Is the Philippines ready for the new BYD?

Chinese automakers are here to stay.

They're investing to set up operations here because there's a desire to prove their vehicles in a market as competitive as the Philippines. Though just like many of you, we don’t like how politics -particularly the nautical politics- have come into the conversation. We’ve always been believers that politics have no place in our passion for cars and for mobility, and that’s why we subject cars -regardless of whether it's Chinese or not- to our tests. No favors.

And on a rain-soaked and wind-swept day on a racing circuit in China, we were doing just that: putting a BYD through its paces.

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BYD, you may be wondering, isn’t exactly a brand that typically belongs on a racing circuit. We don’t really know of any BYD race cars, nor have we heard of any BYD performance cars, but still here we are, flooring three of their cars and coaxing them around the corners. And all are doing very well.

And there’s not a single internal combustion engine around. BYD, after all, is the leader in EVs.

The trip to get here itself was eventful, to say the least. The way we see it, the run-up to getting onto the mainland is a story worthy of an elimination-style reality show. And right when we got there, a storm was lingering and threatening to dampen our activities. Actually, it even forced us to go around the bay from HK to Shenzhen (BYD’s hometown) to Guangzhou and to Zhuhai instead of a short bridge crossing to Macau and then Zhuhai. And it was aboard a bus that has experienced way too much cigarette emissions from the driver.

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Up bright and early, Zhuhai International Circuit was our next stop. As seen from the top, ZIC doesn’t seem to be all too exciting. This track resembles the head of a rabbit -ears and all- but doesn’t have any semblance of driving rhythm that we really look for when we’re on a track. Yet somehow, I’ve got a big smile on my face with the car I’m in.

Perhaps because it’s the most powerful of the bunch: the BYD Seal. Imagine an electric car that’s the size of a Toyota Camry but has the power of a BMW M3 when you combine the two motors. I kid you not: the sheer acceleration of these types of power-packed EVs can put a smile on your face because the torque is more instant than your favorite noodles.

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As I pull back into the pit building, I can’t help but be both impressed and disappointed at the same time. I just drove a car that has shades of Taycan with its design, on a circuit with puddles all over, yet not once did I feel out of control. It’s all-wheel drive after all, but more than that: I think they did a good job with the chassis and balance of this thing.

The only kicker, however, is that BYD Philippines and their newly minted distributor AC Motors won’t be giving our market the Seal that has our approval. The reason: too pricey, and the Philippine market has moved away from the D-segment. That’s why right now only the Camry remains while models like Altima, Accord, and Galant are long gone in our market. We’re told the platform will be the same for future models, so a lot of things we experienced with the Seal such as the design, the driving dynamics, and the power will be found in other BYD models in the future, but as it stands this just won’t make business sense back home.

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Maybe the other two will.

Soaked as my shoes were, I hopped inside the BYD Dolphin. This one is already in the Philippines, and by the time this article comes out the price will have dropped. Originally it was just under PHP 1.7 million. Now it’s just under 1.4 million. That’s a big price cut thanks to the EV law and new strategy, and critically they changed to the CCS Type 2 connector which is becoming the more widely adopted one.

The Dolphin feels a little out of place on the track, though perhaps it’s more of a palate thing. I had just come off of the impressive Seal, and that car really felt connected to the road. This Dolphin is front-wheel drive, has less power, and seems more at home in the city. It’s just different, and in these conditions, it doesn’t seem to be as home as the other, as expected.

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The car still seems good, but just not right for a race track. Torque is there, and the design certainly seems forward; it’s a bit reminiscent of the BMW i3 from before with an upright hatchback aesthetic. I imagine if we drove this on public roads in China I would have really liked it -and maybe mess with the rotate screen button too much- but visiting foreigners generally aren’t allowed to drive on Chinese public roads, unless you want to risk getting snapped by the 10,000 CCTV cameras they have on the highway.

Mind you, these cars really can go on the highway. The reason is the battery technology of BYD. They have the unique distinction of being a battery and tech company first, then a car company second. That’s what they had banked their success on, and given how the market has changed, BYD is uniquely positioned to really solidify its lead as the largest EV OEM in the world.

Next up was the smallest of the three: Seagull. If you’re noticing a pattern with the names, it’s because the Seal, Dolphin, and Seagull are part of BYD’s Ocean Series models. There’s another series called Dynasty, which is why the models have Chinese imperial names from the past like Tang, Han, Song, and Yuan.

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The naming conventions have certainly improved from when we first experienced BYD in the Philippines about a decade ago from models like the e6 EV (the first EV I ever brought home for a test) and the f0 (the copy of the Toyota Aygo). Honestly, the naming series is what I think they need to sort out especially for export markets if they are to establish their identity firmly. While sea creatures are certainly more recognizable names in English-speaking markets than the Chinese dynasties, I’m still puzzled at how such naming correlates to a car, or to an actual automotive class.

So just to clarify: the Seagull is the smallest of the three cars we got to drive. And anyone who has read my reviews in the past or seen the videos will know that I’m actually a big fan of small cars. I’ve always felt that coming up with a good small car on a budget is far more respectable than building an all-conquering supercar when financial restraints are non-existent. My opinion is that it’s more difficult to succeed in the mass market than in the exotic sector, though I didn’t exactly think someone would try to apply some supercar styling cues to a small car. And that’s because sitting there at the paddock was a car that somehow had the facial aesthetic of a compressed Lamborghini. Let’s call it for good measure.

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Of course, the car drives nothing of the sort. The version we got only has 102 PS and 135 Nm to its name, and it’s front-wheel drive. But for some reason, I’m having a blast in this car. I mean when I floor it nothing really magical happens, but once you’re going around the corners it’s clear that this is an enjoyable car to drive. Maybe if we were on a go-kart track or on a tightly packed city block this would be even more fun, as it stands I think I’ve found my favorite.

This is a sign that BYD isn’t just in our market just for the sake of being here. They want to be taken seriously as a major player on the board and are ready to ride the wave of EV technology as it becomes more mainstream in the market.

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They have the designs to stand out in the market, and we know curb appeal counts for a lot if you’re looking to make a statement. Their cars drive well, though we would have preferred more time behind the wheel; that’s something we’ll rectify later on. They have the technology, especially when it comes to batteries. They’re keen to demonstrate that their new line of “blade” batteries do not explode even when punctured, all while offering the range that customers would need.

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More importantly, recent developments are working in their favor. They have been in the Philippines for almost a decade, but the time is now right for them to grow. The new law will help incentivize EV ownership and lower the prices. There’s a relatively new subsidiary that interacts directly with their headquarters in Shenzhen and works to bring in cars at the prices people want. But the most critical is the new distributor: AC Motors.

As a part of a conglomerate that has its hands in everything, AC Motors has the unique position to be able to flex just how big the group is. If they need to work on the financing side, they can nudge their cousins at one of the country’s biggest banks. If they need communication, they can open a group chat with their siblings at one of the country’s biggest telecoms networks.

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Even when it comes to the two major concerns with EV -charging infrastructure and energy sources- Ayala is positioned to flex, and this comes directly from new AC Motors boss Jaime Alfonso Zobel de Ayala. They have the network of malls, country clubs, hotels, condominiums, villages, resorts, and the like to expand the charging network all over the country, and he says they will. They also have their own energy generation company, and they’re already working their way to improve the mix with renewables.

BYD is ready. They’ve set it up so that there is really stopping them from growing and becoming the top choice for EVs in the Philippines. 

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Oh, wait. There is one, and it's not something they have influence over: Politics.

There is a steady -but growing- animosity towards Chinese products over the simmering issue of encroachment in our own waters. While it may be difficult (if not impossible) for consumers to avoid certain Made in PRC essential everyday products like food, clothing, or even a new smartphone, it’s far easier to refuse to purchase a vehicle from the mainland.

Automakers have no control over politics, but maybe they should start holding some conversations because it's bound to get in the way of their business.