When BYD unwrapped its Seagull battery electric city car in Shanghai last week, it may have marked an inflection point in the EV revolution. Looking back on the event years from now, historians might point to that event as the moment in time when the world of transportation transitioned from reliance on the infernal combustion engine to acceptance of battery electric vehicles as the new normal.
Why is that? Because the BYD Seagull is a real electric car for people who need a vehicle that can take them back and forth to work, haul some groceries, go to the beach on a sunny day, and generally fulfill the duties of a passenger car without leaving any pollutants in its wake. Up until now, almost all electric cars were either luxury models or minuscule quadricycles.
The Seagull is different. It’s a 4-passenger hatchback that is slightly larger than a Fiat 500 and a little shorter than a MINI Cooper. But the most astonishing news is that its starting price in China is under $11,000, which makes it less expensive than a gas-powered Honda Fit. That makes it one of the first EVs that doesn’t have to apologize for its sticker price.
Up till now, it has always been, “Yeah, it costs more up front, but it saves a lot of money in the long run.” Now the Seagull has flipped the script. Buyers can hold their heads high and brag about their electric car that costs less to begin with and continues to save them money as they drive. That’s huge.
According to my colleague Remeredzai Joseph Kuhudzai, the Seagull is based on BYD’s e-platform 3.0 and falls under the Ocean series, which also includes the Dolphin and the Seal. It has a single electric motor with 75 hp (55 kW) and 135 Nm of torque driving the front wheels. Its top speed is 130 km/h, and acceleration from 0–50 km/h takes 4.9 seconds. The Seagull is available with two BYD Blade battery packs — 30.08 kWh or 38.88 kWh.
The car with the smaller pack has a range of 305 km (190 miles), while the larger battery gives a range of 405 km (251 miles). Both range estimates are based on the highly optimistic CLTC standard preferred by Asian manufacturers. Those numbers would be considerably lower using the NEDC standard common in Europe and lower still using the EPA standard. Both battery packs can be recharged from 30% to 80% SOC in 30 minutes using a fast charger.
There are reports in the Chinese automotive media that BYD plans to offer the Seagull later this year with a sodium-ion battery pack. If so, the price of the car will likely drop even lower — although, range will probably drop as well, since sodium batteries do not have the same energy density as LFP batteries and are far behind NMC batteries in that regard. The top price for the Seagull fully loaded with every available option (there aren’t many) is a paltry $13,000.
Will The Seagull Play In Peoria?
There are any number of reasons why the BYD Seagull would likely be shunned by American consumers, who expect any car to be capable of carrying at least 7 passengers plus a week’s worth of camping gear while towing a ski boat up a mountain to the lake on summer vacation. The Honda Fit may be a fine car for routine driving chores, but it has never sold well in America. US customers also seem to have an aversion to hatchbacks, even though every SUV features a hatch. To sell in large numbers in America, a vehicle has to be either an SUV or a pickup truck. No sedans, coupes, wagons, or convertibles need apply.
This is one situation in which American Exceptionalism works against US customers, however. Small, efficient cars are very much in demand in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South and Central America, India, Japan, Australia, and Asia. BYD has not said it plans to export the Seagull, but if it does, it is likely to find a ready market for the car everywhere except North America.
Prospects In Europe Are Brighter
Forbes reached out to Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of Germany’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR), to ask his opinion about how the Seagull might appeal to European drivers. He said Europeans are unlikely to be interested in bare-bones vehicles. “It sounds interesting at first glance, but let’s talk about some details,” he said via email.
He noted that small cars like the Microlino and Citroen Ami haven’t found much interest among European drivers. “Do you remember the Tata Nano? It was supposed to be a revolution and ended up being a flop. Safety in small cars is a big issue in Europe, with airbags, door reinforcement, computerized safety, and so forth,” Dudenhoeffer said.
“The Microlino or Citroen Ami are not cars. Not everything which has 4 wheels must be a car. I think that we will see entry level EVs with 350 kilometer (218 miles) range and (real car safety, connectivity and comfort) between €15,000 and €20,000 ($16,540 and $22,050),” Dudenhoeffer added.
Buyers at the lower end of the market require small and inexpensive EVs, Forbes says. Such vehicles would have no long range pretensions and would focus on what electric power does best — commuting, shopping, and shuttling children back and forth to school. Since most charging would take place at home, there would be no need for expensive high-power charging networks. Such cars would have small batteries, which means their carbon footprint would be lower. They would be affordable enough that no purchase incentives would be needed.
Patrick Koller, CEO of French auto supplier Faurecia, told Forbes the entry-level EV market in Europe is ripe for attack by China. He said China could sell 1 million electric cars a year of all types here, about 8% of the the total European new car market last year. “I think an attractive car for Chinese consumers will be an attractive car for a European consumer,” Reuters quoted him as saying in an article from the Shanghai auto show.
The BYD Seagull Takeaway for the USA
The BYD Seagull is perfect for about 90% of what people use a car for. Those who sneer at its small size and bargain basement price should think back for a moment to what happened when the Yugo and the Hyundai Excel arrived in America. Demand went through the roof! The BYD Seagull is arguably superior to either of those cars.
Will it ever come to America? That is highly unlikely, but BYD doesn’t have to sell it in the US in order for it to be hugely successful elsewhere. In a way, BYD has thrown down the gauntlet to Elon Musk and Tesla. Build a low-priced electric car or we will! In fact, they already have. Your move, Elon.
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