China is a huge market for electric vehicles, with government incentives helping to drive demand and subsequently foster domestic startups.
One of these is Nio, a rival to Tesla, which has a growing range of cars and global ambitions.
It’s but one of many Chinese car companies that are growing at pace. Fellow startup Xpeng was founded at a similar time and is attempting to grow internationally.
Then there are more established Chinese companies including BYD, Great Wall Motor (via its EV-only Ora brand), and Geely (through its Zeekr brand).
Nio (styled NIO) was founded in 2014 by entrepreneur William Li. Following an almost archetypal rags to riches story,
Li was born in 1974 and is popularly known to have herded cattle with his grandparents in his youth, before building a small fortune by founding Bitauto, a Chinese automotive services, advertising and car news portal, in 2000.
This gave him enough capital to establish the holding company for Nio, NextEV, in the Cayman Islands in 2014. Li was also able to convince various Chinese technology companies such as Tencent, Xiaomi and Baidu to invest in the new firm.
NextEV gained further prominence when it used this money to become the headline sponsor for the Team China Racing Formula E team during the inaugural 2014/15 season (which Team China Racing won).
At an event in November 2016, Li rebranded NextEV as Nio (Chinese name Weilai, translating to Blue Sky Coming) and launched its first production vehicle, the EP9 supercar. Despite not being road-legal, the EP9 featured a 1000kW motor that was sufficient to propel the car from 0-100 km/h in 2.9 seconds, and complete a lap of the Nürburgring in a record-breaking 6:45.9.
Now publicly listed on the NYSE, Nio claims to have approximately 7000 employees and a market capitalisation of approximately $US48.5 billion, placing it above established manufacturers such as Honda, Subaru and Renault.
Headquartered in Shanghai, the company now has operations around the globe, including a design centre in Munich, an ‘advanced research and innovation’ centre in San Jose (Silicon Valley), and an engineering R&D centre in Oxford, UK.
Taking a similar approach to Tesla, the company sells cars directly through what it calls ‘Nio Houses’, with 33 of these currently operational in China.
The brand recently opened its first international Nio House on October 1 in Oslo, Norway. The firm has announced intentions to expand to Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden in 2022, and hopes to be selling vehicles in more than 25 countries by 2025.
Whether an Australian debut is on the cards remains uncertain.
Current model line-up and recent innovations
Nio has positioned its model line-up as a range of premium, luxury vehicles that can compete head-on with Tesla, as well as EVs launched by legacy car-makers such as BMW, Mercedes and Audi amongst others.
The main model that is currently being sold outside of China (in Norway, and presumably other European markets in 2022) is the ES8. This is a large SUV, dimensionally comparable to the BMW X7 and Mercedes-Benz GLS, and offered with a choice of 6 or 7 seats.
The car has achieved a five-star Euro NCAP rating, and in Norwegian specification, is offered with a choice of 75kWh or 100kWh batteries, yielding WLTP certified ranges of 375km and 500km respectively.
Nio claims a 0-100 km/h time of 4.9 seconds from a dual-motor powertrain combining to provide more than 400kW of power and 724Nm of torque.
In Norway, the company has priced the ES8 to the equivalent of $95,000 for the 75kWh version, and $106,000 for the 100kWh battery.
Most recently, the brand has unveiled its Tesla Model 3-rivalling ET5 sedan with a purported range of up to 1000km on the CLTC Chinese test cycle, when equipped with a 150kW battery.
Also available in smaller 75kWh and 100kWh battery sizes, the ET5 in China is priced from the equivalent of $72,140.
Other models that the company has revealed include the flagship Tesla Model S-rivalling ET7 sedan, which will also be available with similar battery capacities to the ET5, and include features such as a 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos surround sound system, standard Brembo brakes and a 0-100 km/h acceleration figure of less than 4 seconds.
This particular model is currently undergoing pre-production testing with an intention to launch in China in Q1 2022.
Nio is currently also selling the ES6 and EC6 crossover SUVs in China only. These are smaller models, comparable in size to the Mercedes-Benz GLC and BMW X3, with the EC6 effectively being a coupé version of the more upright ES6.
Nio claims similar range and performance figures of 610 and 615km (on the unrealistic NEDC cycle) and acceleration of 4.5 and 4.7 seconds from 0-100 km/h respectively, when equipped with a 100kWh battery. It is uncertain whether these models will be exported outside of China.
Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations that the brand has embraced is battery swapping, which Nio calls ‘Battery-as-a-Service’ (BaaS).
As part of this concept, owners can pay a monthly subscription fee that gives them access to a Power Swap station, where they can quickly swap their discharged battery for a fully-charged one in a matter of minutes (with the discharged battery being removed from the vehicle).
Nio claims that this significantly reduces the upfront cost of buying one of its vehicles, whilst also ensuring customers have access to the latest battery technology and do not have to worry about preserving their battery lifespan.
Nio claims that it will have 1300 battery swapping stations in China by the end of 2022, and 20 stations in Norway within the same timeframe.
As an example, the firm claims that in Norway, opting to purchase an ES8 SUV with BaaS reduces the upfront price to approximately $81,000 followed by an ongoing monthly subscription of $220/month for a 75kWh battery or $312/month for the 100kWh battery.