From BMW to BYD, Porsche to Polestar, Nio to Nissan, they’re all here…
The motor show is alive and well in China, and the domestic marques are now fully fledged global players
The motor show might be a dying concept in Europe, but the 2023 Shanghai motor show is a dizzying reminder that they’re still crucial in the vast and hugely important Chinese market.
Officially called the 20th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition, but branded as Auto Shanghai, the scale of the event is hard to fathom: 320,000 square metres of exhibition space featuring more than 1000 exhibitors, and 150 press conferences showcasing more than 100 new cars – you can see all the most important below.
And even when you sift through the updates, variants, third-party conversions and Chinese debuts of previously-seen machines there are still some heavy hitters. The previous running of the show was held in 2021 during the Covid pandemic, with most European firms absent.
With restrictions in China lifted, those firms are back en masse, desperate to reconnect with the world’s biggest single car market. Polestar, BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are among the firms to launch truly significant global models in the vast exhibition centre.
But the Chinese firms are absolutely ready for them, especially with a vast array of battery-electric vehicles. And you can forget any last vestige of Chinese firms production inferior or copycat cars: in design, powertrain and build quality, the best Chinese models are absolutely a match for their European counterparts; in terms of digital technology, they are often superior.
It helps, of course, that the Chinese government has spotted an opportunity with the switch to electrification, both to reduce its dependency on imported petrol and to accelerate its domestic car industry. Which is a reminder that, with China, there are important questions to consider in areas such as state control, censorship, human rights, geopolitics and more.
But strictly from an automotive viewpoint, you have to be impressed. Traverse the stands of Chinese giants such as BYD or Geely, start-up Nio, and you have to be impressed by the volume, scale and variety of cars they are now producing.
Yet, in a show where more is very much more, the most distinctive, memorable stand was one with just two cars on view. Polestar chose to present the new 4 coupé-SUV face-to-face with the larger 3 on a plinth surrounded by more than 80,000 live red tulips. It’s an unforgettable, dramatic visual, and one that really builds on the Swedish brand’s flair for bold visual design. It exemplified Polestar’s growth from a Volvo spin-off into a standalone brand through the development of a clear and appealing identity.
It helps, of course, that the Swedish firm can draw on the resources and technology of its parent, Chinese giant Geely. And Zeekr and Lynk&Co, two of Geely’s other firms with European intentions that use platforms shared with Polestar and Volvo, both had substantial presences.
Zeekr didn’t have any previously unseen models to display, but did use its press conference to announce its launch in the European market. New regional boss Spiros Fotinos was as bold to claim the brand would become “a major player” within a decade. Bold talk, but it certainly has the resources to do so.
While Zeekr operates in the premium Chinese EV space, perhaps the leading brand in that area – and the closet parallel to Polestar – is Nio, which recently launched in Europe – and is set to arrive in the UK in the next year. While the European expansion has perhaps been slower than planned, in China Nio has really proven itself as one of the top premium firms, and its customers – or users, as the firm puts it – genuinely seem passionate about the brand.
You only had to see Nio boss William Li try to negotiate his stand while being constantly asked for selfies to see the genuine passion. Nio has really developed a sense of community among its owners, another example of how important brand is in this game.
Of course, the long-established European firms don’t need to build a brand: the challenge is trying to ensure those brands still appeal to customers in the transition to EVs.
Volkswagen used the show to launch the ID 7, a sleek saloon that is bang on trend for the market, alongside the whole family of ID models (in multiple forms, thanks to VW’s various joint ventures). Across the way, there was also a big display from Jetta, the firm’s China-only budget spin-off brand that was named to reflect China’s love for the classic saloon.
BMW has the eye-catching i Vision Dee concept on display, but the newest metal on its stand were two machines from its M division: the i7 M60 and the XM Project Red. Both are, shall we say, divisive, and to these British eyes the whopping i7 is done no favours by being placed close to the Andy Warhol art car version of the beautiful, minimalist, BMW M1. But then you suspect BMW knows its market: the cameras of most Chinese influencers are only pointing in one direction.
The Mini Aceman also features from the BMW Group stable, with a classic Mini hatch – albeit an electric conversion – on hand to reinforce the brand’s heritage. Both Nissan and Toyota are showing off China-only EV concepts that look too good to restrict to just the one market in the future.
The rich heritage of Lotus is also on display: in the year it turns 75, the Norfolk marque’s Shanghai stand is its largest ever presence at a motor show. And it is a true blend of old and new, with the Evija and Eletre watched over by a 1980s Formula 1 car and a display outlining its history.
Chinese consumers don’t necessarily know about Lotus, and the firm’s goal is to educate them. Rejuvenated under Geely’s ownership (where have we heard that before?), Lotus is embarking on a bold departure from its past – but its bosses are adamant about retaining its long-cherished values at its core.
Elsewhere, the major Chinese players are all present, both with their main lines and an increasing number of sub-brands focused on various aspects of the burgeoning EV market. The BYD stand truly shows that firm’s scale, and if it brings that scale to the UK it can be a major player. But its stand-out offering is its smallest: the new Seagull, a cheap electric city car that’s exactly the sort of thing we need more of in Europe.
Then there were the impressive displays from less familiar brands: Xpeng, HiPhi, Arcfox, Aion, and oh so many more. We could spend hours just listing all the brands present, and still likely forget some. What is notable is how many Chinese machines seem like a shoo-in for success in the UK. It isn’t just the scale of the Shanghai motor show that impresses.
Audi Formula 1 car
Audi is primed to enter Formula 1 in 2026 in partnership with Sauber, and given the importance of the Chinese market for the sport, it’s previewing its racer for the first time in Shanghai. The move towards sustainable fuels and the cost cap for each team were key motivators for the German brand to join F1.
BMW i7 M70
It might not be a full-fat M car, but with 650bhp and enough torque to pull down a house, the new top-rung i7 is a luxury limousine with supercar-baiting performance. In fact, it will do 0-62mph quicker than the Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 – but BMW says it can still crack up to 348 miles between charges. The ultimate all-rounder?
BMW XM Red Label
The most powerful hybrid SUV on the market makes its official debut in Shanghai. It’s a radically styled, 738bhp SUV that will do 0-62mph in 3.8sec. The £170,860 Red Label builds on the regular XM’s 644bhp PHEV powertrain with an upgrade package for its V8, which now produces 94bhp more. With this upgrade to the petrol engine, its electric-only range is now 47-52 miles and will reach a top speed, in electric mode, of 87mph. Derestricted and with the optional M Driver’s Package, it will reach a top speed of 180mph.
China’s answer to the Audi R8 comes as a £122,100 sports coupé with an electric motor powering each wheel to deliver a 0-62mph time of less than 2.0sec. While not much has been disclosed about the Yangwang U9, we can confirm that it uses EV technology developed by BYD itself and was styled by Wolfgang Egger, the former Alfa Romeo and Audi design boss.
The other big BYD unveiling is a bit less… big. The brilliantly named BYD Seagull is a tiny four-seat city car that uses innovative sodium-ion battery technology to offer a 170-mile range keep the list price below £8000. There’s a choice of 74bhp and 100bhp motors, there’s a longer-range 252-mile variant and the cabin gets the same trick swivelling touchscreen as BYD’s larger cars. Will BYD bring it to Europe as a Volkswagen e-Up rival? We can only dream.
HiPhi is a rapidly evolving Chinese premium EV manufacturer that currently offers the X SUV and the Z grand tourer. Sitting below them will be the entry-level Y, a slightly smaller but no less outlandish electric SUV that will begin HiPhi’s expansion into Europe. Arriving at the end of the year, it targets a lower price point and higher sales volumes than the £75,000 X and Z.
Lexus has launched the second generation of its LM – or Luxury Mover – in Shanghai. Posed as the more upmarket alternative to the Toyota Alphard, the MPV focuses on space and comfort in both its seven- and four-seat guises. Those seats use Adaptipedic memory foam, recline and offer a choice of seven massage functions. Privacy for passengers is provided by a glass panel that can raise in between the first and second row of seats. Powering it is a 291bhp 3.5-litre petrol V6 for a 0-62mph time of 7.0sec. But most excitingly? It’s coming to the UK.
Mercedes-Maybach EQS SUV
Mercedes’ electric SUV flagship has been revealed as a new era for the German ultra-luxury sub-brand as it moves towards a profit-focused strategy centring on large, luxury cars. Maybach’s hope with the EQS SUV is that it will position the brand ahead of rivals Bentley and Rolls-Royce, which don’t yet offer a luxury electric SUV. It features Maybach’s signature two-tone paintwork and a raft of bespoke interior upgrades to make it worthy of “first class” accommodation. Power comes from two electric motors producing 659bhp and 701lb ft and it will offer a range of 373 miles.
On show in concept guise, the Aceman will be Mini’s first bespoke EV and its most important model. It will arrive in 2025 to fill the gap between the Mini Cooper hatchback and the Mini Countryman SUV. Using Mini’s first new name since Paceman in 2012, the Aceman is said to be the car that “ticks all the boxes” and the firm says it will be largely similar to the concept when it enters production.
Mini Electric Convertible
Limited to just 150 models in the UK and 999 in Europe, the Mini Electric Convertible has made its public debut in China. The £52,500 soft-top sits on the same platform as the regular hatchback, so expect a 181bhp single-motor set-up, an 8.2sec 0-62mph time and 125-mile range.
The facelifted edition of Nio’s popular electric SUV is the first car the Chinese company has launched at a motor show. It sits on the firm’s second-generation platform, which is expected to afford slight improvements in range and performance – but details remain to be confirmed. The outgoing ES6 uses the same platform as the seven-seat ES8, using an electric motor on each axle which, in Performance trim, features a 322bhp motor at the front and 215bhp motor at the rear. The Standard version has two 215bhp motors at the front and rear. Each achieves a range of 319 miles and 256 miles respectively.
Rugged SUV gets a virtual assistant with facial recognition tech as Nissan aims to make life easier for owners in the digital age. It rides on the familiar CMF-EV platform and will evolve into a production car closely related to the rakish-roofed Ariya.
Nissan Max-Out concept
Nissan‘s outlandish electric two-seat drop-top makes its Chinese debut in Shanghai. Coming as part of the Japanese firm’s drive to develop sustainability and “innovative mobility”, the Max-Out will likely make use of solid-state battery technology should it head into production. It’s a clean-sheet design with a unique set of alloy wheels, a large, squared-off open-air intake at the front and lightbar at the rear whose shape mimicks that of the front grille. It promises to deliver a “new driving experience with its superlative stability and comfort, tight handling and limited body roll”.
The Polestar 4 is a rakish sporting crossover to rival the upcoming Porsche Macan EV. It will fill the gap between the Polestar 2 saloon and Polestar 3 SUV, priced between £50,000 and £65,000 and with the choice of single- or twin-motor power. We’re most excited about the 537bhp option…
Stuttgart’s revamped flagship SUV will go on sale this spring. It gets a comprehensively redesigned Porsche Taycan-inspired cabin, subtle changes to the exterior and chassis changes honed over 200,000 test kilometres to create “one of the most extensive product upgrades in the history of Porsche“. Plus, the Cayenne S has swapped its V6 for a V8 and the Turbo GT is now faster to 62mph than the 911 GT3… but we won’t get that one here.
The #3, Smart’s biggest model yet, has been designed to give the Geely-Mercedes brand a foothold in the popular electric SUV market. While technical specifications for the #3 remain unavailable to the general public, information leaked out of China has revealed that the coupé-SUV is 4400mm long, 1800mm wide and 1600mm tall with a wheelbase of 2785mm – a similar size to the Volkswagen ID 5. Basic models will feature a single motor with 268bhp and 252lb ft, and a high-performance Brabus variant is likely to join the line-up.
Toyota bZ concepts
Two new intriguing electric cars are inbound from Toyota, previewed in concept form at the Shanghai show. The handsome yellow car is the bZ Sports Crossover – aimed at younger buyers and likely based on the bZ4X – and the larger SUV is a family-focused proposition called the bZ Flexspace. Neither has yet been confirmed for a European launch, but it hasn’t been ruled out…
Toyota’s Tesla Model 3 rival uses Chinese giant BYD’s Blade battery technology to offer a near-400-mile range and promises “responsive” performance. It will be built in China and, for now, exclusively sold there. But when Autocar asked the firm’s European product boss if it could come here eventually, he told us to “stay tuned”.
Volkswagen ID 7
The German giant’s MEB-based rival to the Tesla Model 3 made its UK debut on 17 April in Birmingham and will be unveiled in production-ready guise at Shanghai. It’s the sixth EV in Volkswagen‘s ID range and, in time, will become the firm’s only model in Europe’s ever-shrinking D-segment. Volkswagen said it was designed specifically “for long distances” and will become available in Pro and Pro S trims. It’s set to enter UK showrooms by the end of 2023 with a WLTP range of 435 miles, a price tag of around £50,000, 282bhp and a 0-62mph time of 6.0sec. An estate version is due to arrive later.
Xpeng’s fifth production car, originally leaked as part of a batch of Chinese government registry filings, is a mid-size electric crossover earmarked for sale in selected European countries from 2024. Featuring a minimalist design, the G6 is expected to go on sale in front- and four-wheel drive guises, with outputs ranging between 208bhp and 292bhp.
Kicking off what Zeekr officials have said will be an “aggressive global marketing push”, the X is the Geely-owned Chinese firm’s third production model, an electric crossover that aims to double Zeekr sales to more than 140,000 this year. It’s likely to share the single-motor, rear-wheel-drive and dual-motor, four-wheel-drive powertrains used by the related Smart #1 and forthcoming Volvo EX30. The fastest version is confirmed to have a 0-62mph time of less than 4.0sec.