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BYD Dolphin test drive

The compact BYD Dolphin has its quirks, but its affordability really opens up EV motoring to a much wider potential audience

Summary

The second car from BYD offers affordable entry into electric motoring. The compact BYD Dolphin has its quirks, but its affordability really opens up EV motoring to a much wider potential audience.
Design
7
Comfort
8
Driving experience
5
Value for money
9
Safety
10

Summary

The second car from BYD offers affordable entry into electric motoring. The compact BYD Dolphin has its quirks, but its affordability really opens up EV motoring to a much wider potential audience.

Make and model: BYD Atto 3
Description: Mid-sized hatch – new-to-UK brand’s second offering
Price range: £26,195 – £31,695

BYD says: “The BYD Atto 3 combines modern aesthetics with exceptional intelligence and efficiency derived from pioneering electric vehicle technology and smart connectivity.”

We say: Competently styled, with lots of equipment and affordable, the BYD Dolphin is certainly worthy of consideration by the EV family hatch buyer.


Introduction

You cannot fault the pace of BYD Auto – the Chinese brand launched itself onto the UK market with its Atto 3 SUV in mid 2023, and a second model has arrived only a couple of months on in the form of the Dolphin, a mid-sized electric hatchback.

A larger saloon model, called the Seal, will be in showrooms before the end of 2023 and boasts a sub-four-second 0-62mph time. Meanwhile an aggressive dealer growth programme has already included the opening of a showroom in London’s Berkeley Square amongst the likes of Bentley, Ferrari and Rolls-Royce, and will see the brand’s outlets increase from the current single figures to 100 by the end of 2024 – clearly, BYD is very serious about making its mark in the UK.

What is it?

The Dolphin is part of BYD’s ‘Ocean Series’, and one of some 19 different models the brand offers in its home market of China. As we detailed in our feature on the brand, BYD Auto might not be well known to UK car buyers but the company is big globally, having sold more than five million EVs. It’s even bigger in batteries – half the world’s iPad batteries are made by BYD and it supplies the batteries for one in five smartphones.

The Dolphin is a mid-sized hatchback and as such will be aiming to take customers from the likes of fellow Chinese contender the highly-regarded MG 4, but also other mainstream EVs –it offers the interior space of a Volkswagen ID.3 in a car that is more Peugeot e-208 sized. The newcomer will eventually be available in four trim levels and two battery sizes – once the entry-level versions join the range in 2024 prices will start from a highly affordable £26,195.

How does it look?

The BYD Dolphin strikes a satisfactory pose – basically, it looks a lot like any other mid-sized hatchback, which for many years seemed to be something EVs must not do. We are told that the rounded styling represents “the graceful lines of a leaping dolphin.” We’re not sure about that, but the visuals, notably the strong arrowhead-like creases on the flanks, are very competently done. The rear light signature, an LED running right across the flank, strikes a distinctive note too.  

It’s a practical profile too – the car boasts a long wheelbase with short overhangs, a side effect of the car’s platform and its clever battery pack, and an attribute that translates to impressive interior space.

We like: General exterior styling is pleasingly normal
We don’t like: ‘Build Your Dreams’ written across the rear – but this is now a ‘no cost option’

What are the specs like?

Launch versions of the Dolphin are on offer in the two top trim levels, Comfort and Design, and from early in 2024 they will be joined by two lower trims dubbed Active and Boost (A, B, C, D, get it?). And as we will detail shortly the range encompasses three motor ratings and two battery sizes.

Prices start from about £26K for the Active, which is a head-turning price, offering true affordability in the EV market – even the most expensive Design variant is cheaper than the entry models of some European rivals. And the low price does not come at the expense of standard equipment – the list includes the kind of extras you don’t usually find in base versions.

The front seats have electric adjustment, for example, while there are also auto headlights, keyless entry and start, the list goes on… Even the huge rotatable touchscreen and ‘Vehicle to Load’ feature that allows the car battery to be used to charge an external electric device are standard across the range.  

The safety package is particularly impressive, which has allowed the Dolphin to earn the maximum five-star rating from Euro NCAP with an impressive set of scores across the board. It offers a comprehensive suite of active safety aids, including forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, rear collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert and rear cross-traffic brake, lane departure prevention and emergency lane-keeping assist.

Other highlights of the comprehensive specification across the range include adaptive cruise control, a panoramic camera and more aids including blind spot monitoring, hill descent control and traffic sign recognition.

The Boost specification adds £1,000 to the price which pays for a more powerful motor, 17-inch wheels and a multi-link rear suspension. Finally, we have the two top levels and the first versions on sale, Comfort and Design which use the most powerful motor and battery.

The Comfort costs a smidge over £30K and gains heated front seats and an 11kW onboard charger compared to the 7kW of the lower trims, while for another £1,500 the range-topper comes with a panoramic roof, privacy glass in the rear seats, wireless smartphone charging and vehicle-to-load.  

We like: Breadth of specification, especially safety aids
We don’t like: Entry-level versions not available at launch

What’s it like inside?

The positive impressions given off by the Dolphin continue once one steps inside. It’s well put together with the soft-touch surfaces feeling more upmarket than some buyers might expect.

The colour scheme is interesting – BYD arrived in the UK with some quite outlandish colour combinations (ooh, pink…) but has reacted quickly to customer feedback, in a similar vein to putting the brand’s full name across the back of the boot. From November 2023 production the standard interior finish will be the more subtle black that UK buyers tend to prefer.

The interior of the first BYD, the Atto 3, was we were told inspired by gym equipment and the Dolphin has its own theme, its interior apparently boasting aquatic elements, the most notable being the interior door handles which we are told are shaped to represent dolphin fins… it’s a little more conventional though – no door bins masquerading as playable guitar strings for example.

The controls are logically laid out and fairly minimalist – a great many functions are controlled through the laptop-sized infotainment screen which can be rotated from landscape to vertical format. Opinions of this are mixed (our reviewer considers vertical sensible, especially when using sat nav maps, while his colleague on the launch drive event couldn’t see the point), but one issue is the screen’s size – in vertical format, it seriously intrudes into the driver’s field of vision.

By the way, there are a couple of ways of rotating said screen – a button on the screen itself, or asking BYD’s voice assistant. Now we did not have unwarranted success with this, saying “Hey BYD” eliciting a response to this reviewer but the Yorkshire accent of his colleague producing only ignorance… 

BYD says that the patented design of its Blade battery pack frees up more space on the insides and this becomes obvious when sitting in the back seat – the room, both ahead of the legs and above the head, is surprisingly generous for a car of the size.

At first glance, the boot appears small by comparison, but it does have a second compartment under the floor, big enough to store the charging cables and other items you might want to hide away. The official figures are 345 litres, rising to 1,310 with the seats folded – that’s adequate for a supermini, though some rivals offer more.

We like: Lots of people room, especially in the back
We don’t like: Boot space could be bigger

Under the bonnet

As is typical with EVs, the Dolphin’s powertrain is slim. The electric motor is mounted between the front wheels and the battery pack sits under the cabin floor, adding to the car’s rigidity.

Like the Atto 3 the Dolphin employs BYD’s cobalt-free Blade battery pack.  Its design allows much denser packaging of the battery cells and as these are of Lithium Iron-Phosphate (LFP) they are said to be much safer – BYD delights in showing video tests of the pack involving pressing nails into them and running over them with heavy trucks.

There are two battery sizes on offer and three motor options. The upper two trim levels come with the larger of the two batteries, a 60kWh unit promising a WLTP-certified range between charges of 265 miles and powering the 204hp motor. This will send the Dolphin through 62mph from rest in seven seconds – not so many years ago such pace would see GTi or similar badges added to the car.  Comfort and Design models can also be charged at rates up to 88 kW, boosting the battery from 30 to 80% in half an hour.

The two lower trim versions joining the range in the first quarter of 2024 have a 45kWh LFP battery, its estimated range likely to be around the 190 to 210-mile mark depending on the motor – the base Active model gets a 95hp unit while the Boost virtually doubles its power to 176hp. We’ve yet to see performance or charging figures for these cars.

One other notable aspect of the Dolphin is its standard-fit heat pump – this clever system makes use of all the residual heat it can find to make the car’s batteries more efficient. What this means in simple terms is that the drop-off in range the average EV owner expects in cold winter conditions is far less of an issue if you are driving a BYD. 

How does it drive?

The Dolphin eases away and accelerates with all the virtually silent smoothness that is now expected of an EV. At motorway speeds, there is audible wind noise, which with an EV becomes more noticeable because there’s no engine to drown it out.

The driving experience is easy, if uninvolving. There’s little feel through the steering wheel but, even with its snappy acceleration, the Dolphin is not the kind of car you’d imagine enthusiastically hustling along a challengingly twisty country route.

Ride comfort is good, with only the most damaged of road surfaces unsettling the car, though the multi-link suspension no doubt helps with this – we’re not convinced the entry-level torsion bar will be so forgiving. 

Anyone trying out the BYD who has previously driven an EV will find one other major difference – there’s no regenerative braking to speak of. The drivetrain does include some regeneration, but not to a level one can feel behind the wheel. Perhaps it’s something to do with the makeup of the battery pack, but this is definitely not a car one can drive on a single pedal like many other electrics.

We like: Unfussed progress and level of ride comfort
We don’t like: Wind noise at speed

Verdict

There’s a lot to like about the BYD Dolphin. It’s potent enough for a mainstream car, it tackles much of the UK’s less-than-perfect road surfaces without issue, it looks okay inside and out and it comes with a long list of equipment.

Yes, it has its quirks, but these idiosyncracies are nothing that significantly affects one’s life with the car. And then you remember just how much you will pay for all of this, at which point the Dolphin becomes a car that really opens up EV motoring to a much wider potential audience.

Dolphin highlights

  • Affordable for an EV
  • Quality interior
  • Lots of interior space
  • Safe battery format

Dolphin lowlights

  • Wind noise at speed
  • Aggressive safety assistants
  • Boot not biggest
  • Not many dealers yet

Similar cars

Cupra Born | DS 3 E-Tense | Honda e | Kia Soul EV | MG 4Mini Electric | Ora Funky Cat | Peugeot e-208 | Renault Zoe | Smart #1 | Vauxhall Corsa ElectricVolkswagen ID.3

Key specifications

Model tested: BYD Dolphin Design
Price (as tested): £31,695
Motor unit: 150kW, 60kWh battery
Gearbox:
Automatic
Power: 176 hp

Top speed: 99 mph
0-60 mph: 7.0 seconds
Battery range: 265 miles (WLTP combined)
Euro NCAP safety rating: Five stars (October 2023)
TCE Expert Rating: 58% (as of November 2023)

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.
The second car from BYD offers affordable entry into electric motoring. The compact BYD Dolphin has its quirks, but its affordability really opens up EV motoring to a much wider potential audience.BYD Dolphin test drive