The stereotype of Chinese cars being poorly styled, terribly made shitboxes was definitely based in reality at one point, but how many of y’all have actually had firsthand experience with modern Chinese vehicles? I found myself at the 2022 Paris Auto Show with the chance to get some real-world seat time with Chinese cars we don’t get in the U.S. I wanted to see, truly, if fat meat was greasy; are Chinese OEMs as good (or as bad) as everyone says? One of China’s largest automakers, BYD, let me look at, sit in and even drive one of its EV offerings, the BYD Atto 3. Let me tell you something right now: Every western automaker should be scared of what BYD is capable of in the EV space.
An acronym for “Build Your Dreams,” BYD started out making rechargeable batteries for cell phones and other electronics in the early ‘90s. The brand pivoted to making cars 2003, beginning with cloned Toyota models powered by old Mitsubishi engines from the late 1980s. BYD managed to rise from the 13th-largest automaker in China to the top three in a single year, and has backing from such big-name investors as Warren Buffet.
BYD, along with other Chinese efforts like Geely and Chery, began exhibiting at Western auto shows starting around the 2008 Great Recession, showing products that looked pretty bad. BYD itself pulled some funny stunts, like its chairman driving around Cobo Hall in a BYD F3 DM prototype at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but let’s be real — a stunt couldn’t distract from what was clearly a shitty Toyota Corolla clone.
BYD’s efforts are decidedly not shit anymore. At all.
At this year’s Paris Auto Show, the brand’s aspirations for the Western market were clear. BYD displayed a handful of production and production-intent vehicles, along with other Chinese EV brands like Wey, Ora, Leapmotor, and Seres. Out of all of the brands, BYD had the most attractive, well-finished products.
First up, the BYD Han. Part of BYD’s “Dynasty” series, the Han is the company’s flagship model, and comes in either EV or PHEV form. Named after the Han dynasty, one of China’s golden ages that ran roughly from 206 BCE to 220 CE, the Han looks opulent and impressive.
There are plenty of interiors and exteriors that photograph well, but aren’t very nice to use. The Han’s interior quality is more than surface-level; it’s both a well-made and good-looking car inside, with materials that at least appeared to rival efforts from Genesis or BMW. The doors close with a solid thunk, and the door handle pulls are well-weighted and damped in a way that would put some legitimate luxury automakers to shame. The headliner is coated in crushed Alcantara or velvet, not sure, and all of the plastics were of the soft-touch variety.
Also on display was the BYD Seal. The Seal is part of BYD’s Ocean series, a mid-tier full EV lineup that includes the reasonably priced BYD Dolphin. It may be a little Tesla Model 3-ish, but a lot of EV sedans are. However you feel about the styling, the panel gap consistency and overall impression of quality and tightness were impressive on the Seal.
Most important of all is the BYD Atto 3, known as “Yuan Plus” in its home market. Physically, the Atto 3 would be nearly tit-for-tat the same size and shape as the Chevy Bolt EUV. Its small-SUV design would likely resonate with North American buyers way more than the sleek but decidedly sedan-shaped Han and Seal.
While the Bolt EUV is a competent EV, it’s just kind of boring. That’s the case for damn near every EV these days; they’re all kind of over-serious, joyless boxes. The BYD Atto 3 is fun to look at, inside and out.
On the outside, a well-styled, handsome exterior forms the BYD Atto 3’s sheetmetal. It’s way better than the old Yuan/Yuan Plus, which was a cloned Ford Ecosport. There are so many interesting details on the Atto 3’s exterior, like the weird and cool double-helix taillight details, or the fun bumpy surfacing on the silver-trimmed D-pillar.
Inside, the weirdness and attention to detail continue. The main dashboard form is said to be inspired by muscle fibers, with sinewy detailing and disconcertingly organic striations behind the freestanding speedometer and main infotainment screen. The door map pockets look to be inspired by a guitar; there are three integrated bungee cords in contrasting colors to hold back all the goodies placed inside. It’s novel, and as a result, it imbues the car with personality and charisma where so many EVs from other brands are about as welcoming as the waiting room of Yelp’s lowest-rated proctologist. Most importantly, though, the interior quality was threateningly high.
I had a great time pawing around the BYD Atto 3 and Han, and I was pretty content to leave it at that. Then I walked outside to learn that BYD was offering test drives of both models. Using a mixture of giggling, pointing, a few words lost in translation, and hand signals, the concierge set me up for a 20-minute drive around Paris in a BYD Atto 3.
As enthralled as I was with the styling and quality, I am a pragmatic person with a slight pessimistic streak. I fully expected to be disappointed by the dynamics of the BYD Atto 3. But no — driving the Atto 3 kept that same impressive energy that the design, interior quality, and fit and finish promised.
The BYD Atto 3’s powertrain isn’t anything special. A single electric motor good for 204 horsepower sends power to the front wheels, fed by a 63.8-kWh battery good for a range of either 200 or 260 miles, depending if you trust WTLP or NEDC estimates.
I was surprised to find a car that was smooth and downright pleasant to drive. Even on chaotic Parisian roads, the Atto 3 felt at home. The little EV felt adequately quick, and the steering was well-weighted with solid feel. The ride was a little stiffer than I think I’d like in this type of vehicle, but in the grand scheme of things, I’ve driven cars with both firmer and softer suspension setups that weren’t as well resolved as the BYD’s.
Many have accused the EV driving experience of being boring as hell, at best, but BYD found a way to make it an event. The low-speed pedestrian sound is sing-songy, reminiscent of the soft guitar background of the Playstation 4 boot menu. The turn signals make different sounds; a dual-tone lilting bell chime plays one tune for left-hand turns and reverses the order of the tones for right turns. The freestanding infotainment screen can be rotated from landscape to portrait, and the apps follow suit. It’s a very well-considered, thoughtful car that’s snappy and easy to use. BYD’s attention to detail drove a nail into my frontal lobe; the car exudes interesting, charismatic energy I haven’t seen in a mainstream vehicle in a long time. The Atto 3 makes even the most basic functions into curious, whimsical experiences. I couldn’t help but smile as we happily blinged and blonged around Paris.
Obviously, range and charging abilities weren’t really something I could ascertain from a 15-minute drive at the Paris Auto Show. Still, in that very tiny window, I came away incredibly impressed. If BYD were to somehow figure out a way to sell the Atto 3/Yuan Plus in North America, it would probably become one of the most compelling small EVs on sale.
Chinese tariffs and the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act make it hard for any EV not made in North America to be sold profitably at a competitive price in our market. That’s probably a saving grace for our domestic EV development. While Toyota, Honda, and, to some extent, GM and Ford scramble to craft desirable EVs, the BYD Atto 3 already exists as a fully-realized, competitive and stylish product. If things were different both geopolitically and economically, I truly think BYD could straight-up decimate the EV aspirations of some of the established western brands. BYD’s presence at the Paris Motor Show got Renault and Stellantis shook, as those companies saw how receptive the show audience was to BYD’s efforts on display.
However you may feel about China, Chinese cars, or BYD, one thing is clear – BYD and other Chinese domestic brands are capable of producing impressive, world-class vehicles. Every automaker should be frightened, and for good reason.
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