China propels rise of electric ultra-high-performance cars

BEIJING — Want an insanely fast ride with zero emissions? Startup NIO has the car: An electric two-seater with muscular European lines and a top speed of 195 miles per hour (313 kilometers per hour).

The catch: The EP9 costs nearly $1.5 million. NIO, a Chinese-Western hybrid with bases in Shanghai, London and Silicon Valley, created it to showcase the company’s technology and had no sales plans. But it is taking orders for “bespoke vehicles” after hearing from buyers ready to pay the eye-popping price.

NIO EP9

“We are actually pleasantly surprised how much interest we are getting,” said the CEO of NIO’s US unit, Padmasree Warrior, a veteran of Cisco and Motorola.

NIO is part of a wave of fledgling automakers — all backed at least in part by Chinese investors — that are propelling the electric vehicle industry’s latest trend: ultra-high-performance cars.

Manufacturers including Detroit Electric, Qiantu Motor, Thunder Power and NEVS aim to compete with Europe, Detroit and Japan by offering top speeds over 150 mph (240 kph) and features including carbon fiber bodies and web-linked navigation and entertainment.

The ventures mix US and European technology with Chinese money and manufacturing, reflecting this country’s rise as a market and investor for an industry where Beijing wants a leading role. Communist leaders see electric vehicles as a way to clear China’s smog-choked cities and as an engine for economic development.

“We really haven’t seen non-Chinese companies get into this super-technology market,” said Chris Robinson, who follows the industry for Lux Research.

NIO’s backers include Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings, operator of the popular WeChat messaging service; computer maker Lenovo Group, a Singapore government-owned investment fund and US-based IDG Capital, TPG and Hillhouse Capital.

Some brands are following the strategy of Tesla Inc., which debuted with an eye-catching roadster to establish a premium image before launching lower-priced models.

The instant torque and acceleration of electric cars make them natural performance vehicles.

Detroit Electric, a revival of a pioneering US electric car brand founded in 1907, launched a sports car venture this year with a Chinese battery maker and the government of Yixing, west of Shanghai. For a base price of $135,000, the company promises zero to 60 mph (100 kph) in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph (250 kph).

The first seven of 100 cars ordered by European dealers have been delivered, according to its chairman and CEO, Albert Lam, a former Lotus chief executive. He said the company aims to release an SUV in 2018 and wants to have a four-vehicle lineup by 2020.

“Our target is to be the first Chinese-based vehicle company to sell worldwide,” said Lam.

Thunder Power, led by Hong Kong entrepreneur Wellen Sham, has a similarly multinational plan for a sport sedan due out in late 2018.

A sports sedan from Thunder Power

The company is building a factory in southern China and plans a second in Spain. Engineering work is being handled by Italy’s Dallara Automobili, which helped develop Bugatti’s Veyron, the fastest street-legal car with a top speed of 255 mph (408.84 kph).

Thunder Power promises a top speed of 155 mph (245 kph). The company says its competitive edge will be a battery that can go up to 400 miles (650 kilometers) on one charge, or almost double the 200 to 250 miles (320 to 400 kilometers) of current high-end electrics.

Beijing’s backing has helped to make China the biggest electric vehicle market at a time of uncertainty about the scale of support for the industry from Washington and European governments.

Sales in China of plug-in and hybrid vehicles in the first quarter of this year totaled 55,929, versus 44,876 for the United States. (AP)

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