BEIJING, CHINA—Right up there on the Toyota stand at the Beijing Motor Show/Auto China was a Corolla plug-in hybrid we can’t buy in America. Parked not far away was the Buick Velite 5—a slightly more upscale version of the Chevy Volt, which exists here because of the enormous popularity of the Buick brand in China (they buy more of them than we do). And don’t forget the Velite 6, a roomier car that has no U.S. counterpart and is available as either a battery electric or a plug-in hybrid, or the Enspire concept electric—with 370 miles of range.
Welcome to the Beijing show, a thronged multi-hall madhouse that compares to the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The dress is western casual (band t-shirts are popular) and coffee is trendy among the younger people who are abandoning tea—Starbucks is everywhere. Another clue to change underway is the scooters. Instead of the noisy, polluting two strokes of the past, today's editions are almost all battery powered.
In 2018, electrification rules. “If I see one more electric concept car I’m going to scream,” my traveling companion Brad said. He was soon screaming, because we saw lots more. China bought more than three times as many EVs as Americans in 2017, and the signs that it’s ramping up quickly are everywhere here. The stands were full of plug-in ports.
Toyota’s Yongqiang Huang, a sales and marketing vice president, told me, “The Chinese government is making an all-out effort on New Energy [electric] cars. The Chinese auto market now has much higher demand for environmentally friendly vehicles.” He said that three years ago hybrids were five percent of Toyota’s sales; now they’re 20 percent and climbing.
Geely is showing its global ambitions with the Concept Icon, an attractive glass-roofed design which shares a platform with the Volvo XC40. Unlike some of the more fanciful concepts on stands here, the Concept Icon (designed at the studio in Shanghai) looks like it could be headed for production—as an electric car—and maybe sold outside China.
“We’re daring to stretch the Geely DNA,” said designer Peter Horbury, a veteran of top positions at Volvo, Ford, Jaguar and Aston Martin. He’s tasked with bringing the Geely brand upscale, which is why he says his mission is to create “an Audi for half the price.” The company now employs 600 designers, counting those at Volvo.
Horbury said sister brand Lynk & Co. would probably be the first in the stable to be sold in the U.S. and Europe. Until now, Chinese brands could claim to be international with markets in South America and Mexico.
Nissan unveiled the zero-emission Sylphy sedan on its stand, next to the new Leaf. The company said it’s “Nissan’s first mass-production electric vehicle for the China market, and one of the 20 electrified models that we plan to introduce over the next five years.” More fanciful versions of the Sylphy sat next to it. The production Sylphy is on the Leaf platform, but borrows most of its styling from the contemporary Sentra.
Not to be outdone, Honda (with partner GAC) unveiled its own first EV concept, a trial run for the first electric car it will build especially for the Chinese market. Li Nian is Honda’s budget brand for the Chinese market, but the EV Concept looked like a fairly nice small crossover, and fairly close to the version that will go on sale by the end of the year.
Speaking of EVs on a budget, Dongfeng has a whole field of them in production. There were four battery cars and a plug-in hybrid on its stand, ranging from small sedans to cargo vans. Nate Wong, who designed the smaller van, said the company sells 10,000 battery vehicles annually.
Wong said the biggest hurdles for EVs in the Chinese market is range—with most not limited to 250 miles or so—and infrastructure. “It’s very important,” he said, “and still a big problem, though our government has required that stations be built in public places and at some garages.”
Speaking of range, could the Buick Enspire concept really go 370 miles on a charge? That’s the claim for this sleek SUV, which forgot its exterior door handles somewhere. Buick’s “eMotion” electric platform produces 550-horsepower, which is enough to get the car—and it’s a big car—to 60 mph in four seconds. If this thing were produced, it would give the Porsche Mission-E Cross Turismo a run for its money.
Don’t let me finish without mentioning some of the other quite cool concepts here. The Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury represents a car where the designers were given carte blanche. The seats were backed by what seemed to be copper sheet, and there was a tea service nicely situated for the passengers. And the strange SUV/sedan hybrid is, of course, an electric car, with a quartet of wheel motors producing 750 horsepower. Could it really go 200 miles on its 80 kilowatt-hour battery? That’s the claim.
The Oshan Nu-Age is even wilder. The Mercedes-Maybach could see production in some form as a GLS, but the Oshan is mostly an interior design showcase for a family autonomous car, with seven seats, some swiveling, and a fixed rear couch for the old folks. Xiaogang Xu, president of Changan Oushang Automobile Institute, said that research reveals that Chinese consumers want a vehicle for safe family trips. “There are many big families in China,” he said. “This environmentally friendly design can give people a secure feeling.”
Mitsubishi’s plug-in hybrid concept was called the e-EVolution, originally seen in Tokyo. Renault's idea was a battery prototype that could front-load a wheelchair. You can't do that with an engine in front.
It just went on and on. If I see one more EV concept car, I’ll scream.