FRANKFURT — The Chinese say they are coming to the U.S. market. But can they make it stick?
Future Mobility Corp., a startup created by veterans of BMW's electric-vehicle program and Infiniti China and backed by Chinese financing, believes it has a winning formula: Take one pinch of German premium brand execution and a dollop of Silicon Valley innovation. Combine with Chinese supply-chain power and lower manufacturing costs to produce a $45,000 premium electric SUV.
Future Mobility, which will sell its vehicles under the brand name Byton, has an ambitious timetable.
It will show a driving prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas and begin taking deposits for production slots, just as Tesla has done with the Model 3.
"The architecture of the car is a global architecture," Carsten Breitfeld, Byton's CEO and former product director for the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, said last week at the auto show here. "The same product will be sold in Europe, in the United States and China."
The only difference will be in the software, with Chinese buyers getting a different user experience.
"If you do it only by software and not by hardware, then it reduces the complexity," Breitfeld said. "It's very hard to create a world product because there are so many requirements."
If all goes as planned, production will begin in the first half of 2019 in a purpose-built factory in Nanjing, China. Two other models based on the same platform, a sedan and a multipurpose vehicle, are waiting in the wings.
Breitfeld said the Byton's price was in a "sweet spot" in the premium SUV segment. "If you want to do cars, it's all about volume," he said. "You do need several hundred thousand just to fill up one plant; then you generate economies of scale."
The company aims to sell 300,000 vehicles annually within five years.
A number of other Chinese brands with global ambitions made their presence felt at Frankfurt.
Chery Automobile, which says it is the best-selling Chinese brand in overseas markets, showed the Exeed TX, a compact SUV that will have three electrified drivetrains when it arrives in Europe and potentially North America in the next few years. Chery has tried to crack the American market before, signing an agreement with Chrysler in 2007 to produce small cars, but the arrangement fizzled a year later.
Great Wall Motor Co., which says it is pursuing a purchase of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Jeep division, showed a hybrid SUV concept for its high-end brand Wey, as well as the VV5 and VV7 crossovers. Wei Jianjun, Great Wall's chairman, has said he is actively looking for a North American production facility to build SUVs for the world market.
Borgward, a defunct German brand once sold in North America that has been revived with Chinese investment, showed the Isabella concept. It plans to return to the European market this year with the Chinese-made premium BX7 crossover.
Notably absent was Lynk & CO, a sibling brand to Volvo that is being launched by parent Geely. Lynk & CO executives say they plan to sell 125,000 vehicles annually in both Europe and North America by 2021.