I Went To China And Drove A Dozen Electric Cars. Western Automakers Are Cooked

A trip to the Beijing Auto Show reveals just how advanced China's EVs are. So what are the so-called "foreign" automakers doing about it?

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In just the past few months, the rift between the U.S. and China has expanded at an astounding rate. TikTok is set to be banned if it does not divest from its U.S operations. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to battling a surge of cheap Chinese clean energy exports. The Commerce Department is cracking down on chips sent to Huawei.

And yet plenty of critics still insist China's advancements in its manufacturing abilities—especially in developing and selling electrified vehicles—somehow aren't legitimate. Or that they're just the byproducts of a government with too much cash that wants to elbow its way into the rest of the world.

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China's EV dominance takes shape

In 2023, the Shanghai Auto Show—China's first big industry event since the COVID lockdowns—revealed how far ahead the country is on EVs, software and connected vehicles. Now every automaker is scrambling to catch up while they lose sales in China, and while the U.S., Europe and others seek to limit Chinese EV imports they say would destroy their local car industries.

I’ve personally been privy to conversations with auto industry insiders, engineers and pundits alike. Many of them believe China’s industries are not sustainable, and the cars it wants to foist on the public are cut-rate spyware machines designed to murder American citizens whenever the Chinese Communist Party flips the kill switch. 

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To these critics, if China had a truly open market, Chinese buyers would continue to purchase Western cars en masse, and sales of their models wouldn’t be falling off so dramatically

It would be naive to assume that China doesn’t have its finger on the scale for EV production. But believing that the success of China's electrified vehicle industry is all the sole result of a brutish government forcing its citizens to buy its domestic products rings false in an almost childlike, sour-grapes way. 

I spent a week in China for the Beijing Auto Show, the country’s biggest car industry event. As a guest of the Geely Group along with a few other international journalists, I drove more than a dozen vehicles, sat in many more, and had a lot of important conversations. The real story is far more nuanced than a simplistic “Us vs. Them”; a story of a China that has fraudulently over-invested in electric cars and is desperately seeking a space to dump their inferior products.

That narrative is false. Western automakers are cooked. And a lot of this is probably their damn fault. 

Shanghai Is Hot, Yet Quiet

I knew Shanghai was hot, but I don’t think I quite understood the scope of the Bund’s hotness until I stepped out of the terminal of the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

Shanghai shares nearly the same latitude as New Orleans, and like its geographical American counterpart, much of the city is next to water, making it just as humid and swampy. I was jumpy and jetlagged, dripping with sweat, my shirt already sticking to my back but relieved that I had made it through customs and passport control.

I was in a new place that was as foreign as it was familiar. Western brands like Peet’s Coffee and KFC littered the terminal, with queues of Chinese folks and international tourists alike sucking down localized versions of iced coffee and tea lattes or chomping down on chicken sandwiches that were significantly more flavorful than what I could get at home.

The very first car I saw in the arrivals and pickup lane of the airport was a white Ford Explorer parked in the middle of a pedestrian crossing; it was almost like I hadn’t left Ohio. It was so familiar, this car was identical to the one back home, save for the Chinese characters on the rear hatch that designate the JMC-Ford joint venture that made the crossover. 

The second I looked away from the Explorer, I realized just how different everything was. The arrivals area was just as busy as any airport in any cosmopolitan world city, but the engine and exhaust noises I’d typically hear back home, or even in Europe, just weren’t there.

Most cars in the pickup area were green-plated “new energy vehicles,” made by brands of all sorts, from BYD or Geely, and even Western brands like Buick and Chevrolet. It’s quite a sight: a nation swept up in an electric car mania, as evidenced by the near-silent crossovers, vans, and sedans aggressively flying over speed bumps while dodging pedestrians headed to rideshare, taxis, or public transportation. 

Some of the China-only cars I had read about and reported on before, I was finally seeing in person. “Oh wow, that’s a Buick Velite 6; I’ve been reading about those online, they’re everywhere, here in China. Or at least, everywhere in the passenger pickup area,” I said out loud, to no one in particular. For a split second, I wondered: were the reports overblown? Was China’s love affair with Western cars still strong?

Of course, it would be silly to jump to that conclusion within the first five minutes of being in China, but the presence of so many Buicks felt antithetical to the idea that I’ve been told that no one wanted Western brands, including its EVs. 

Right?

My time in China would revolve around a tour of Geely’s world headquarters in Hangzhou and several roundtables with executives from Geely’s brands. Then, we’d fly to Beijing for a day at the auto show and experience a full day at a racetrack to sample more than a dozen vehicles, including the latest models of all brands that Geely Holding Group controls, except Volvo and Polestar. 

We’d drive from Shanghai to Hangzhou via the iconic Hangzhou Bay Bridge, a ride that was more than two hours long. I’d spend it in the back of a Zeekr 009, a van I’ve driven on a track in the U.S. I knew it was a fast van that cornered surprisingly flat, but that’s not really the use case of that vehicle.

The 009 is part of a luxury MPV (minivan) segment that essentially only exists in Asia, and arguably has been perfected by China. Instead of Cadillac Escalades or Lincoln Navigators, black car operators use vehicles like the Buick GL8, Toyota Alphard, Denza D9, Voyah Dreamer, or the Zeekr 009.

And in context, the Zeekr 009 felt so at home. It’s not a cheap van. I’d reckon that the one I was in was well north of $80,000, but the 009 felt so much more mature than the last Escalade or Navigator for-hire car that would have been roughly the same price. It was more than just the ambiance of the 009’s interior, with its tiger wood trim, full Alcantara headliner, real metal finishes brightwork and finishes in the interior, or first-class airline-style middle captain’s chairs that both cooled and massaged me, lulling me to sleep before I knew what happened next. The 009 felt like a low-slung Rolls-Royce with sliding doors, so I understood why it was such a popular option for Chinese businessmen.

The visitors' center at its headquarters had examples of its latest models. Some of them were premium models from Zeekr and Lynk & Co, meant to battle brands like Acura or Audi.

Others were more mainstream, like Geely’s Galaxy subbrand, meant for middle-income value-conscious Chinese buyers, or potentially to be rebadged as Protons in places like Malaysia. 

No matter the price point, they all felt incredibly convincing. They’re high-tech, well-executed machines in ways I hadn’t experienced from European or American manufacturers.

For example, take the Honda Accord-sized (and similarly priced) Geely Galaxy E8. Fully electric and on the same SEA (Sustainable Experience Architecture) platform as some Polestar models, the E8’s interior comes standard with a full-width 4K OLED display that serves as a central hub for all of the car’s functions. True, there are plenty of concerns that could be leveled at the E8 for its screen-only interface, but that does this screen a disservice. 

Using it is akin to staring at a TV screen or a high-quality gaming monitor. The interface feels like it’s done with intentionality and care; important details like speed gear position are easily seen, whereas the HVAC and stereo controls are easily at hand and not buried in acres of menus. The screen itself is incredibly responsive, matching the inputs with as little latency as a high-end smartphone.

On the screen, an animation of the car sits in the midst of an ocean, overlooking a mountain range; It’s bright, it’s pretty, and it feels as if Galaxy E8’s interior is more like a remodeled living room, rather than the front seat of a car. 

I was impressed. But when I got to the auto show, I realized I hadn’t seen anything yet. 

The Beijing Auto Show is A Tour De Force

Thankfully, Beijing’s more than 700 miles from the balmy Shangai-Hangzhou area, and further inland location made for a comparatively cooler time. Unfortunately, Beijing's traffic was infinitely worse than Shanghai’s. Despite leaving the hotel at 8:30 a.m., it took us more than an hour and a half to drive just nine miles to the New China International Expo Center.

The show itself was packed, incomparable to the ghost-town auto shows back home during their press preview days. Everywhere I looked, there were people: influencers, Chinese media, international media. Clearly, China missed the memo that these events are dead.

I’d later learn that the auto show had more than 100 new model debuts and concepts. That’s a far cry from the Detroit Auto Show last September, which only featured one fully new model. Two other models were refreshed versions of current cars already on sale. None were electric.

In China, the showroom floor was filled to the gills with new electrified models from every single domestic automaker. They all had something to prove, and by god, they were trying. There were hundreds of models on the floor from dozens of brands, most of them just as compelling as what I had seen the day before from Geely. 

Most brands had doors that closed with a solid thunk, with soft-touch materials in the correct places, when appropriate to the vehicle’s price point. And no matter the price point, they all had responsive, integrated vehicle interfaces that were quick, pretty, and ubiquitous.

A basic infotainment system in any given moderately priced Chinese EV beats the brakes off some systems in cars that cost six figures.

There are reasons for that, but namely, Chinese EVs are so good now—as is much of its urban infrastructure—that concerns about range or charging just aren’t as pertinent to the average consumer as they once were.

Zeekr representatives said that now, the brand must figure out ways to attract consumers that don’t involve range or charging speed. Hell, the whole Chinese car industry has the same conundrum. Thus, all of its domestic brands (and some foreign ones) have ingratiated themselves with Chinese tech companies, and the two have moved in lockstep to figure out just what that means.

Of course, China has a lot of EV brands. Probably too many EV brands. But some of those brands are entanglements between China’s automakers and its tech companies.

Take JiYue, a combination of Geely and Baidu, a company often dubbed China’s Google. Its connected services and vision-only self-driving has a Full Self-Driving style car on the road, while Tesla waits to jump in. Or IM Motors, a premium brand that’s a result of a tie-up with SAIC and e-commerce giant Alibaba. 

Then there’s the Harmony Intelligent Mobility Alliance, a collaboration between BAIC, Chery (aka Luxeed), Aito, and Changan, and smartphone and tech giant Huawei. The latter can either help design and market the cars themselves or add full-stack in-car solutions for a vehicle’s infotainment car architecture, all using the same Harmony OS that Huawei uses on its smartphones.

And of course, there’s Xiaomi, a phone manufacturer that decided to design and manufacture its own car. Unlike Apple, Xiaomi actually pulled this off, and the end product is so advanced it’s made headlines all over the world. 

Whatever the flavor, these models are superconnected, full of high-end processors and tech meant to woo discerning Chinese buyers. 

Just from what I saw, I understood why there were so many people at the Chinese domestic brands. Li Auto’s booth had a consistent queue to view L6 compact PHEV crossover, released at the show.

Even its current production models, like the L9 and Mega MPV, had lines of Chinese and International Media poking and prodding the cars. Changan’s Ford Maverick-sized convertible coupe SUV with a bed stayed swarmed the entire show. Xiaomi’s SU7 had a two-hour wait. Some international journalists gave up and stopped trying to see the car.

Western brands didn’t enjoy that fervor, though. 

Nobody Cares About Western Brands in China

All of the press conferences for the model debuts were in Chinese, and I didn’t always have a translator or interpreter at hand. When I could, I wandered around, looking to see what else I could learn while in China. 

The first stand I stumbled upon was Buick’s. It unveiled two GM Ultium-based concepts, the Electra L and Electra LT. It had also unveiled a PHEV version of its popular GL8 van. But where the hell was everyone? It was barely 10 a.m., on the first day of the Beijing Auto show; two concepts were just revealed sometime earlier that morning, yet there were only a handful of spectators at the Buick stand. There was no information on either concept. No one seemed to care. 

Same story with the other Asian brands. Mazda's latest model, EZ-6 (which isn’t really even a Mazda, but a restyled Changan Deepal SL03), had some of the usual influencers and journalists shooting quick walkaround content for their channels, but after that died down, most moved on to something else. Ditto for Toyota’s bZ3x and bZ3c near-production models.

“Chinese people don’t really care about concepts here,” Will Sundin of the China Driven internet show told me.  “They want something they can buy and drive right away.” As we walked around, he elaborated on why Western manufacturers were losing so much ground in China. Sundin blamed it partially on Western brands' inability to electrify quickly while offering low-quality software and mediocre value in their products. 

Chevrolet showed off the same Equinox EV preproduction prototypes it had at the LA Auto Show in 2022. Both were locked and unavailable for in-depth viewing by the general public until a third unit showed up the next day of the show.

Also, the Equinox EV is still not on sale. By comparison, Li Auto’s L6 was available for viewing and purchase at Li Auto storefronts before the car’s official reveal at the Beijing Auto Show. Li Auto says it has 40,000 orders for the PHEV.

Why isn’t the Equinox EV on sale?

We explored the expo center more, but eventually made our way back to the Buick stand. I plopped down in the front seat of the Buick Velite 6, the electric wagon I had seen everywhere in Shanghai. I’d find out later from four different on-the-ground sources, including Sundin, that the Velite 6 is highly discounted and sold en masse to Chinese rideshare drivers.

It is a car that sells in numbers heavily to fleets because it is cheap and available, and less because it is desirable—not great for a brand that wants to retain its market share and raise its transaction prices. 

Within five seconds of sitting behind the wheel of the Velite 6, I understood why. Sundin picked up on my disappointment.

“It’s a bit shit, innit?” he said. He was right. I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing. The Velite 6 felt like an electric version of a generation-old Chevy Malibu.

The delta of quality, connectedness, and value between the Velite 6 and any of the equivalent of the mid-tier Chinese EV vehicles I had experienced that day, was startling. By comparison, the Velite 6’s small screens and grey plastic interior were downright depressing to the full-width, super brilliant screens in any given Chinese EV.

The GM Ultium-based Buick Electra E4 was a slight step in the right direction, but generally nowhere near as nice as the Chinese premium brands it meant to go head to head with. It seems like GM understands this since it cut the Chinese pricing of the Electra E4 twice, well before any price war kicked off. 

“Well, at least you guys in the States will get some new PHEV stuff, like the new Buick GL8 van, right?” Sundin said.

“No, actually we don’t get any GM PHEV models in the United States," I told him. "Only a few GM Ultium-based EVs and they’re not doing all that well."

I was embarrassed. Here I was in China, trying to empathize with Western brands, thinking they were being pushed out of China due to politics and things that were no fault of their own.

In reality, it felt like it was the late 1980s again, when American manufacturers felt like they could sell whatever underdeveloped models its accounting department had cooked up to the public, and we’d just have to deal with it. Now that I’ve seen a glimpse of what’s going on in China, the Western manufacturers, particularly the American ones, don’t seem like they’re trying at all.

Writer and podcaster Ed Zitron said something interesting during an episode of his podcast, Better Offline. Americans are almost made to apologize for their preferences when it comes to Big Tech. Some bigwig or boisterous startup guy had a big idea for a widget that no one wanted, and decided to half-ass a product that doesn’t work all that well.

When the public rightfully ignores a bad or unwanted product, there’s a new trend in tech to blame the clientele for not being smart enough, rather than facing the music that what was created just wasn’t all that good. I mean, just look at all the terrible AI-based pins that don’t do anything. 

The auto industry feels the same way. Instead of automakers attempting to understand and meet the needs of the Chinese market, they’d rather just sell the cars they wanted to make. By comparison, Chinese automakers seemed to have tried harder to understand the desires of Chinese people. 

Chinese buyers wanted connected cars with big screens, and by god, the automakers figured out a way to get that in there, and how to do it well. 

All We Do Is Complain While China Advances

America’s looming TikTok ban feels like a direct allegory for China’s relationship with its electric car exports. I use TikTok; I understand how it works, and I agree that there are plenty of valid critiques to be leveled at the platform’s ability to spread misinformation, or how its endless scroll probably isn’t great for anyone’s mental health, especially that of the teens and tweens who love the platform so much. 

Yet, so much of the coverage of TikTok’s ban refuses to acknowledge one fact: The platform is really, really well executed. TikTok’s algorithm is fantastic; it can compile a near-endless scroll of content that feels fresh, positive, fun and eerily, directly targeted to you. I’ve watched the viral power of TikTok straight up create music artists like PinkPantheress, or revive the career and launch classic artists like Sophie Ellis-Bextor or Kate Bush back onto the charts.

TikTok’s culture isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot healthier than whatever Meta, Google, and Twitter have created, where death by a thousand cuts of “enshittification” have made their services hostile and less useful to the end user. On Instagram Reels, the content moderation is so poor, that it’s not uncommon to see someone literally die on screen

So, when automakers, tech companies and regulators push back on China, the sentiments that they’re just protecting our market from unsafe or security-challenged products feel hollow. Instead, it feels like grandstanding, and a tacit admission that they have no intention of trying to do better.

Instead of competing, they’d rather just shut out competition entirely. The concerns about cybersecurity don’t address the elephant in the room here: Your product sucks, compared to what China is putting out now. It doesn’t go as far. It’s not as well-made. It’s not as nice. It’s not as connected. 

Western automakers aren’t entangled deeply with tech companies in ways that would serve the end user, Chinese or otherwise. They didn’t get way ahead of the curve to establish a battery supply chain in the ways China did. And they don’t seem to want to cater to the Chinese market (or any market, rather) through continuous updates and agility with their product line. 

Even Tesla in China can’t be bothered to update one of its most important products, the Model Y, in this hyper-competitive market. Instead, it relies on margin-hurting gimmicks to move units, like constant price cuts, subsidized trade-in incentives, and 0% financing to get customers to buy a car that is aged and now uncompetitive.

Tesla didn’t even have a presence at the Beijing Auto Show. Elon Musk came and went to Beijing during the show, only to make a case for his robotaxi pivot with government officials. It’s like he’s already given up on cars here. 

Volkswagen placed its ID cars on the market, then acted surprised when journalists and buyers alike rightfully criticized its poor software interface. Nissan at one point sold nearly as many gas-powered Sylphy (Sentra) sedans in China as Tesla did Model Y crossovers. Yet when it came time to electrify, it stuck a Sylphy body on top of the already outmoded 38 kWh Nissan Leaf running gear. It wasn’t great at charging, had limited range, and was pricey.

GM blew it here too. Up until the Beijing Auto Show's debut of a PHEV version, the GL8 was one of the few vans in the segment without any plug-in capabilities. Green-plated New Energy vehicles are an important market in China, as are luxury vans. Why weren’t Western automakers paying attention? Why didn’t GM get an electrified vehicle on sale faster?

So at what point does blame shift from Chinese economic policy to the actions of the automakers themselves? How relevant, truly, are claims that China is “unfairly” subsidizing its EV industry to Western automakers completely misjudging the Chinese market, and low-key failing to craft products that Chinese buyers actually wanted? Why did they get so arrogant that they assumed China would buy their budget Peugeots, Citroens, Chevrolets, and rewarmed Volkswagens and Buicks forever and ever? Why the hell didn’t we subsidize our EV-building and clean energy industries like China did? 

I’m not going to lie and say that the Chinese underutilization of its EV factories isn’t a problem, or that this isn’t an oversaturated car market that not all of these brands will survive. Of course, there are plenty of concerns around China’s poor human rights track record and the dubious sourcing of some of its raw materials; both Chinese domestic and foreign brands are criticized for this. 

Also, as impressive as the Beijing Auto Show was, there was a slight air of desperation. Some of the smaller, more desperate brands I visited didn’t initially realize I was part of international media; looking for a win, they thought I was a potential distributor seeking to set up a contract to export vehicles to a country that wasn’t the U.S.

Some influencers that were not even remotely connected to the automotive industry were livestreaming and posting on Chinese social media about new car debuts, trying to bring a non-car-interested audience into the automotive realm. The once-banned “car babes” at Chinese auto shows have kind of crept back to the showroom floor, signaling a desire for attention and sales that they might not be getting. 

And yet, those issues feel secondary. If China were to somehow rectify its production overcapacity issues, and acquiesce to every demand that Europe and the U.S. have of its EV sector, China would still have technologically advanced, well-made, interesting EVs. Arguably, it would still come out leaner and stronger.

If the U.S. and Europe get what they want—a crackdown on Chinese imports—it doesn’t feel like it would result in better cars. It feels like it would keep buyers of those markets locked to cars that aren’t executed as well. It’s nakedly protectionist because deep down, all of the Western auto executives and some hawkish China pundits understand that Chinese EV and PHEV models are more compelling than what European, other Asian, and American brands have come up with.

I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. We’re cooked.

Contact the author: kevin.williams@insideevs.com 

Top illustration by Sam Woolley.

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