Electric car, the clash of civilizations

The electric car, revealing economic patriotism?

What is a Chinese electric car like? Another Chinese electric car. Especially if it’s an SUV.

An observation made by many observers since they are interested in the bountiful market for EVs in the Middle Kingdom country, and even more so if they have had the opportunity to survey the bays of some auto show over the past three years.

Lynk & Co 01, MG Marvel R, Aiways U5, XPeng G9, NIO ES8, Li One, GAC Aion LX Plus, and others have a bit of a family resemblance, whether it’s the line with the grilleless tapered front end and line-shaped LED lights, or the interior design and layout around a big centerpiece in style. Tesla screen, more or less successfully integrated into a necessarily minimalist panel (the term “dashboard” has never been more appropriate than since the arrival of the Model 3).

Design codes and technical design that do not exist by chance and that, in addition to the fashion effect, respond on the one hand to budgetary constraints (the single central screen is probably a source of monumental savings) and on the other to an obligation of efficiency if in fact it is possible to make an SUV a little more aerodynamic and lighter than a Norman cabinet that would have swallowed an entire family of anvils.

China, from cut and paste to innovation

But not only that. Chinese industry is gradually shedding its factory image of the world with counterfeiting and copying biases. low cost of which he was accused until recently, to gradually build a real reputation for creation and innovation. This has been happening for a few years in the field of high technology, where solid and innovative leaders have quickly established themselves (Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, Lenovo, TCL, DJI drones, etc.), and it seems that the automotive sector, whose growth is driven ( or more or less kept afloat) by electricity, is following suit.

It’s just that this country doesn’t have the design culture we know in Europe, or more broadly 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 yet another option of use for a clientele that most of the time doesn’t care about our sense of aesthetics and haute couture. As we have seen recently, China is moving away from the European model, and this is even more marked among the younger generations, the famous millennials, fully 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 touchscreen, the precision of an autonomous driving system, or the stripping down of a spaceship-like cabin than by the line or performance. It is true that this is an observation that can also be made among young Europeans or Americans who discovered the car with Tesla, but it is certainly even more significant among young Chinese, whose entire life is regulated by the smartphone and some applications that allow do everything. And without which nothing can be done.

In other words, for choosing a car in China, it is first the technology, the display and the apps, then the autonomy, and in the end, possibly, the look and the performance. Of course, this is a bit of a caricature, as some premium European brands like Porsche or Audi still score well there, but this mainly concerns the top of the range… and combustion engines. In terms of electrical, the mass seems to have run out: for the domestic market, the many local builders are leading the dance, with new brands that are almost unknown around here, and mostly brands born with and around electrical, including offices and studies. , therefore, they start from a blank page, which gives the advantage of not being “polluted by experience” as one of my former marketing professors put it.

In Europe, it is believed that the best soups are made in old pots.

On the other hand, old Europe, which experienced some failures at the beginning in terms of electrification, first relied on the existing ones 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 in the beginning – were just variations of thermal models, with the possible exception of the Zoé. , which benefited from its launch from its own platform and, again, was adapted from Clio.

And even though things have evolved today and dedicated platforms are developing at a rapid pace, European manufacturers have not drawn a line under their history and their thermal heritage, made up of design, performance and ‘Art of Living’. So many electric models are still just another line in a catalog where the same thermal and hybrid range meet. Some examples ? 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.

After all, it is perhaps within the VW group that the conversion to electrical energy is the most radical, with the construction in the mid-2010s of true dedicated platforms, which gave rise to “real” electrical innovations. Porsche Taycan, Audi e-tron and e-tron GT and even Volkswagen’s ID.3 4 and 5 series. Even 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. Only that it is manufactured in its own 100% electric MEB platform. And bam.

Models that, however, kept the DNA of the brands in question, as the Taycan evokes both the 911 and the Panamera, and the VW ID.3 is seen by some as “Electric Golf”.

So are Europeans right or wrong not to sweep away the past? It is difficult to imagine that, with the resources at their disposal, they have not invested in some market studies to guide their product strategy. The European consumer is not the Chinese consumer. Firstly, the average age of a new car buyer here is much higher than in China (52 versus 36!) and therefore probably sensitive to respect for a certain tradition that is found in the line and especially in the interior layout. , which even on the latest models remains relatively classic, except that screens too have replaced the good old analogue meters.

Desperately looking for new brands

Are European manufacturers the guardians of the Temple of the automobile? Perhaps, with the exception of exotic brands (Rimac?) nothing entirely new has really emerged in recent years. However, new brands are not just the prerogative of China. If we look at the American side, Silicon Valley’s unlimited funding capacity has allowed the emergence of new builders who are trying somehow to move from start-up status to credible, solid industrialists. One thinks, of course, of Tesla, who showed the voice (sometimes a bit full of traps) in the wake of which he swallowed Lucid, Rivian and other Fiskers, even if the game seems far from won for these brave challengers. In Europe, no Lucid, Rivian, Tesla or Aiways.

There remains the case of the Koreans, who discreetly and silently advance their pedestrians, and whose first forays into the all-electric model seem to be synonymous with success, both technically and commercially, but above all in terms of public and coastal reception. pioneers like Hyundai Kona or Kia e-Niro or their prestige children called Ioniq 5 or EV6. Manufacturers that end up representing a kind of link between China’s technological radicalism and a certain European tradition. That is, highly technological cars, but with a soul and a real pencil stroke that sets them apart from the crowd.

And then there’s the youngest, a challenger full of ambition (and means), who is neither Chinese nor Korean, neither European nor American, but who had the good idea of ​​joining forces with many players, and having his cars designed by Pininifarina and Torino, I mean the Vietnamese VinFast. No history, a first foray into the automobile only in 2018 in a technical partnership with BMW, and three electric SUVs that will arrive in Europe in the coming months, which do not resemble the Chinese production, and which have quite a lot.

Europe, China, everyone at home?

Are Chinese customers moving away from European manufacturers? It might be. It may be that European customers, or at least some of them, will 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 reviews here about a new Chinese model… or even a French car built in China.

The future of the automobile will be electric, now it is a certainty, but now it will have to count on one more player in the catalogue, China. The confrontation has already started with the US and Europe, and we are witnessing a real rupture 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, where everyone would stay home. A kind of de-globalization of the car, with totally different styles and approaches depending on whether you drive in Asia, America or Europe…

Or how buying a car can also become a political gesture of withdrawal. That said, the same thing was said in the 1980s with the emergence of Japanese cars. We know the rest… I’m not sure the stances are enough to fight an oncoming wave.

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