Buffett-backed BYD shows how unloved hybrids can help beat Tesla

By BLOOMBERG | 22 November 2021

The BYD Dm-i plug-in hybrid. — YouTube/Chinese Car Reviewer

SHANGHAI: Even with disruptions from chip shortages and supply chain failures it’s been a banner year for China’s car market, the world’s largest.

Sales of electric models are on track to more than double 2020’s tally and local automakers have begun prospering overseas, as well as at home.

While it’s the buzzy startups like Nio and Xpeng that command most attention, BYD — the sector veteran that counts Warren Buffett as an investor — is emerging as one of the year’s biggest winners.

Last month, three BYD models were among China’s five best-selling new-energy vehicles, a segment that includes plug-in hybrids.

The company’s battery-electric sales in the third quarter jumped 67%, and outpaced Tesla for the first time since the end of 2019, according to data from the China Automotive Technology and Research Center.
Proving Popular

The Shenzhen-based producer signalled Friday it’ll seek to press home its recent advantage, outlining plans to inject US$1.7 billion into its new-energy vehicle unit to improve research and operational capacity.

While the company was one of the pioneers of China’s electric auto sector, and has been producing rechargeable batteries since the mid-1990s, it owes much of its current success to the hybrid segment.

Two of BYD’s best performers are DM — or dual mode — models that offer a plug-in hybrid system similar to those used by GM’s Volt or Honda’s i-MMD technology.

BYD’s technology has come a long way since the F3 DM days in 2008. Back then, the car jerked abruptly along the roads of Shenzhen, and felt like riding a crazy buffalo.

Three generations of upgrades have smoothed out performance, and the models are now finding favour with consumers for decidedly practical reasons.

They banish range anxiety in a country where finding a plug can be tricky even with the world’s largest network of chargers, and offer value for money with fuel consumption that can be as little as 1.6 litres per 100km.

China’s sales of plug-in hybrid cars jumped 180% in October, a faster expansion than the 148% gain in the new-energy vehicle sector as a whole, according to the China Passenger Car Association.

That’s pushing BYD’s local competitors to take notice, and Chinese automakers including Great Wall, Chery and Geely have all recently announced new hybrid platforms.

There’s renewed interest in hybrids elsewhere, too. Toyota sees the vehicles as a potentially key tool over the next two decades to help curb emissions in developing economies, or in countries still building out their energy and charging infrastructure.

For some consumers, the distinction between fully electric and plug-in hybrid options matters far less than the sticker price and running costs.

As long as companies produce vehicles that “consume less fuel and lower my costs, I don’t care what technologies they adopt,” Jack Ye, who recently bought a Volkswagen Passat plug-in hybrid, said in Shanghai last month.