► First model from Nio to hit Europe
► BEV available as a six- or seven-seater
► The establishment should be worried…
You’ve heard of Nio, right? The brand from China that broke the Nürburgring record for fastest electric car with its wild EP9? No? Well, you might start to hear about them a lot more. Now the brand’s established itself in its home market, it’s targeting European expansion.
And this is the first Nio car to hit European soil – the six-or-seven-seat ES8. It’s technically been on sale in China since 2018, but CAR went out to Norway – Nio’s first European market – to get a drive in the EV that’s giving Nio a foothold in an entire new region.
CAR drives the Nio EP9 hypercar
Yep – looks like an SUV…
And it’s designed to be one. Nio knows Europe’s just as SUV obsessed as China is, so it was a shrewd move to start with something this size. And that size is one comparable to the really big stuff – your X5s and GLEs and Q7s of the world – and yet it’s battery-electric, with the only direct rival really being Tesla’s now-rather-forgotten Model X.
Poking a bit at the design, the sharp and angular ‘face’ the ES8 has doesn’t really seem to blend well with the much more rounded, softer rear curves – to our eyes, at least.
Inside, if we must make comparisons, there are elements of Tesla, Polestar and Hyundai/Kia all blended well together in here. It also feels properly premium with soft leathers, weighty switchgear and all the latest gadgets. Our test car had a business class lounger for a passenger seat – feeling almost one step further even than the recliner seats in the Hyundai Ioniq 5 – and Nio Pilot: the brand’s semi-autonomous driving system.
The instrument and infotainment screens are properly crisp, with Tesla-like graphics in the driver’s cluster for letting you know what the car sees around it and a pin-sharp central display. There are some physical buttons for key menus, but most of the functions require you to tap or swipe. Some of the functions are (perhaps too) well hidden within the sub-menus, which takes getting used to – much like Tesla’s whopper of a menu system.
Even so, Nio has a party piece: Nomi. Okay, maybe not so much a party piece when you boil it down ¬– Nomi’s essentially a voice assistant program, nothing new these days – but Nio’s animated it with a robotic ‘head’ atop the dashboard. Its recognition wasn’t faultless – it’s only recently learned English and needs plenty of fine tuning, but we managed to turn on the heated massaging seats and turn up the climate control just by saying ‘hey Nomi.’ Its knowledge and actions will expand over time, says Nio, including asking it about the weather or telling jokes. Given it’s animated, its cute ‘head’ turns to listen to you and even has quaint animations like waving maracas around when you’re listening to music, or waving goodbye to you when you open the door. Nio says its Chinese customers love it, but us Europeans are arguably a little snootier about details like that.
The middle row (we sat in the back of both a six- and seven-seat version) feels huge in terms of leg and headroom, even with a tall driver in front having plenty of space. The back row, meanwhile, can accommodate an adult at a push, too.
Can you tell me how it drives now, please?
Before we get too far into it, our drive has some caveats: we didn’t have all that long in the car (no more than an hour) and it was mostly smooth Norwegian motorways or the tight streets within Oslo. It’s also worth noting that all ES8s have air suspension, two e-motors for all-wheel drive and a single power output of 536bhp, as well as four-piston Brembo brakes. If you pick the 100kWh battery option, Nio says it’s capable of 310 miles on a charge (we saw a max of 280 miles in freezing-temperature Norway) and the ES8 very recently passed the stringent EuroNCAP crash tests with flying colours.
Regardless, getting to grips with the ES8 isn’t like sitting in a vehicle from another planet. The driving position is impressive, with the driver’s seat having plenty of adjustability and, aside for a quirky drive selector bulging out of the centre console and squared-off steering wheel, there’s little to raise an eyebrow at.
Acceleration is plentiful, with that satisfying surge of pure torque whisking you forward with ease. The ES8 has the usual suite of drive modes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – with only Sport offering you the fastest acceleration sprint of under five seconds.
The steering is hyper-sensitive, which works for and against the ES8. Through the streets of Oslo, it’s remarkably alert to your inputs allowing you to zip into gaps and carve into tight corners but, on the motorway, it doesn’t relax or weight up – making the ES8 feel as jittery as you are at speed.
That can be counteracted by Nio Pilot (which works much like any semi-autonomous driver assistance, including Tesla’s Autopilot) which is tremendously smooth and keeps in its lane without ping-ponging between the lane markers. We’d need more time to trial it, though – our time was on a clean bit of Norwegian motorway on a sunny day, which isn’t exactly the most strenuous of conditions.
The air suspension system is impressive, giving the ES8 a properly smooth ride. The wheels translated jolts over bridge expansion gaps but tackles potholes remarkably well, despite riding on large wheels. It’s also just remarkably refined and a properly plush place to be on the road; wind noise and tyre noise is extremely well suppressed – something usually a challenge when designing and building an EV.
Why should I buy this over a Tesla, or anything else for that matter?
Because the brand has a USP: the Nio Power Battery Swap Station. As well as having the ability to charge your car conventionally, if you’re in a rush or want a little more peace of mind on the charging front, Nio’s developed a fully automated platform to essentially unplug your near-dead battery and push in a new one. The brand says it’s not really chasing EV buyers, but those with combustion engine cars looking to make the switch – with this technology being the primary detail that sets Nio apart.
Nio calls the entire program ‘Battery as a Service,’ or BaaS, pointing out that there are 867 swap stations operating in China already, with the first one in Norway being its 868th. Nio says 19 more are planned in the country.
You ‘order’ a battery via the car’s infotainment, and you’re placed in a virtual queue depending on how far away you are from the station. One you get there, you park in a marked bay and the car reverses autonomously into it. The platform unbolts the battery already in the car and plugs in a new one in less than six minutes.
If you want to access this tech, you’ll pay less outright for your car and pay a monthly rolling subscription for the battery instead, gaining access to two free battery swaps and 200kW of free juice via a conventional charger per month.
So, when can I buy one?
Ah, yes. Herein lies the rub: as you may have guessed, the ES8 is only available in Norway for now. Nio’s taking a very cool, calm and collected approach to entering Europe as we’re such a disparate and tricky bunch to please (our words, not theirs). In Norway, ES8 prices start at around £53k for one where you own the battery outright, or around £45k if you were to lease it, paying around £122 or £177 per month for access to a 75kWh or 100kWh battery respectively.
It makes sense that Nio’s starting in Norway – it has the highest proliferation of EVs of any European country, and Nio has already confirmed it’s entering Sweden, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in 2022. Focusing on Germany, Nio says its first model in the market won’t be this ES8 but the new ET7 saloon – a car claiming an enormous range and equally able to utilise Nio’s battery swap technology – to hit Audi, Mercedes and BMW where it hurts in the premium saloon segment.
Will Nio ever come to the UK? The brand’s being very coy about doing so – playing into its considered approach to entering Europe in general. Even so, Nio’s Group Vice President Hui Zhang told CAR that Nio ‘cannot ignore the second largest car market in Europe.’ Read into that what you will.
Nio ES8: verdict
Even after a brief drive, we came away quite impressed by the ES8. It’s a refined, comfortable and high-tech place to be inside and, while it may not be the sharpest-handling thing on the planet, it offers plenty of performance and competitive range. The fact that Nio’s offering this novel alternative to conventional charging is something of a USP for the brand. We’ll have to wait and see whether the brand will venture into the UK.