I clung for life to my translator as we spun in circles through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, trying to take in the sheer madness of the . An American can catch a few familiar sights; there’s a Chevy Volt, but branded as the Buick Velite 5 in China, a place where Buick remains a premium brand. I spy a Toyota Camry, but here it’s called a “Levin” and is a plug-in hybrid. Mostly, the New International Exhibition Center abounds with a kaleidoscope of mysterious vehicles displayed by the 80 or so Chinese brands such as Dongfeng, Chang’an, SAIC Motor, and First Automotive Works.
The chaos within the car show mimics the madness without. The streets of Beijing are clogged with L.A.-style gridlock all hours of the day. While Americans now buy about 17 million new cars and trucks per year, Chinese drivers purchased 22 million in 2017, a number that may rise to 29 million in 2018.
Volume isn’t the only way China represents an alternative automotive universe, either. The Chinese car universe is not governed by the whims of buyers, the way Americans’ evolving tastes have pushed car companies to leap into increasingly bulbous crossovers. Facing a crisis of congestion and air pollution—and desiring an industrial advantage in building electric cars—President Xi Jinping and his transportation ministers are enforcing a quota on Chinese automakers that 10 percent of car sales be EVs and plug-in hybrids by 2019. That number is expected to increase to 25 percent by 2025—which means multiples of millions of EVs.
In places like Beijing, license plates are acquired in a lottery system that can delay the purchase of a vehicle for several years or prevent its use at designated times or on odd/even days. On the other hand, electric cars can be more readily acquired, driven whenever, and come at government-incentivized low prices.
Add it up and you can see why the floor of the Beijing auto show featured a remarkable 175 , nearly three-quarters of which are domestically produced. The shape and size of those battery-powered models—and their unlikely features—reveals a lot about how China will grant driving privileges to its population of 1.4 billion people.
Electric People Pods
The day after my visit to Auto China 2018, I took a bus 25 miles northwest of Beijing to the Keizer Motorsport Experience Center. That’s where I drove about a dozen Chinese cars, seven of which were all-electric. There was the Smart-knockoff Zotye Zhima EZ, and the Zhidou D2S, a Fiat 500-ish two-seater but even smaller. Some of them reminded me of the golf-cart-like EVs we had in America a decade ago in the days before the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S.
My favorite Chinese electric subcompact was the Motor-Lite two-passenger car, branded as “BAIC” based on its production at the Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. Released last fall, it might match your preconceptions of a Chinese car—small, cramped, and underpowered with its 36-kilowatt (48-horsepower) motor.
The Motor-Lite is available locally (with subsidy) for the equivalent of around $15,000. Without a doubt, it has shortcomings, such as an overreliance on chintzy plastic materials. The rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration meant that stepping on the accelerator made the front end tip up—just as it dipped when stomping the brake.
But the electric coupe was fun, stylish, and loaded with advanced features such as LED daytime running lights, a large LED text display on the front fascia (to flash messages to road denizens), and an LCD dashboard made for social-media interaction. To me, this is the connected, mobility device that Google could have made if it wasn’t focused on autonomous autos.
Small Car, Big Brother
The Motor-Lite reminded me of the more capable Sitech DEV1 that I saw the day before at the Beijing motor show. Get this: You start it up via face-recognition like an iPhone X.
Sitech is the EV brand of First Automotive Works (FAW), one of China’s “Big Four” automakers. The company, which made an appearance at the most recent CES in Las Vegas, is one of about 20 Chinese-backed EV start-ups with facilities in California. The DEV1, also available for about $15,000, is the first of three cars to be built by Sitech as a dedicated all-electric shared vehicle.
Sitech is based in Guiyang, located in the Guizhou province of southwest China. There are tens of thousands of cameras on Guiyang streets, which reportedly use algorithms to locate any individual in about two minutes. Privacy concerns notwithstanding, such a system could achieve an extraordinarily efficient multimodal mobility network made up of small electric cars and shared bicycles.
In Guiyang, Sitech is partnered with Mobike, the world’s first and largest stationless bike-share service. Mobikes are omnipresent (often in massive heaps) on the streets of Beijing. Sitech intends for its three vehicles, shared bicycles, and big data to roll up into a single integrated mobility service. Ideally, it will work like above-ground four-wheel public transit to create a coordinated free flow of traffic instead of the gridlock that currently exists. The project received about $1 billion in government funding.
Not Far Behind
These smaller mobility devices should not give you the impression that Chinese manufacturers are not making real progress with the kinds of refinements American consumers have come to expect. Case in point: The most impressive EV that I drove at Beijing’s Keizer Motorsport track was the just-released Denza 500, a stunning 280-mile all-electric SUV.
BAIC is once again the manufacturer, but the Denza brand is a tie-up between Daimler (the maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles) and BYD (the Chinese EV and battery-making giant backed by Warren Buffet). By the way, Geely—another Chinese carmaker—has a 10-percent stake in Daimler, and is the outright owner of Volvo.
The Denza 500, offered at around $50,000, shows all the signs of Daimler’s involvement. Its 180-horsepower motor provided plenty of zip, especially when set in Sport mode. The trademark electric-seat controls, leather finishing, elegant LED headlight treatment, and clean interior interfaces were steps ahead of the other electric (and gas) cars that I drove in China.
The Denza 500 engineers even employed the heavy brake regeneration that reclaims as much energy as possible by quickly slowing the car when you lift your foot off the pedals. That’s the gold standard for sophisticated EVs in the U.S. Any slight deficiencies in refinement—the cabin could have been quieter—appeared to be fixable in short order and with minor expense.
The quite-nice Denza 500 and other vehicles revealed the current state of Chinese car quality. A fellow car writer on the trip to Beijing, Seyth Miersma, told me, “I expected Chinese cars to be a decade behind what we're used to driving. They’re not.” Miersma, the executive editor of Motor1, an online publication for highly discriminating performance-oriented auto enthusiasts, believes the Chinese might be one generation away—commonly a four- to five-year period.
Besides, Chinese carmakers (and their global partners) don’t need to satisfy finicky American consumers—given the giant opportunity to serve a nation of first-time drivers who don’t have the same expectations. At the same time, the shift to electrification will allow them to leapfrog the incumbent makers of internal-combustion vehicles. If and when Made-in-China cars reach our shores can be left an open question for now. But it’s clear that the alternative universe of Chinese that I witnessed last week is perfectly fine obeying its own rules, even as it slowly pulls the rest of the transportation world into its orbit.