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Who or what is Nio?

Focusing on the upmarket electric car market, Nio is another Chinese manufacturer soon to set up shop in the UK. But what's different about them?

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If you’ve never heard of a car brand called Nio, that’s not surprising as it doesn’t yet sell cars in the UK. It’s one of several Chinese EV brands that have emerged in recent years and now have their sights set on Europe.

The company’s were delayed by the Covid pandemic, and its delayed UK launch is now expected to happen sometime in the second half of 2024.

Nio is a brand focused on developing electric cars, both for the premium market taking on the likes of Audi, BMW, and Porsche, and a range of smaller cars – likely under different brand names – to rival the mainstream market EV players such as Hyundai and Volkswagen.

The company, a major player in electric propulsion in its home nation, also has a novel approach to the technology, with proposals for stations where battery packs are swapped instead of being recharged.

Early suggestions also involve plans for Nio drivers to subscribe to one lease programme for their cars and a separate lease for batteries. This idea has been tried in the past, notably by Renault with the original Zoe, but was abandoned as concerns about battery life receded. But with a swappable battery system and network, it could potentially make more sense.

Not many details of the brand’s UK plans have been revealed yet, but we’ve done some digging to establish what you can expect to see from yet another new car badge.

So who or what is Nio?

Nio is still a very new manufacturer, only launching in 2014. Interestingly, the global unveiling took place in London but initially the brand’s cars were only available in China.  After a Covid-induced delay, European expansion did not start until 2022, beginning in EV-friendly Norway. Nio’s leaders have admitted that the brand has found expansion into the UK more challenging than was expected.

Despite the obstacles, Nio has established itself quickly. The company claimed that it had sold almost quarter of a million vehicles by the end of 2022, most of them in China, while it now sells cars in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. By 2025, it plans to be operating in 25 countries around the world.

When will Nio launch in the UK?

As of August 2023, we expect to see the first cars with Nio badges appearing on UK roads late in 2024. The company confirmed the planned UK launch date when launching the brand in Germany last month, just as the Nio ET5 saloon made its UK debut at the 2023 Goodwood Festival of Speed.  

What models does Nio have and what else is coming?

Nio has several models on sale in China already. Its first model was called the EP9, which was an electric hypercar with a 195mph top speed. Subsequent cars have included three SUVs, two coupé SUVs and a pair of saloons.

The first car confirmed for UK showrooms will be the ET5 saloon, which will be a similar size and price to the popular Tesla Model 3. Initial reports suggested an estate version of the ET5 would launch the brand, but this is yet to be seen. With saloon models being less popular these days, an estate alternative could be a shrewd move.

With the popularity of SUVs in the UK market, it would not be a surprise to see cars such as the Nio ES8 large SUV, already confirmed for Germany, also on sale here. The ET7 large saloon is also thought to be in the mix for UK sale.  

Nio personnel have also hinted at bringing another mid-sized model to the UK, though no details of it have yet been released, while the brand is also said to be working on a flagship saloon with a price tag of more than £100,000.

The brand appears already to cleared one hurdle that Chinese makers have found difficult in the past – safety. Four Nio models have so far been tested by Euro NCAP, all gaining five-star ratings with high scores in every category.

Where can I try a Nio car?

As yet, nowhere, as the brand has not revealed a UK dealer network yet. Right now, the company is starting to recruit UK staff, although a site in London has already been secured for a flagship ‘Nio House’.

Following the lead of similar facilities in Nio’s existing markets, the Nio House will both display the cars and provide “a pleasant, welcoming space for our users and the community,” offering cafes, children’s play areas and meeting venues for groups. The company even claims that it doesn’t have ‘customers’, but ‘users’ who are already enjoying three Nio Houses in Berlin, Oslo and Rotterdam.

Setting up a dealer network will be more complex for Nio than its Chinese rivals as the brand’s battery-swap technology, detailed below, will require the establishment of a swathe of its ‘Power Swap’ battery exchange stations across the UK. These haven’t been rolled out across Europe as quickly as hoped, Nio admitting that securing sites is proving more difficult than in China. But when the stations do arrive they will be good news for all EV owners as each one will also offer a number of conventional charging points.

When Nio’s cars do hit the UK, the latest reports suggest you won’t be buying them, but leasing them. The brand is reputedly planning to go with the car subscription method which has already proven a success in Europe for Chinese maker Geely, with some reports suggesting that as well as a typical fixed subscription, users could sign up for a more flexible programme with just one month’s notice required to return the car.    

What makes Nio different to the rest?

Nio has publicly declared a very different approach to how it does EVs. While you will be able to charge a Nio just like any rival, the brand has also developed battery-swap technology – instead of queuing up for public chargers Nio drivers will pull into one of a network of stations where their depleted battery will be changed for an 80% charged one, the whole process taking less than five minutes.

To be able to swap out their packs at a station, UK drivers are expected to need to sign up to a battery-leasing programme, separate from the cost of the car. The cost is said to be similar to a Tesla owner using one of the brand’s Superchargers.

Nio says that this process solves two big concerns of potential EV owners – range anxiety and how long a car’s battery will last before requiring a potentially costly replacement. And while battery swapping might sound a somewhat niche way of doing things, Nio claims that drivers of more than half of its already sold cars are using the technique, and the brand is also known to be talking to other manufacturers about using the battery-swap concept. Rival Chinese makers, in particular, are known to be actively pursuing battery swapping.

Of course, it’s not that simple. While removable batteries may sound attractive, the idea does have many limitations.

EV batteries are very large and heavy, so it’s hardly like swapping the AA batteries on your TV remote – it’s likely to require specialist lifting equipment. The batteries also need to be safely secured inside the vehicle when driving, yet able to be easily removed and replaced in minutes, which adds weight and complexity. Additionally, it requires batteries to be a fixed size with the rest of the car designed around the battery pack, rather than designing a battery pack to fit the car.

Finally, the investment required to develop a bespoke battery-swapping network across the country will be enormous, especially for a start-up company that will see minimal sales for several years. With battery technology developing so rapidly in terms of charging times and lifespan, the benefits of swappable batteries are less than they might have been a decade ago.

Nio Power Swap battery exchange station

What’s particularly significant about this company?

Nio is a brand that wants to take on the whole of the market. While its first cars will be targeted firmly at upmarket executive rivals such as the German heavyweights of Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche (and Tesla, of course), there are reputedly two extra programmes underway to compete in the mainstream and budget end of the EV market.

Project Alps, which Nio has publicly confirmed, would produce cars to rival EVs from volume brands like Volkswagen and Hyundai, while the yet to be confirmed Project Firefly would possibly offer electric cars with prices as low as £23,000. Cars produced as a result of these two programmes would likely not carry Nio nameplates and launch in Europe first, only later going on sale in China.

How much of this actually comes to pass remains to be seen, of course, especially since the company is still in the early days of launching its first brand around the world.

Summary

Nio’s prospects in the UK are difficult to predict at this early stage, despite the brand’s success in its home market. While the battery-swap concept may appeal to a large number of potential customers, can Nio really establish enough swap stations to make buying or leasing their products practical? Apparently there are only 18 in Europe right now, which is far below the critical mass required to make the concept workable.

So there’s still a lot to learn about Nio. Watch this space…

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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.