BYD is quite probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.
What started out as a battery manufacturer for the likes of Nokia and Motorola almost 30 years ago is now the world’s biggest maker of electric and electrified cars and also produces everything from solar panels to trains and electric trucks.
Globally, the Chinese brand has already sold more than 3.5 million EVs and plug-in hybrids and is the world’s biggest seller of what it refers to as “new energy vehicles”. Its electric systems are already in use in the UK, under the skin of Alexander Dennis buses but now, after launching in Europe in 2021, Build Your Dreams (yes, really) is bringing its passenger car operations to the UK.
We’re not getting the Tang SUV or handsome Han saloon, so the first BYD model coming to the UK is the Atto 3, a mid-sized all-electric SUV pitched directly at the likes of the Kia Niro EV , Hyundai Kona and Peugeot e-2008.
At 4.45m by 1.87m and priced from around £36,500 it’s in the same mid-size SUV territory as all those, as well as being a potential alternative to the likes of the Volkswagen ID.3, Citroen e-C4 and even entry-level versions of the larger Volkswagen ID.4 and Skoda Enyaq. With plans for 30 dealerships by the end of the year, BYD is clearly set on taking the fight to them.
Yet, for a potentially disruptive new car its looks are anything but disruptive. The designers talk about a front end inspired by mythical dragons and “perfectly sculpted” bodywork but if you asked an AI “artist” to draw a generic 2023 electric SUV this is what you’d get.
Some slimline LED lights with full width light bars, lots of slightly concave body panels, slimline wheel arch cladding and one or two flashes of interesting textures are all de rigeur. The only truly stand out feature is the ‘Build Your Dreams’ script stretched boldly across the tailgate like a tacky motivational poster.
That’s not to say it’s bad looking. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the MG ZS EV or the facelifted Kona but when viewed next to the more stylish e-2008 or Niro it’s a touch bland.
If the exterior is cookie-cutter SUV, the interior is the polar opposite. Apparently inspired by gym equipment, it’s a riot of unusual shapes, quirky layouts and one or two wild technological innovations.
The drive selector is based on a kettlebell handle, the air vents inspired by free weights and the door handles reminiscent of barbells. With the crazy controls, a two-tone blue and cream colour scheme and a dashboard that ducks and swoops across the cabin, it won’t appeal to everyone but it’s certainly bold, individual and, dare we say, youthful.
Alongside the design, the most eye-catching interior feature is the massive touchscreen. Even basic cars get a 12.8-inch unit and in top spec it’s 15.6 inches but the real attention grabber is the way it rotates through 90 degrees at the touch of a button or via voice control.
The thinking is that it allows a split screen setup to maximise screen space in either landscape or portrait mode depending on what apps you’re using. It was also suggested that it’ll allow drivers to use portrait-oriented apps like TikTok while parked up to charge. The problem at the moment is there are very few apps that work with the system. Even Android Auto isn’t compatible, despite the underlying OS being Android-based. As novel as it is, there’s the air of tech for tech’s sake about it.
BYD talks about the Atto 3 being a “premium accessible” product, hinting at high-end quality at mainstream prices. The reality is solidly mainstream quality, largely in keeping with its price. The faux leather and rubber finishes to some parts bring a nice mix of textures and the overall build quality feels decent. However, the soft-touch finishes are a thin veneer over harder surfaces and one or two poor finishes around the doors are a slight letdown.
Interior space is impressive and as good as virtually all its rivals. There’s room for four adults on board, with decent legroom in the back and a 440-litre boot. It feels slightly roomier than the e-2008 and on a par with the Niro but smaller than the Enyaq or ID.4
Beneath the passenger compartment lies a 60.5kWh battery that sends power to a front-mounted 201bhp motor which will get the Atto 3 to 62mph in 7.3 seconds - all fairly average figures for the class. Unlike most rivals, BYD uses a lithium iron-phosphate battery, which avoids the need for cobalt and other heavy metals and is reputedly more durable under repeated rapid charging.
In the Atto 3’s case, that charging is up to 150kW and will take the battery from 30% to 80% in 29 minutes. Fully charged, it should return up to 260 miles of range and cover 3.98 miles per kWh. That’s pretty good but both the Niro and cheaper MG ZS will do between 15 and 25 miles more thanks to slightly larger batteries.
So range, power and performance are very middle of the road, just like the driving experience. Like its main rivals, the dull steering means there’s not much joy to be had hurling it around, but who needs to do that in a family SUV anyway? More important is ride comfort and refinement, which is generally very good. It does a decent job of isolating the cabin from potholes and broken surfaces but gets a little choppy over undulating, bumpy roads.
The one thing that might set the Atto 3 apart from its rivals is that every version is absolutely stacked with kit. Even entry-level Active cars get adaptive cruise control, a panoramic sunroof, full LED lighting with auto dipping headlights, heated seats and vegan “leather” upholstery, plus wireless phone charging and a heat pump - important for maximise range in cold weather and only an option on some rivals.
Active will go on sale later this year with the higher-spec Comfort and Design already available. There’s virtually nothing between the £36,490 Active and £36,990 Comfort apart from an 11kW AC charger on the latter. £38,990 Design adds a powered tailgate, a 15.6-inch screen in place of the standard 12.8-inch on, more ambient lighting and fancier air purification. Even the famously well-equipped Niro struggles to match that (although it does have a heated steering wheel).
In truth, it’s that spec that sets the Atto 3 apart from other cars. In most other regards - price, power, range, quality and driving experience - it’s pretty average for the segment.
But that in itself is an achievement. Looking back, brands like Kia, Hyundai and Skoda took years to have a product that could be measured equally against competitors. BYD is already there, ready to go head-to-head with established players with a competent and competitive all-rounder.
BYD Atto 3 Design
Price: £38,990; Motor: Single synchronous electric motor; Battery: 60.48kWh; Power: 201bhp; Torque: 228lb ft; Transmission: Single-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive; Top speed: 99mph; 0-62mph: 7.3 seconds; Range: 260 miles; Consumption: 3.98m/kWh; Charging: up to 150kW