Amidst all the hoopla about Nio, XPeng, and BYD, it’s easy to overlook the fact that US companies like General Motors and Ford also have a significant presence in China. The Chevrolet brand positions itself as the value brand, just as it does in America, while Buick positions itself as a premium brand for upmarket customers.
At a GM Tech Day event in Shanghai this week, General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced a plan to introduce more than 15 battery electric models based on the company’s Ultium platform to China by 2025, and reinforced GM’s commitment to making electric vehicles more connected and intelligent.
“With our disruptive technologies coming to life, we are seeing the most profound and immense transformation ever in the automotive industry,” said Barra. “GM is determined to lead the transformation and ultimately create a better, safer and more sustainable world for our customers and generations to come.” GM’s latest mantra is “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.”
General Motors says it is stepping up the development and rollout of software-defined vehicles to meet customers’ evolving needs for a digital lifestyle. Its new software defined vehicle platform will be introduced in North America and China next year. That platform will enable frequent and seamless updates of apps and services over the air, ensuring users have access to the most innovative experiences and technologies.
“GM is accelerating the introduction of Ultium empowered EVs in China to support the market’s move toward an all-electric future,” said Julian Blissett, president of GM China. “Through global collaboration and local integration, we are unlocking a transformative experience with real world benefits for our customers through zero emission driving.”
Chevrolet Concept Electric Sedan
At the GM Tech Day in Shanghai, General Motors introduced the FNR-XE, a concept design for a four-door battery-electric sedan that will be the first of 15 planned EV models coming from the Bow Tie brand in China by 2025.
According to GM Authority, the FNR-XE Concept is Chevrolet’s first concept vehicle based on Ultium Battery and Ultium Drive propulsion technology that combines GM’s global resources with the company’s local development capabilities in China. It is the first interpretation of an electric four-door sedan from Chevrolet.
There is much ballyhoo about “muscular proportions, an aggressive wedge shaped front end that pays homage to the iconic American muscle car tradition.” But there’s more to a car than styling. Sharp-eyed readers will note the sloping rear roof line that is becoming the signature feature of virtually all electric cars.
Efficiency is critical to cars that run on electrons and will be at least until lower-cost batteries with higher energy densities become available. In the good old days of the internal combustion engine, manufacturers could afford to design cars that had the aerodynamics of a brick, but no more.
Today, every electric car from the Mercedes EQS to the Hyundai Ioniq 6 features a teardrop shape that slips easily through the air. Those that don’t pay a heavy penalty when it comes to range, and range is the number one consideration for most EV shoppers. Traditional sedans used to be referred to as “three box” vehicles — one for the engine, one for the passenger compartment, and one for the trunk. The sedans of the future will be more like two-and-half box designs, which we can see in the svelte, smooth lines of the FNR-XE.
A concept is just a concept, but the buzz in Chinese media is that the FNR-XE gives strong hints about a battery electric sedan from Chevrolet that is expected to launch in China next year. The speculation is that, under the skin, there is a direct connection between the FNR-XE and the upcoming Chevy Equinox, which will hit the streets in America next year with a starting price of around $30,000.
General Motors says the FNR-XE Concept was developed by its Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai and demonstrates just how flexible the Ultium architecture can be. That platform is designed to be the basis of vehicles with multiple body styles across many price ranges. It underpins the new Brightdrop delivery vans, the Hummer EV, the Cadillac Lyriq, and the upcoming Equinox, Blazer, Silverado, and Sierra electric vehicles.
Buick EV Coming To America?
Recently, General Motors president Mark Reuss told investors that some Tesla owners were getting their cars serviced at GM dealerships. Also during those remarks, Reuss said the Chinese-made Buick Envista SUV might be coming to the U.S. soon as the Buick Electra E5 all-electric SUV, according to Motor Trend.
“It’s already in production in China, paying forward the Buick design of the Wildcat. A beautiful vehicle, getting ready for the U.S. here as well,” Reuss said. He offered no further details about when that car might go on sale in America. There may be some tricky calculating going on behind the scenes as GM tries to figure out whether to manufacture the car in China and pay the import duties on it or assemble it in America to make it eligible for the various incentives created by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Readers will note the Envista also has the sloping rear roofline that defines most electric cars. That shape limits rear head room and cargo capacity — two features that made SUVs popular in the first place. But the laws of aerodynamics are immutable. If you make an SUV that looks like a Suburban, it will need a massive (and expensive) battery to allow the kind of range people expect from an electric car. The sloping rear deck is here to stay, apparently.
General Motors As Intercontinental Titan
Many automakers once thought they would get rich selling cars to Chinese customers. After all, there are 1.2 billion of them, making China the largest new car market in the world. What they didn’t plan on was the rise of Chinese car companies and the preference among Chinese customers for cars designed and produced by Chinese companies in China.
It is interesting that GM’s biggest sales success is the diminutive Wuling Mini, a bargain-basement urban vehicle that is proving to be wildly popular. But its contribution to GM’s bottom line is probably minuscule. Making money by selling electric cars in China remains a significant challenge, as does navigating the swirling political and economic crosscurrents in that country.
The Ultium platform is a made-in-America component that will be the basis of GM’s Chinese offerings, and the models developed for China may in turn find their way back to American showrooms. If General Motors can learn to juggle all those pieces successfully, it may be well on its way to becoming an intercontinental brand again, given its recent interest in re-entering the European market.
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