Driving a Dozen Electric Cars in China Spells Trouble for Western Automakers

Exploring China’s Cutting-Edge EVs at the Beijing Auto Show: How are International Automakers Responding?

Over the recent months, the divide between the United States and China has rapidly widened. TikTok faces a potential ban unless it separates from its U.S. operations. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has stated that no options are off limits in dealing with an influx of inexpensive Chinese renewable energy exports. The Commerce Department is intensifying its enforcement on semiconductor shipments to Huawei.

Despite critics’ skepticism, China’s progress in enhancing its manufacturing capacities, particularly in the production and promotion of electric vehicles, is often questioned as not being authentic. Some argue that these developments are merely a result of a wealthy government seeking to assert its influence on the global stage.

I have had the opportunity to engage in discussions with individuals working in the automotive industry, as well as engineers and experts. A common belief among them is that China’s automotive sector is not environmentally friendly. They argue that the vehicles being pushed into the market are low-quality surveillance devices intended to harm American consumers if the Chinese Communist Party decides to deactivate them.

Critics argue that if China had a genuinely free market, Chinese consumers would still be buying Western cars in large numbers, and the decline in sales of their vehicles wouldn’t be so steep.

It would be overly simplistic to think that China is not influencing EV production. However, claiming that the triumph of China’s electric vehicle sector is solely due to an oppressive government coercing its people to purchase local products is a misguided and immature perspective.

I recently attended the Beijing Auto Show in China, which is considered the largest car industry event in the country. I was invited by the Geely Group, joining other international journalists for this experience. Throughout the week, I tested out over a dozen vehicles, observed many others, and engaged in numerous meaningful discussions. The true narrative goes beyond a simple “Us vs. Them” scenario; it sheds light on China’s excessive investment in electric cars, which are of subpar quality and are being pushed into the market.

The claim is inaccurate. Western car manufacturers are in trouble. Much of this situation can likely be attributed to their own mistakes.

I was aware that Shanghai was warm, but I don’t believe I fully grasped the extent of the Bund’s heat until I emerged from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport terminal.

Shanghai is situated at a similar latitude to New Orleans, and akin to its American counterpart in terms of geography, a large part of the city is surrounded by water, resulting in high humidity and marshy conditions. Feeling on edge and tired from traveling, I was sweating profusely, my shirt clinging uncomfortably to my back. Nonetheless, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I had successfully navigated through customs and passport control.

I found myself in a fresh environment that felt both strange and recognizable. The terminal was filled with well-known Western chains such as Peet’s Coffee and KFC, where Chinese locals and tourists from around the world lined up to enjoy variations of iced coffee and tea lattes, or indulged in tasty chicken sandwiches that surpassed the ones available back in my country.

Upon arriving at the airport, the initial vehicle I noticed in the arrivals and pickup area was a white Ford Explorer positioned in the middle of a pedestrian crossing; it felt as though I had not even departed Ohio. The car appeared strikingly similar to the one I had back home, except for the Chinese characters displayed on the rear hatch which indicated the collaboration between JMC and Ford that produced the crossover.

As soon as I shifted my gaze from the Explorer, it struck me how distinct everything appeared. The arrivals section was bustling like any airport in a major global city, yet the familiar sounds of engines and exhaust that I usually encountered back home or in Europe were noticeably absent.

The majority of vehicles in the pickup zone were green-plated “new energy vehicles,” manufactured by various brands such as BYD or Geely, and even Western companies like Buick and Chevrolet. The scene is quite remarkable: a country immersed in an electric car craze, as shown by the nearly silent crossovers, vans, and sedans zooming over speed bumps and maneuvering around pedestrians on their way to rideshare services, taxis, or public transportation.

After hearing and writing about certain cars only available in China, I was now able to witness them in reality. “Wow, there’s a Buick Velite 6; I’ve come across so much online buzz about them, they seem to be quite popular here in China. Particularly in the passenger pickup section,” I exclaimed to myself. Briefly, I pondered if the hype was exaggerated. Was the enthusiasm for Western vehicles still prevalent in China?

Certainly, it would be hasty to reach such a conclusion just after five minutes in China, but the abundance of Buicks seemed contradictory to the notion that I had heard that there was no desire for Western brands, especially their electric vehicles.

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During my visit to China, I had the opportunity to tour Geely’s global headquarters in Hangzhou and participate in various discussions with executives from Geely’s different brands. Following that, we traveled to Beijing to attend an auto show for a day and spent another full day at a racetrack testing out over twelve vehicles, showcasing the newest models from all of Geely Holding Group’s brands excluding Volvo and Polestar.

We undertook a journey from Shanghai to Hangzhou using the famous Hangzhou Bay Bridge, a drive lasting more than two hours. I sat in the rear of a Zeekr 009, a vehicle I had previously tested on a racetrack in the United States. I was aware of its speed and impressive cornering abilities, although that wasn’t its primary purpose.

The Zeekr 009 belongs to a premium MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) category predominantly found in Asia, which is arguably dominated by China. Rather than opting for Cadillac Escalades or Lincoln Navigators, chauffeurs in black cars prefer models such as the Buick GL8, Toyota Alphard, Denza D9, Voyah Dreamer, and the Zeekr 009.

In the given circumstances, the Zeekr 009 seemed right at home. This wasn’t an inexpensive vehicle. I estimate that the particular one I rode in would have cost over $80,000, yet the 009 exuded a sense of sophistication far beyond that of the previous Escalade or Navigator rental cars available at a similar price point. It wasn’t just about the luxurious interior of the 009, with its tiger wood accents, plush Alcantara headliner, genuine metal finishes, and top-notch airline-style middle captain’s chairs that provided both cooling and massage functions, nearly lulling me to sleep unexpectedly. The 009 resembled a sleek Rolls-Royce with sliding doors, which made it clear why it was a favored choice among Chinese businessmen.

Displayed at the headquarters’ visitors’ center were demonstrations of their most recent vehicle models. Among them were top-tier models from Zeekr and Lynk & Co, designed to compete with brands such as Acura or Audi.

Some options were more traditional, such as Geely’s Galaxy subbrand, designed for Chinese consumers who are mindful of value and have moderate incomes. This subbrand might also be rebranded as Protons in countries like Malaysia.

Regardless of the cost, each one felt remarkably persuasive. These are advanced, meticulously designed devices in a manner that I had not encountered before from European or American makers.

For instance, consider the Geely Galaxy E8, which is comparable in size and price to the Honda Accord. This fully electric vehicle shares the Sustainable Experience Architecture platform with certain Polestar models. The E8 features an interior equipped with a wide 4K OLED display that acts as a central control panel for all the car’s operations. While some may critique the E8 for relying solely on a screen interface, it is important not to underestimate the capabilities of this display.

Using the interface is comparable to looking at a television screen or a top-notch gaming monitor. The design gives off a sense of purpose and precision; crucial information like speed and gear position can be quickly viewed, while the HVAC and stereo buttons are conveniently accessible and not hidden deep within numerous menus. The display is highly responsive, promptly registering inputs with minimal delay similar to that of a premium smartphone.

Displayed on the screen is an animated scene of the vehicle amidst a vast ocean, with a view of a majestic mountain range in the background. The atmosphere is vibrant and aesthetically pleasing, giving the impression that the interior of the Galaxy E8 resembles a redesigned living area rather than a typical car seat.

I was pleasantly surprised. However, upon my arrival at the car exhibition, I quickly discovered that I had not yet witnessed the full extent of the amazing displays.

Fortunately, Beijing is located over 700 miles away from the mild Shanghai-Hangzhou region, and its position further inland provided a relatively cooler climate. Regrettably, Beijing’s traffic proved to be significantly worse than that of Shanghai. Despite our departure from the hotel at 8:30 a.m., it took us over an hour and a half to cover just nine miles to reach the New China International Expo Center.

The exhibition was bustling, completely different from the deserted car exhibitions back in their home country during the press preview days. People were everywhere I turned: influencers, Chinese journalists, international journalists. It was evident that China had not received the message that these events were no longer popular.

Later on, I discovered that the car exhibition showcased over 100 debuts of new models and concepts. This is a significant contrast to the previous Detroit Auto Show in September, where only one entirely new model was unveiled. The other two models were updated versions of existing cars that were already available. None of them were electric vehicles.

In China, the exhibition hall was packed with brand new electric vehicles from all local car manufacturers. Each of them aimed to showcase their capabilities, and they were certainly making an effort. There were numerous models on display from various brands, many of which were just as impressive as the ones I had seen from Geely the previous day.

A majority of brands featured doors that closed with a satisfying thud, incorporating soft-touch materials in the appropriate areas based on the vehicle’s pricing. Regardless of the price range, all models boasted responsive vehicle interfaces that were fast, attractive, and consistent.

An entry-level entertainment system in a reasonably priced Chinese electric vehicle outperforms the systems found in cars costing six figures.

There are explanations for this phenomenon, primarily because Chinese electric vehicles have greatly improved, along with a substantial part of its city infrastructure. As a result, worries about range or charging are no longer as relevant to the ordinary consumer as they used to be.

Representatives of Zeekr stated that the brand now needs to find methods to appeal to customers that are not based on range or charging speed. In fact, the entire Chinese automotive sector faces a similar challenge. Consequently, all local brands (as well as some international ones) have formed partnerships with Chinese technology firms, working closely together to determine the best course of action.

Indeed, China boasts a plethora of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers. Perhaps an overwhelming number of them. However, many of these brands represent collaborations between the country’s automotive firms and its technology companies.

Consider JiYue, a joint venture between Geely and Baidu, frequently referred to as China’s equivalent of Google. With its integrated services and vision-based autonomous driving technology, JiYue boasts a car resembling Tesla’s Full Self-Driving model on the streets, with Tesla poised to enter the market. Alternatively, there’s IM Motors, a luxury brand born from a partnership between SAIC and the e-commerce titan Alibaba.

Next, we have the Unity Smart Mobility Coalition, a partnership involving BAIC, Chery (also known as Luxeed), Aito, and Changan, along with tech powerhouse Huawei. Huawei has the option to assist in the design and promotion of the vehicles, or provide comprehensive in-car solutions for the infotainment system using Harmony OS, which is also utilized in their smartphones.

Then, there is Xiaomi, a company known for producing phones that ventured into creating their own vehicle. In contrast to Apple, Xiaomi successfully accomplished this endeavor, resulting in a highly advanced product that has garnered global attention.

No matter the style, these models are extremely interconnected, equipped with top-of-the-line processors and technology designed to attract sophisticated Chinese consumers.

From my observation, it was clear why there was such a high turnout at the Chinese local brands. The booth of Li Auto was constantly crowded with people lining up to catch a glimpse of their L6 compact PHEV crossover, which was unveiled at the exhibition.

Even at the present time, Changan’s latest models, such as the L9 and Mega MPV, attracted attention from both Chinese and international media outlets who closely examined the vehicles. The Ford Maverick-sized convertible coupe SUV with a bed by Changan remained surrounded by crowds throughout the entire event. Xiaomi’s SU7 had a lengthy two-hour queue for visitors wanting to see it. Several foreign journalists eventually gave up attempting to catch a glimpse of the car.

Western companies did not experience the same level of enthusiasm.

During the model launch events, all the press briefings were conducted in Chinese, and there wasn’t always a translator available. Whenever possible, I roamed about, eager to absorb more information during my time in China.

The initial booth I came across was Buick’s. It showcased two GM Ultium-derived designs, the Electra L and Electra LT. Additionally, they introduced a PHEV edition of their well-known GL8 van. However, there was a surprising absence of people. Despite it being only 10 a.m. on the opening day of the Beijing Auto Show, with the two concepts revealed earlier that morning, there were only a few onlookers at the Buick booth. There was a lack of details on either concept, and it appeared that no one was interested.

2025 Mazda EZ-6 FirstLook Walkaround—2024 Beijing Motor Show

Similar situation applies to the rest of the Asian manufacturers. The most recent release by Mazda, the EZ-6 (although not actually a true Mazda but rather a redesigned version of the Changan Deepal SL03), attracted attention from typical influencers and journalists who created brief walkaround videos for their platforms. However, interest quickly waned, with many shifting focus to other topics. The same can be said for Toyota’s bZ3x and bZ3c models nearing production.

“Chinese consumers are not particularly interested in abstract ideas,” explained Will Sundin of the online show China Driven. “They prefer products that they can purchase and use immediately.” While we strolled, he went on to explain why Western companies were struggling in the Chinese market. Sundin attributed this in part to the slow pace at which Western brands were transitioning to electrification, as well as their tendency to offer subpar software and products with only average value.

Chevrolet displayed the Equinox EV preproduction prototypes that were showcased at the LA Auto Show in 2022. Initially, both vehicles were secured and not accessible for detailed examination by the general audience until a third model appeared on the following day of the exhibition.

Additionally, the Equinox EV has not yet been released for sale. In contrast, Li Auto’s L6 was already on display and ready for purchase at Li Auto stores prior to its official debut at the Beijing Auto Show. Li Auto reports having received 40,000 orders for the PHEV model.

What is the reason for the Equinox EV not being available for purchase?

We further investigated the exhibition center, but finally returned to the Buick booth. I settled into the driver’s seat of the Buick Velite 6, an electric wagon that had caught my eye all over Shanghai. Later, I learned from four different sources, including Sundin, that the Velite 6 is heavily discounted and bought in large quantities by Chinese drivers working for rideshare companies.

This vehicle is popular among fleet buyers due to its affordability and accessibility, rather than its desirability. This poses a challenge for the brand, as it hinders efforts to maintain market share and increase selling prices.

After just five seconds of settling into the driver’s seat of the Velite 6, the reason became clear to me. Sundin quickly noticed my sense of letdown.

“It’s a bit mediocre, isn’t it?” he remarked. And he was absolutely correct. I couldn’t overlook the underwhelming experience. The Velite 6 seemed like an electric adaptation of an outdated Chevy Malibu.

The contrast in quality, connectivity, and value between the Velite 6 and any similar mid-range Chinese EV models I had encountered that day was striking. When compared, the Velite 6’s compact screens and dull grey plastic interior seemed quite dismal in comparison to the expansive, vibrant screens found in most Chinese EVs.

The Buick Electra E4, powered by GM Ultium, showed some progress in the right direction, but ultimately fell short of competing with the high-end Chinese brands it was targeting. Recognizing this, GM reduced the pricing of the Electra E4 in China twice even before a pricing battle began.

“Well, at least you folks in the United States will have some new PHEV options to consider, such as the upcoming Buick GL8 van, correct?” Sundin inquired.

I informed him, “In the United States, we actually do not receive any GM PHEV models. We only have a few GM Ultium-based EVs, and they are not performing very well.”

I felt ashamed. In China, I found myself sympathizing with Western companies, believing they were being excluded from the market because of political reasons and circumstances beyond their control.

In truth, it seemed reminiscent of the late 1980s all over again, when American companies were pushing mediocre models onto consumers without much effort. After witnessing the innovation coming out of China, it appears that Western manufacturers, especially those in America, are lacking in comparison.

During a recent broadcast of his podcast, Better Offline, author and podcaster Ed Zitron made an intriguing observation. Americans often feel compelled to justify their choices regarding Big Tech. Whether it’s a corporate executive or an ambitious entrepreneur, there seems to be a trend of pushing subpar products or services that fail to meet consumer needs.

When consumers choose to disregard a subpar or undesirable product, a recent trend in the tech industry is to fault the customers for lacking intelligence, instead of acknowledging that the product itself was simply not up to par. For instance, consider the numerous AI-powered gadgets that fail to deliver on their promises.

The car industry shares a similar sentiment. Instead of making an effort to comprehend and cater to the demands of the Chinese market, automakers prefer to simply push the vehicles they want to manufacture. In contrast, Chinese car manufacturers appear to have put in more effort to grasp the preferences of Chinese consumers.

Chinese customers were in demand for smart cars with large screens, and automakers successfully found a solution to incorporate this feature seamlessly.

The potential ban on TikTok in the United States seems to mirror China’s challenges with exporting electric cars. I am a user of TikTok and have a good comprehension of its functionality. I acknowledge that there are numerous legitimate criticisms regarding the platform’s dissemination of misinformation and the negative impact of its infinite scrolling feature on mental well-being, particularly for its younger audience.

However, a lot of the discussion surrounding the ban on TikTok fails to recognize a crucial point: The platform is exceptionally well-designed. The algorithm of TikTok is outstanding; it has the ability to curate an endless feed of content that is engaging, upbeat, entertaining, and almost uncannily tailored to each individual user. I have witnessed TikTok’s incredible influence in propelling music artists like PinkPantheress to fame, as well as rejuvenating the careers of established artists such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Kate Bush, propelling them back onto the music charts.

TikTok’s environment may not be flawless, but it is significantly more wholesome compared to the toxic atmospheres fostered by Meta, Google, and Twitter. These platforms have gradually deteriorated with excessive censorship, making them unfriendly and less valuable for users. Instagram Reels, in particular, suffers from such inadequate content moderation that occurrences of literal deaths being broadcasted are not rare.

When car manufacturers, technology firms, and regulators resist China, their claims of safeguarding our market against unsafe or security-compromised products seem insincere. It comes across as mere showmanship, revealing a reluctance to strive for improvement.

Rather than engaging in competition, their preference is to completely eliminate any competition. The cybersecurity issues raised fail to acknowledge the obvious truth: Your product is inferior in comparison to what China is currently offering. It falls short in terms of performance, craftsmanship, aesthetics, and connectivity.

Western car manufacturers have not closely collaborated with technology firms to benefit the consumer, whether in China or elsewhere. They failed to take a leading position in creating a battery supply network like China did. Moreover, they don’t appear interested in satisfying the demands of the Chinese market, or any market for that matter, by regularly updating and adapting their product offerings.

Even Tesla in China seems uninterested in updating one of its key offerings, the Model Y, in this highly competitive market. Instead, the company depends on tactics that damage its profit margins to sell cars, such as frequent price reductions, offering trade-in incentives at a subsidized rate, and providing 0% financing to persuade customers to purchase a vehicle that is outdated and no longer competitive.

Tesla was notably absent from the Beijing Auto Show. During the event, Elon Musk briefly visited Beijing solely to discuss his transition to robotaxis with government representatives. It appears as though he may have already lost interest in selling cars in this region.

After Volkswagen released its ID series vehicles, it faced backlash from both journalists and buyers due to justified criticism of its subpar software interface. Nissan, on the other hand, managed to sell almost as many gas-powered Sylphy (Sentra) sedans in China as Tesla did with its Model Y crossovers. However, when transitioning to electric vehicles, Nissan took a different approach by placing a Sylphy body over the outdated 38 kWh Nissan Leaf platform. This resulted in issues such as slow charging, restricted range, and high pricing.

GM missed the mark once again. Prior to the unveiling of a PHEV model at the Beijing Auto Show, the GL8 was one of the sole vans in its category lacking plug-in features. Green-labeled New Energy cars hold significance in the Chinese market, as do high-end vans. Why weren’t car manufacturers from the West taking note? Why didn’t GM accelerate the release of an electric vehicle?

When does the responsibility switch from Chinese economic strategy to the choices made by the car manufacturers themselves? How valid are accusations that China is favoring its EV sector at the expense of Western companies who have misunderstood the preferences of Chinese consumers and failed to develop products they desired? How did they become so overconfident in assuming that China would continue to purchase their cheaper Peugeots, Citroens, Chevrolets, and revamped Volkswagens and Buicks indefinitely? Why didn’t we support our electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors with subsidies like China did?

I won’t dishonestly claim that Chinese EV factories are being fully utilized, or that the car market isn’t overcrowded with some brands likely not making it. Undeniably, there are numerous worries regarding China’s questionable human rights reputation and the questionable origins of certain raw materials; criticism is aimed at both domestic and international Chinese brands for these issues.

Although the Beijing Auto Show was quite remarkable, there was a sense of urgency present. A few of the lesser-known brands I encountered seemed to be in a rush and didn’t immediately recognize that I was a member of the international press. They mistakenly believed that I was a potential distributor interested in forming an agreement to ship vehicles to a non-U.S. market in hopes of achieving success.

Certain social media influencers who had no prior association with the automotive sector were live streaming and sharing content on Chinese social platforms to showcase new car releases, aiming to attract an audience that isn’t typically interested in cars. The previously prohibited “car babes” at Chinese car exhibitions have somewhat returned, indicating a need for increased visibility and sales that may be lacking.

Nevertheless, those concerns seem less significant. Even if China were to address its excess production capacity problems and comply with all the requests from Europe and the U.S. regarding its electric vehicle (EV) industry, China would still possess innovative, high-quality, and captivating EVs. One could argue that it might emerge even more efficient and robust.

If the U.S. and Europe achieve their goal of restricting Chinese imports, it may not lead to the production of superior cars. Rather, it might mean that consumers in those regions are limited to vehicles that are not as well-designed. This protectionist stance is evident because Western auto industry leaders and certain China skeptics are aware that Chinese EV and PHEV models are more appealing compared to what European, Asian, and American manufacturers offer.

I have witnessed it firsthand. We are in trouble.

For inquiries, reach out to the writer at kevin.williams@insideevs.com.

Illustration credit goes to Sam Woolley.This guide was specifically crafted to assist users in choosing the finest products available on the market. Our team of experts conducted thorough research and analysis to compile this list of recommendations. We hope you find it helpful in making informed purchasing decisions.

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