meters.
Searching for new brands desperately
Are European manufacturers the guardians of the Temple of the automobile? Perhaps, since with the exception of exotic brands (Rimac?) nothing entirely new has really emerged in recent years. However, new brands are not the prerogative of China alone. If we look at the American side, Silicon Valley’s unlimited financing capacity has allowed the emergence of new builders who are trying somehow to move from the status of start-ups to that of credible industrialists and solid. One thinks of course of Tesla, who showed the voice (sometimes somewhat strewn with pitfalls) in the wake of which engulfed Lucid, Rivian and other Fiskers, even if the game seems far from won for those courageous challengers . In Europe, no Lucid, Rivian, Tesla or Aiways.
There remains the case of the Koreans, who advance their pawns discreetly and quietly, and whose first forays into all-electric seem to be synonymous with success, both technically and commercially, but above all in terms of the reception of the public and the coast. love of their models, whether pioneers like the Hyundai Kona or Kia e-Niro or their prestigious offspring named Ioniq 5 or EV6. Manufacturers who ultimately represent a sort of link between the technological radicalism of China and a certain European tradition. In other words, highly technological cars, but with a soul and a real pencil stroke that sets them apart from the crowd.
And then there is the youngest, a challenger full of ambition (and resources), who is neither Chinese nor Korean, European nor American, but who had the good idea to join forces with many players, and to have its cars designed by Pininifarina and Torino, I mean the Vietnamese VinFast. No history, a first foray into the automobile only in 2018 in technical partnership with BMW, and three electric SUVs which arrive in Europe in the coming months, which do not resemble Chinese production, and which are rather mouthful .
Europe, China, everyone at home?
Chinese customers are turning away from European manufacturers? Maybe. It could be that European customers, or at least some of them, do the same with Chinese manufacturers. For reasons of “economic patriotism” but also for more political and ethical reasons, linked to human rights and our conception of democracy, freedom of expression, and respect for the environment. Just read some comments here about a new Chinese model… or even a French car built in China.
The future of the automobile will be electric, it is now a certainty, but it will now have to count with one more player in the catalog, China. The showdown has already begun with the USA and Europe, and we are witnessing a real break in the approach to markets, with demographics and affinities that could perhaps reshape the automotive landscape in the coming years. Add to that a touch of protectionism on both sides and different economic rules depending on the region, and you have a perfect cocktail of economic warfare, but of a new kind, in which everyone would stay at home. A kind of de-globalization of the automobile, with totally different styles and approaches depending on whether you drive in Asia, America or Europe…
Or how buying a car could also become a political gesture of withdrawal. That being said, the same thing was said in the 1980s with the emergence of Japanese cars. We know the rest… Not sure that the postures are sufficient to fight against a coming surge.