Fascinating, those Chinese car manufacturers, if you can call the startups they often are like that. Suddenly they are there or they announce their landing in Europe out of the blue, with brands you had never heard of until their first press release. Yet they have already gone through their pilot phase. The crucial question for the market whether the Dutch consumer is willing to embark on an adventure with unknown players without any brand prestige was given a clear answer last year: Yes, as long as it is affordable and electric.
How? Well, importer Van Mossel sold the MG ZS more than 2,200 times, Aiways Distribution Netherlands sold 428 U5s at the end of the year. That state subsidies and Van Mossel’s bonus stunt work stimulated the urge to buy is only additional evidence for the weight of the primary buying motives. Buyers bought the ZS because with its unbeatable value-for-money bonus it was the cheapest in its genre. I think that is the learning moment for market researchers.
More Chinese debutants are in the pipeline. Seres, Xpeng, Maxus, Nio, BYD, and MG under the Chinese car giant SAIC. The stock market prices of Nio, XPeng and Li Auto are currently sky high. They know the Silk Road to the Old Continent; first Norway, then the Netherlands.
If you take a closer look at those brands, you will see that they are almost all very young companies. BYD was founded in 2003, XPeng since 2014. Seres was founded in 2016, Aiways a year later. Only Hongqi, with more than fifty years of history, is a brand with some history. This apparently makes little difference to the development trajectory and the pace of evolution. You do your thing with capital and expertise. With one you buy the other, and then it can go very fast, especially with electric cars. After all, they make the development process a lot easier. In short: you buy motor and batteries, a solid design is printed in no time, the end product is screwed to an acceptable quality level on the instructions of Western experts. The Aiways, which I satisfactorily became acquainted with in December, did not even exist on paper four years ago.
You can draw two conclusions from what we see happening. Firstly, that creating a car with a big wallet has become a piece of cake. Secondly, that consumers, for the right price, have given up on the boldly expressed core values of the old guard; das Beste oder nichts or die Freude am Fahren. The MG and Aiways driver, like the Tesla buyer before, seem to care little to nothing about the pedigrees of their sacred cows. You have actually seen this trend since they bought phones from Samsung, TVs from LG and cars from Kia and Hyundai. But I didn’t think that status-sensitive products like the car would follow to that extent.
This development can have far-reaching consequences for existing industry. For what we are still posh brand value and may soon be an empty shell. And otherwise for the balance between east and west.
Let’s see first whether the newcomers live up to the favorable first impressions in the longer term. We just don’t know enough about them. On the other hand, we have already seen at Tesla how quickly and disruptively a small, new brand can strike. Moreover, unlike Musk, an instrument is used here that the Chinese have proven to use effectively; the pricing. And while European cuisine hasn’t been crushed by local Chinese either, the imminent massiveness of the Chinese EV invasion makes the accusation of economic imperialism seem like a matter of time. China is engaging the European market in a fierce trade war with potentially drastic consequences for the competitive position of European car manufacturers.
They can hardly complain about the Chinese. They are themselves fist-deep in the Chinese market for the same reason that the same China is now returning; There is something to be gained. But if shoppers continue to fall for more or less commonly packaged bargains of the week, and all signs so far indicate, the time may come when the auto lobby and politicians feel it is advisable to protect their industry from that advance. If you buy a packed Aiways for forty grand of the size for which BMW asks about thirty more, despite the obvious quality difference – but how big will that really be in five years in the rearview mirror? – a potential problem of no small scale. With all the potential collisions that entail.
Bas van Putten is a writer and columnist for various newspapers and magazines. His roots are in music, but his heart has been with cars for years.