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HomeFeaturesFirst look at the new BYD electric crossover in South Africa – Tesla’s biggest rival

First look at the new BYD electric crossover in South Africa – Tesla’s biggest rival

Build Your Dreams (BYD) has made its way to South African shores, in partnership with Alpine Motor Group which will now be distributing the brand’s battery-electric vehicles to dealers across the country.

A spokesperson for Alpine said there are already a few units standing in the showroom at a dealership in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and that the first shipments to customers are expected to take place from July “if all goes according to plan.”

Being five years in the making, the domestic launch of BYD is certainly one to keep an eye on as this is the first time a major brand has arrived in the country with only electric vehicles (EVs) in its portfolio.

While the adoption rate of EVs is on the up, the field is also becoming much more competitive.

At the start of the year, the BYD at its current window sticker of R768,000 would have been the second-most affordable EV in South Africa behind the Mini Cooper SE, but now, it also has to contend against Asian rivals such as GWM’s Ora as well as more established players like the Volvo EX30 which both launched within the past few months at equally-competitive pricing.

While it’s certainly a unique offering in the space, there are daunting odds the BYD will have to overcome to make it big in the tough domestic market.

Who is BYD?

BYD was founded in 1995 and it’s involved in several fields including rail transit, electronics, new energy, and now also automobiles.

The company launched its first vehicle in 2008 in partnership with Daimler, which was a badge-engineered version of the Mercedes-Benz B-Class MPV.

In 2013, it decided to venture into independent vehicle design, and by 2016, it appointed ex-Alfa Romeo and SEAT designer Wolfgang Egger as lead design director.

Since then, it has launched models with names derived from Chinese dynasties including the Qin, Tang, Yuan, Song, and most recently the Han, all of which were based on the brand’s proprietary second-generation new-energy vehicle (NEV) platform.

The Atto and new Dolphin are therefore the first models to be built on the third-generation underpinnings.

Today, BYD is the biggest NEV manufacturer in the world, which includes hybrid cars, and the second-largest producer of pure EVs right behind Tesla. In 2022, it sold over 1.86 million NEVs, 900,000 of these running on batteries alone.

BYD currently has a presence in over 70 countries and 400 cities, and it boasts more than 30 industrial parks in major countries like Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, India, and the United States.

What is the Atto 3?

BYD presented the Atto 3 to local media, dealers, and members of the Automotive Industry Development Centre (AIDC) this 29 June.

Sitting in the C-SUV segment, the Atto appeals to many local motorists as this body style in this specific category has been consistently rising in popularity ever since the early 2010s.

The EV is available in standard and extended-range trims, each pushed along by a front-mounted motor with 150kW and 310Nm on tap. The standard variant then sees a 70kWh battery resulting in a maximum range of 345km, while the extended-range model receives an 80kWh pack which pushes its range up to 440km.

The power source takes the form of BYD’s latest Blade battery, which the manufacturer claims are among the safest car batteries in the world.

The module comprises single cells arranged in an “optimised structure” and has passed stringent tests such as being penetrated by a nail, crushed, bent, heated in a furnace to 300°C, and overcharged by 260% – none of which resulted in a fire or explosion, said the automaker.

“This implies that EVs equipped with the Blade Battery would be far less susceptible to catching fire – even when they are severely damaged,” said BYD.

An important trick in the BYD’s playbook with which it hopes to catch the attention of local buyers is its ability to offer a vehicle-to-load (VTOL) mobile power supply function.

With up to a 3.3kW output, VTOL support lets the owner use unspent energy inside the car’s battery when there is no electricity – for example when they’re out camping, or when there’s load-shedding.

The power bank can last for nearly 20 hours if the vehicle is fully charged, and it provides enough current to power appliances such as fridges, TVs, and coffee machines.

During the presentation, BYD showed off the feature by making a cappuccino right on stage from a rather sizeable machine and it showed no strain of lacking power.

Apart from VTOL, where the Atto differentiates itself from the pack the most is inside the cabin.

The experience here is decidedly BYD as there are several unique design choices and quirks that aren’t necessarily better or worse than their competitors’, but novel enough not to confuse it with another brand.

Instead of the usual levers, the doors are opened with semi-circular handles curved around the door speaker unit; the vertical slats used for aircon vents look aeronautically inspired; and the gear shifter continues this theme taking by taking on an appearance akin to the thrust lever in an aeroplane cockpit.

With their integrated headrests, the seats also have a sporty appearance, and the curvaceous dash is in stark contrast to the flat, squared-off interiors most new cars launch with nowadays.

The BYD’s door pockets aren’t lined with hard plastic, either, but rather three elastics that offer more storage flexibility and the look of guitar strings.

Another feature we haven’t seen on any other car in the country is the 12.8-inch rotating central touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

BYD didn’t highlight any specific benefits of the rotational ability, apart from it being a cool trick to show your passengers, but we can imagine it being beneficial for things such as displaying navigation in tight cities where there are many turns ahead.

Behind the steering wheel then sits a 5-inch monitor for speed and vehicle data, which does feel a bit small compared to the flat-screen-like panels in other modern vehicles, but it displays all the necessary information the driver could want so it will probably only take a few days to get used to.

The cabin’s materials are also premium to the touch, the buttons aren’t too plastic or flimsy, and there are no glaringly obvious faults in quality, at least not any we could find during our short time in and around the car.

The cabin only comes in one colour combo, though, a blue and grey mix with red contrasting elements which perfectly fits the futuristic atmosphere of the space.

The option to get darker hues would likely have helped the Atto’s popularity among EV-curious individuals, but the current palette isn’t unattractive in the slightest, only a modest risk when it comes to grime and dirt.

With no fuel-burning engine in the front, the BYD’s passenger compartment can also be more spacious than most petrol vehicles of similar dimensions resulting in ample knee and shoulder room, but with the large battery beneath the floorboards, you do sit slightly higher.

There’s a lot to like, and not a lot to dislike, about the new Atto 3.

It may not kickstart the EV revolution in South Africa but it’s poised to ride a wave that is anticipated to gain momentum within the next few years.

BYD Atto 3 Climbing Grey

BYD Atto 3 Skiing White

BYD Atto 3 Surfing Blue


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