How good are Chinese electric cars

Junk goods, theft of ideas, design plagiarism: the prejudices against Chinese car brands are great. Tesla has long since set a precedent in China - and has shown how the old automakers can be beaten. "Fully electric, fully equipped, fully suitable for everyday use," Aiways now also trumps in this country. The new U5 SUV boldly brushes aside all concerns about e-mobility. With a starting price of 36,000 euros, it is not only cheaper than a VW ID 4, but also better equipped.

The most important component is the battery. In comparison, the Aiways basic model offers more capacity than the pure version of the VW crossover (63 instead of 52 kWh). Since the practical consumption of both models is less than 20 kWh, the standard range of the Chinese of 410 kilometers is optimistic. In any case, the U5 SUV goes further than the basic model from Salzgitter with a 345-kilometer WLTP radius.

The U5 scores top marks in the fully equipped "premium version": With large, two-tone 19-inch aluminum wheels, a panoramic glass roof, "Glacier White" leather upholstery and much more, the Stromer drives for around 39,000 euros. Minus the state subsidy and manufacturer premium of up to 9480 euros, the price breaker from China does not have to shy away from any comparison. The 4.68 meter long city SUV with 150 kW (204 hp) not only looks classy, ​​but also as spacious as a car in the next higher class.

Premium instead of cheap cars and bad replicas - the new wave from China wants to be an international leader. The Chinese car manufacturer Nio has just landed its first electric vehicles in Norway. Founder William Li wants to challenge the German top dogs in their homeland from next year. His ace in the auto quartet is the upcoming ET7. The chic sedan was not only designed by previous BMW designers, but will also use the same Nvidia platforms for infotainment and highly automated driving as Mercedes from 2022.

The quick counterattack from China surprised. Quite a few of the celebrated start-ups and stock market stars were almost broke last year. Nio struggled to get a billion euros in fresh capital. At the beginning of this year, Nio was suddenly worth more than BMW or Daimler. The German brands including the Volkswagen Group sold over a third of their vehicles - 5.4 of 14.6 million - in China in 2020. And Nio is still not working profitably. Tesla also took its time with the black numbers. It is precisely this comparison that heats up the market value - and is now financing the rapid expansion of the Chinese into Europe.

"The European market is booming compared to China," enthuses Aiways founder Samuel Fu in an interview with the Handelsblatt. In China the subsidy policy is being scaled back, in Europe things are only just getting started. "Europe is the better market to start a company like ours," says Fu. The manager has worked in leading positions for Volkswagen FAW, Audi and Skoda. Most recently, he was head of Volvo China before founding Aiways with a business partner in 2017. This year the company plans to sell 10,000 cars abroad - more than in the highly competitive Chinese market.

The European manufacturers, that much is certain, do not want to surrender their home market without a fight. At the trade fair in Shanghai, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and VW caused a worldwide sensation with their electric comeback a few weeks ago. After severe transformation pain, the Germans are now clearly committed to "electric first". And the market development proves them right: While in 2019 over 80 percent of all new electric vehicles worldwide were sold in China, Europe was almost on par with around 1.4 million electric vehicles last year. By 2030, over nine million electric vehicles are expected to be sold in China each year. The annual market growth of 24 percent is the best worldwide. According to a McKinsey forecast, almost six million new e-mobiles will be in the hands of customers in the EU by the end of the decade.

The growth euphoria in the Far East explains at least in part the hype surrounding the Chinese automakers and their self-confident appearance in Europe. Because with rapidly growing quantities and intense competition, the development progress around e-mobility also increases. In addition, the new Chinese brands are aggressively driving the digitization of the car. The Aiways U5 is characterized "by a high level of connectivity and artificial intelligence", explains the manufacturer and refers, among other things, to the facial recognition, which sounds the alarm if the driver shows signs of fatigue. In fact, the heavily advertised "smartphone on wheels" has a second-class display and control system that offers little information and setting options. And that is not the only disillusionment.

Is it all just a beautiful appearance? When it rains, the Aiways U5 drives like on soft soap

Anyone who believed that all electric cars drive similarly will see themselves wrong. Driven front wheels have long been standard on combustion models on this side of 200 hp. Why the electric competitors Audi Q4 e-tron and VW ID 4 still have powered rear wheels, you will understand after an extensive test drive with the Aiways U5 at the latest. Even when the road is dry, the Chinese cheerfully rubs off when the traffic lights start; The rather loose contact with the ground in damp weather becomes a cause for concern: Is the car already sliding or not yet? The steering gives only very vague feedback about this.

The reason for the slide is easy to explain: With their high pulling power from the first turn, electric motors on the front axle cause the wheels to spin. Finally, the tires also have to transmit the steering forces. With the U5, this double burden can be experienced live on the motorway in rain and crosswinds. The motorist is already fully challenged at 120 km / h on a straight road. Because the car drives as if on soft soap, the spongy steering and the soft suspension tuning make the journey with the loaded high-roof car a bogus ride.

Do you enjoy electric driving? The constant readjustment that is necessary is annoying, and artificial intelligence doesn't help either. The constant small direction corrections are accompanied by the penetrating beeping and ringing of the lane departure warning and speed limit assistant, which sounds the alarm if it ticks too much. The warning that the seat belt is not on in the back seat is also irritating. Nobody sits there, the folded backrest just presses on the rear seats. Loading under the low swinging tailgate was only possible with a retracted head for a person who was 1.85 meters tall. The payload of just 310 kg is no small matter, as family and luggage are already in short supply.

The green banana principle: Tesla is a master at allowing unfinished products to ripen at customers' sites. But the drive to be a test driver for a young, up-and-coming automotive company diminishes with age. Why should one at Aiways bother with the holey sales and service network when the brands of the Volkswagen Group are now launching new electric models on the market every quarter? Sure, the lean direct sales via "up to 30" electrical retailers from Euronics saves money, and e-cars are less maintenance-intensive. But the new models from China cannot avoid typical teething troubles either. You can already see that from the crash test result: With three stars, the Aiways is on par with the cheap brand Dacia. Modern and innovative is different.

Nevertheless, the German manufacturers cannot lean back. Tesla has shown how quickly a start-up can make up for the lack of experience and then overtake in new fields of technology. While Aiways doesn't really offer anything new, Nio could not only keep up in terms of digitization, but also in terms of autonomous driving and solid-state batteries. The German manufacturers are bitterly fighting against a leading digital company like Google / Waymo and trying to keep the operating system of their vehicles under control. The new Chinese automakers, on the other hand, have numerous partnerships with the leading tech companies in this huge country. The inventors of the car will have a hard time against this concentrated software power.