Nio: seven reasons why it's China's answer to Tesla

Published: 17 June 2019

► A deep dive analysis inside Nio
► One of China's leading EV specialists
► New tech, new battery thinking 

Remember Nio? The Chinese electric car maker shot to fame in 2017 with the launch of the EP9, a hotshot supercar that went on to claim the lap record for EVs at the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife. But there’s much more to Nio than just super-fast race cars masquerading as eco transport. The EP9 and Nio’s Formula E team are the Trojan horses for a deadly serious electric disruptor. 

The four-year-old start-up opened its doors to CAR at this spring’s Shanghai motor show, with access to the company’s founder and executive team. Here’s why you should take notice of the upstart Tesla wannabe from China.

1. The new Nio ET is a Model S clone

The Nio ET Preview is a Model S rival from China

Proof that Nio should be taken seriously was provided in Shanghai by the global debut of the new ET Preview (pictured above). And, no, it doesn’t look very much like a concept car to us. This smoothly styled, production-ready 5.1m-long saloon is a warning shot across the bows of the Tesla Model S, taking Nio’s previously SUV-only tech and bringing it to the four-door saloon world.

Fitted with nickel-cobalt-manganese battery packs boasting a choice of 70kWh or 84kWh capacities like the ES6 and ES8 crossovers, the saloon would broaden the brand’s appeal in marketplaces where sedans still rule.

2. Thinking big: the electric car architecture

The Nio electric car skateboard chassis underpins all current models

Nio’s Swedish R&D chief Roger Malkusson said there was more to come from the current electric car architecture: ‘We will still launch one or two more products on the current platform. We already have two SUVs in China; our third and fourth vehicles will be something else. We are staying around the size you see here, 4.7-5.1m. The current platform is not feasible for small vehicles. We are focusing on the upper segments.’

Nio is working to develop the second-gen platform right now. It is expected that it will continue to work with its manufacturing partner JAC Motors.

3. Killing range anxiety

Nio has pinpointed a primary obstacle to electric car mass adoption in the coming years: most prospective owners don’t want to sacrifice the long range and ease of refuelling they’re used to with combustion engines. 

This is tricky with current lithium-ion battery technology, so Nio is working hard on a suite of battery solutions, as well as factoring more self-driving capability into future products.

How much does it cost to charge an electric car?

Nio has a suite of battery top-up options: on-street or home charging, battery swap or a come-to-you e-van

The company’s app lets you reserve a charging space at one of 17,000 points across China. Or you can hail a mobile Nio Power Van (above right) to your place of work, which will add 60 miles in 10 minutes. 

Intriguingly, there’s also a network of 40 battery-swap stations along key intercity motorways; book a slot, and a robot will replace your battery with a fully charged one in just 5min 20sec. Simply pull up to the unit pictured above, staff will reverse your car in and robots do the rest.

4. China now, Europe next

Nio founder William Li, interviewed by CAR magazine in Shanghai

Founder William Li (above) told CAR that Nio was perfecting its product and systems in China before going global. ‘It will be a few years, not decades. Now our priority is to sell in China – it’s still the world’s biggest car and EV market. When we are ready, we will expand.’ Nio’s Munich design studio is already working with one eye on international tastes. 

5. Braced for next-gen batteries

Engineering bosses at Nio predict that today's 320-mile battery range will soon be stretched up to 400 miles and beyond

‘Battery performance improvements will be linear in the next two to three years, and after that we expect a step change,’ predicts engineering boss Malkusson. ‘We are working with battery suppliers on what that will be – whether it’s solid-state or some other tech advance. Our battery range is 510km (320 miles) today; soon it’ll be 600km then 700km (370-430 miles). We have not yet decided whether battery-swap will stay in our second-generation platform or not. We may not need it.’

6. The Nio House

Nio aims to make owning its cars more like a private members’ club. Users can visit 13 Nio Houses dotted across the major cities, where they can use cafes, auditoriums, libraries and hot-desking areas for work or pleasure. You win Nio points for advocacy and recommending friends; points can be swapped for drinks, merchandise, even a trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed

7. High voltage, high speed

Nio says the Nordschleife-slaying EP9 (above) was no one-off. The British-built supercar was a calling card for Nio’s performance ambitions, according to Nio UK MD Angelika Sodian. ‘We will continue to develop it and could have our own performance line in the road cars. It would be a logical next step to keep the connection with our Formula E team.’

Further electric car reading

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet