European consumers use Chinese products every day. Will they also embrace cars by companies such as BYD that have their sights set on the European market?
October 18, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“These are Chinese cars?” one mall shopper asked, stopping at the showroom entrance.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Charlotte Ejlertsen, the sales manager.
The shopper, Michael Christiansen, pursed his lips.
Ejlertsen said China already made so many of the products central to his life, including, most likely, the phone chips in his pocket. So what’s one more?
After gaining a dominant hold on the raw materials and batteries necessary for electric vehicles, China is now making a play for the one thing it doesn’t have: cars on roads in the West. Chinese automakers have been pushing into new markets, particularly in Europe, building showrooms and inking deals with existing dealers everywhere from Paris to the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The implicit sales pitch is that those vehicles are an essential part of the world’s clean energy goals.
But in Europe, which aims to ban the sale of traditional petrol cars by 2035, the Chinese EVs are a solution and problem all at once.
The Chinese brands are poised to offer something that Europe’s famed automakers can’t yet match — low-cost EVs for the masses. As in the United States, many climate-attuned European consumers are hungry for a vehicle that helps them cut their dependence on fossil fuels without a premium price tag.
While that makes the Chinese imports attractive, they also pose a clear threat to one of Europe’s biggest industries, which underestimated the speed of the electric revolution. Brussels, amid an investigation into potential subsidies, is weighing whether to raise tariffs on Chinese vehicles. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the global market is now flooded with “cheaper Chinese electric cars.” Auto executives have talked about a period of unprecedented upheaval, influenced in part by one question: How many people are willing to buy a Chinese car?
The underbelly of electric vehicles
That answer is emerging day after day in places such as the Copenhagen showroom of BYD, where three models sit under rectangular lights, with the cheapest — named the Dolphin (starting at $33,000 in Denmark) — closest to the entrance. A sign on the wall says the company’s EVs “are among the best in the world.” The showroom is staffed solely by Danes, including the manager, Ejlertsen, whose parents ran a Peugeot dealership. She said she has “petrol”