China’s so-called New Energy Vehicle market can be one of the most fickle places on the planet. To the untrained eye, it does not matter what kind of EV a car company makes; chances are that someone in China will buy it. However, as time marches on, we’ve learned that a vehicle’s existence alone does not make it a guaranteed success. Just ask companies like Honda, Ford, General Motors, or Hyundai, whose EV products have had middling to disappointing results in a market they once held tight.

China’s own EV makers aren’t immune to this intense competition, either. XPeng and Human Horizons (HiPhi) are two brands that have recently struggled despite having well-priced, well-reviewed cars at home and abroad.

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China's EV market is a powerhouse

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.

Gallery: Xiaomi SU7 2024

But when smartphone and connected gadget powerhouse Xiaomi announced its SU7 electric sedan, it somehow circumvented China’s very specific market-based problems.

It wasn’t like the Li Auto Mega, which seemed to be a surefire win, only to struggle to move a few hundred units per month. Instead, within hours of the SU7’s official unveiling, Xiaomi claims that it had 88,898 confirmed orders. How?

From what I observed in Beijing while covering the country's largest auto show, there’s a lot more going on here than just a strong product. The brand, its product and CEO Lei Jun have all coalesced in a way that I don’t think Western brands have seen since before Elon Musk fell off his rocker.

And if the Xiaomi SU7 really is China's Apple Car—an EV that's hyper-connected to all devices within its software ecosystem—then Jun is fulfilling his calling as China's Steve Jobs more than ever. But unlike Apple, Xiaomi actually got this to market.

The Star CEO And His Star Car

Lei Jun Xiaomi

Outside of the car industry, Xiaomi and competitor Huawei have been on a strong run. They’ve gobbled up a ton of the smartphone market, including high-end flagship models meant to go against top-tier phones like the iPhone 15 Pro.

Even Apple, which once famously held strong at nearly 20% of the smartphone market, is starting to lose ground to these two brands. Now, Xiaomi controls 14.7% of the Chinese handset market, while Apple’s market share has dropped to 15.7% there within a year. Imagine what those two can do when they turn to EVs.

How the hell did this happen? To understand, I asked some seasoned China analysts, as well as journalist and China EVs & More podcast host Lei Xing, about what allowed Xiaomi’s cars to gain traction so quickly. It turns out the answer isn’t just what, but who.

“[Huawei and Xiaomi both] have founders that are loved by the Chinese, [including] Xiaomi's Lei Jun with his unique humor and entrepreneurial spirit making no-frills electronics products for the masses,” he said in an email. He added that “Huawei's founder, Ren Zhengfei, is well respected throughout the country as a businessperson.” 

But I wouldn’t understand just how much star power Lei Jun specifically had until I physically visited China.

My initial plan was to get my hands on as many Chinese-market vehicles as I could, with the Xiaomi SU7 being a priority sitting at the top of my docket. And yet, it proved impossible. Even on press days, the Xiaomi stand was inundated with people, amassing at least a two-and-a-half-hour queue behind a velvet rope. I needed more time than that if I ever hoped to get a functional impression of the cars, even if there was a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d ever get behind the wheel of one on public Chinese roads. 

 

My time in China would span past a quick press junket, so I considered coming back a couple of days later when the show was open to the public for a more intimate look at the vehicles. Surely, the fervor amongst the average Beijinger would have died down, I figured. China’s an easy-come, easy-go place; I figured folks would surely move on at some point, right?

No.

 

The queues only got exponentially worse when the show opened to the public three days later, as images and videos of the swarms of people that surrounded the Xiaomi stand went viral on Chinese social media sites like Weibo or Xiaohongshu.

But after translating posts and screenshots via WeChat’s translation software and trying to understand the energy of the crowd, I realized that it wasn’t just the damn cars that got people so geeked.

It was Lei Jun himself, and the whole star power of the Xiaomi brand.

 

Whenever Jun showed up to the Beijing Auto Show, he was swarmed by Chinese media and guests alike—sometimes employees from other automakers, starstruck by Jun’s presence. The CEO commanded a sense of approachability and likability. Of course, a lot of this is likely the result of a well-orchestrated team of PR and image consultants. Whatever the case, it’s working really well.

That’s part of why Xiaomi’s stand was so swarmed during the initial public days of the Beijing Auto Show. Whereas most CEOs and upper-level businessmen wouldn’t have bothered to show up to Beijing—especially not on the public days—Jun was there announcing plans, thanking his fans, and handing out autographed merchandise to a show hall that crowded out the Ji Yue, Buick, Geely, and Changan Mazda booths positioned adjacent to Xiaomi. In other words, he’s a big deal.

Lei Jun Beijing Auto Show

Jun, now 54, started his career in 1992 at a Chinese software company called Kingsoft. He eventually became its CEO by 1998. Kingsoft went public in 2007, and Jun departed shortly afterward to start Xiaomi in 2010. By 2011, the tech company had introduced its first phone. By 2014, it was worth an estimated $46 billion.

Perhaps Xiaomi was simply at the right place at the right time, offering a strong product to a hugely hungry marketplace. Xiaomi’s feature-packed phones at a reasonable price certainly were a hit with China, but once again, there’s more than meets the eye here. When Xiaomi first established itself, it eschewed a traditional brick-and-mortar store concept and shied away from traditional advertising leaning into a social media-based strategy.

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The company would actively talk with its clientele, it included them in ways that felt approachable and as if the company were actively listening to its users. This sort of engagement is how Xiaomi turned its users or clientele into fans; Tesla ran the same playbook long before Musk owned what used to be Twitter. I mean, just check the comments sections of any Xiaomi post on any given social media site. It’s likely full of Xiaomi enthusiasts (called Mi Fans) excited by what the brand offers.

This is the star power that Xiaomi has here that other car companies just don’t; it all gives a sense of iMac and early iPhone-era Apple, when Steve Jobs drove so much of the fandom. 

Xiaomi SU7 Owners

There’s a real sense of camaraderie associated with Jun’s presence. His public-facing appearances focused on building rapport with Chinese consumers and other aspects of the Chinese tech and automotive industry. Chinese social media was inundated with news of Jun’s rendezvous with other car-tech CEOs, like Nio or Great Wall Motors. 

 

Even Jun’s comments about the industry feel oddly positive and unusually gracious,  like encouraging reservation holders of the SU7 that can’t wait, to buy competing models from XPeng, Chery, and Geely.

Take how Jun said he is personally ordering a Li Auto L6, technically a competing company. Or any number of similar stunts Jun pulled has for Xiaomi’s egalitarian line of consumer electronics and smartphones.

 

All of that stuff is endearing to Chinese people, and more importantly, it’s shows a power that isn’t easily replicated by many companies, Chinese or not. The last time we saw someone this charismatic in the car space, was probably a pre-COVID Musk, when his ability to turn Tesla into a global electric titan still overshadowed his many other controversies—and he was seen by many as either a real-life Tony Stark or just a cool guy who launched rockets and dated rock stars.  

Jun has that kind of star power in China, and it’s part of Xiaomi’s draw. You could see it at the stores, too. I caught a Didi to Xiaomi’s flagship store in the Beijing Oriental Plaza; even on a sleepy, rainy Sunday morning, the store was full of people examining both Xiaomi’s handsets and one of the five SU7 sedans in the store. 

So What Is Xiaomi's Car Really Like?

China Xiaomi SU7

I was glad I finally got to see the car for myself. The SU7 is a sleek-looking sedan, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room: yes, it’s clearly inspired by the Porsche Taycan.

The low-slung roofline, the way the car’s glass and profile are resolved, and even the front faux-brake vent on the front fenders are clearly inspired by the Taycan and Panamera.

Yet the more I looked at the SU7, the less it resembled a Porsche. The SU7, while still attractive, didn’t have the larger-than-life wide haunches of the Taycan or Panamera. The SU7’s roofline was rakish, but perhaps a little less graceful than the Porsche.

The car’s side surfacing was simpler, while its front and rear fascias were pleasantly generic. It sort of reminds me of how the Chevrolet Corvette C8 almost resembles a Ferrari 458 if it were to be sold by Aldi. 

IMG_0781

The SU7’s interior was the car’s ace in the hole. Whereas the Panamera and Taycan are very much focused on being driver’s cars where passenger space is a secondary concern, it felt like Xiaomi’s designers focused on what would matter to Chinese consumers: interior space. The SU7’s headroom doesn’t feel excessively compromised despite the roofline being fairly low.

The rear seat has a generous amount of legroom, and somehow Xiaomi’s designers avoided the ass-on-the-ground feeling of a cushion mounted uncomfortably close to a high floor meant to accommodate a sizable battery. The front seats were equally accommodating and supportive.

I hadn’t ever really had any time with Xiaomi’s phones, either. While I bided my time to get some seat time between the dozens of Chinese consumers asking Xiaomi staff questions or posing for photos, I played around with a few of its upper-level phones, like the Xiaomi 14 Ultra. The build is quality, but if you’re an owner of any of the high-dollar iPhones you probably won’t be all that impressed.

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That philosophy applies to Xiaomi’s cars. All of the buttons, switches, and materials feel on par with those phones. Solid, but not meant to challenge any luxury car, and certainly not a Porsche.

Nor should it, at a base price of about $32,000 USD, it’s barely a third of the price of any Porsche regardless of propulsion type. I’d say it feels about on par with the Tesla Model Y or Model 3.

Perhaps the SU7’s interior is a little more special than what you get from Tesla. Layout-wise, the Xiaomi car has a minimalist two-screen layout; a single infotainment screen in the middle, and a small driver’s screen in front of the wheel. It’s interesting to notice that Xiaomi has shown restraint here instead of loading the car full of screens like most Chinese-market EVs, it just has a simple one. 

Next-Level Tech

But the screen itself is so customizable. Xiaomi stores feel a lot like Apple Stores, full of accessories that can (and often are) purchased at the point of sale to make the end result feel that much more special. Off to one side of the Xiaomi store, sat a plethora of addons that could be purchased and installed by the user. A set of piano hard key buttons to add to the SU7’s touchscreen-only interface. Or a fragrance dispenser. Or a set of LED lights. Or a phone holder that screws into one of the two ports on either side of the dashboard. Or a tablet or two for rear-seat entertainment.

All of that seamlessly works together with Xiaomi’s phones and its proprietary operating system, purchased in a place where people were already buying their phones, and other tech devices. 

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It really feels like something we don’t have here. In the same sense that Apple has created a line of electronics that effectively traps (or coerces) its users into a closed system, Xiaomi is in the beginning stages of doing the same thing—but with a car instead. 

Will it work? Maybe. Jun certainly has a good track record, taking Xiaomi from a small startup in 2010 to $12 billion of revenue by the end of 2014. Part of that was Jun’s decision to enter India and Malaysia, where its moderately-priced but well-equipped mid-tier phones were a quick hit with the growing middle classes.

That's another reason why publications keep calling Jun the “Steve Jobs of China”; smart business decisions have allowed Xiaomi to capture a previously untapped market, and Jun’s popularity has flowed from there.

 

As for the SU7, it’s getting good reviews in China and signs do look promising. Xiaomi has already adjusted its production goals upward, to 120,000 from 100,000 initially. Similarly, other manufacturers seemingly have tried to emulate (or perhaps head off) Xiaomi’s ideas.

Polestar and Nio both now have premium smartphone handsets for sale in China. Xiaomi’s largest competitor Huawei has the HIMA Alliance, which added two more automakers that want to use Huawei’s operating system or hardware solutions for in-car connected tech. 

The SU7 feels like the rest of everything that I’ve learned in China: There are more factors at play here than just geopolitics, or whatever (rightful) concerns about labor and human rights or the Chinese government’s alleged artificial boosting of its EV and tech industries. 

 

More than any of that, it’s clear that Chinese companies are thinking of ways to intertwine their tech with their automotive industries, using charismatic, future-focused CEOs and clever, meet-the-consumer-where-they’re-at marketing strategies that we might not have, or maybe more accurately, have forgotten about.

Meanwhile, our auto industry still depends on complex networks of parts suppliers unaccustomed to this level of software-driven cars and often feels hobbled by both executives and dealers who don’t want to deal with this transition at all.

The $578 billion question is, can we match what companies like Xiaomi are doing? Are American consumers open to a similar concept? Could our automakers even fight back on that level even if they wanted to?

I don’t know.

Contact the author: kevin.williams@insideevs.com 

Top illustration: Ralph Hermens for InsideEVs

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