A BYD Seagull small electric car is on display during the 20th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition at the National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai)
Vcg | Visual China Group | Getty Images
DETROIT — Chinese automakers pose a growing threat to their American counterparts — even without selling directly to consumers in the U.S. market.
Sales of China-made vehicles are rising at notable rates in Asia, Europe and other countries outside those continents. China recently reported exports of more than 5 million vehicles in 2023, topping Japan to become the top country for car exports in the world.
That volume from well-established, government-owned companies like SAIC and Dongfeng, as well as newer players like BYD, Nio and others, has catapulted China from the sixth ranking to the top seed since 2020. It comes amid declining U.S. vehicle exports as companies such as General Motors have cut international operations. U.S. auto exports in 2022, the most recent data available, were down 25% from their peak in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
America — fourth globally in vehicle exports prior to 2020 — ranked sixth in the world last year, falling behind No. 5 Mexico, No. 4 South Korea and No. 3 Germany, according to global consulting firm AlixPartners.
“My No. 1 competitor is the Chinese carmakers,” said Carlos Tavares, CEO of Chrysler parent Stellantis, during a virtual media roundtable Friday. “This is going to be a big fight. There is no other way for a global carmaker like Stellantis that is operating all over the world than to go head-on with the Chinese carmakers. There is no other way.”
The threat extends beyond export volumes. Chinese automakers have set a new standard for vehicle production and pricing. They’re releasing new models in record times, and many are producing EVs efficiently and profitably — something that has alluded global automakers including America’s GM and Ford Motor.
Automotive experts have pointed to BYD Co. as a prime example of the rise of China’s automakers. The company, backed by the Beijing government, last year topped Tesla to become the world’s largest seller of EVs.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose company operates a large plant in China, has said Chinese automakers are the greatest competitors for his Texas-based company.
“There’s a lot of people who are out there who think that the top 10 car companies are going to be Tesla followed by nine Chinese car companies. I think they might not be wrong,” Musk said at The New York Times’ Dealbook conference in November.
Rhodium Group estimates that BYD received approximately $4.3 billion in state support between 2015 and 2020, according to The Economist. Beijing has also offered subsidies to incentivize buyers of electric cars.
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares holds a news conference after meeting with unions, in Turin, Italy, March 31, 2022.
Massimo Pinca | Reuters
BYD has cracked a code for low-priced EVs that seemingly transcends borders: Its BYD Seagull, a tiny EV that starts at roughly $11,400, would significantly undercut U.S. EV prices at less than $15,000 even when factoring in America’s 27.5% tariff on Chinese-made vehicles.
“This is a car that scares me,” said Kristin Dziczek, automotive policy advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit branch, during the organization’s Automotive Insights Symposium last week. “How are we going to cut the price of EVs in half? China’s already done it.”
Mathew Vachaparampil, CEO of auto teardown and consulting firm Caresoft Global, estimates BYD is making $1,500 off each Seagull unit sold. At worst, the company breaks even, he said.
And the company is shipping more vehicles outside China: Overseas markets accounted for about 10% of BYD’s more than 3 million sales last year, doubling that share from the the beginning of the year, according to Bernstein.
“BYD has an unparalleled cost structure and product innovation ability, that stems from its high degree of vertical integration which will enable the company to thrive in the ongoing EV race in China and abroad,” Bernstein analyst Eunice Lee said in an analyst note last week. “Despite growing pricing pressure in China, we expect the company’s focus on overseas and premium segments will support 29% [compound annual growth rate] in earnings through 2025.”
Growth gone global
Backed by local and federal governments, the growth of Chinese automakers began in their home country — taking share away from mandatory joint ventures between non-domestic automakers and Chinese companies.
For example, GM’s share of the Chinese market, including its joint ventures, has plummeted from roughly 15% in 2015 to 8.6% at the end of the third quarter last year.
“What’s going on in China at home? These [new energy vehicle] brands have become dominant,” Mark Wakefield, global co-leader of the automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners, said at the Chicago Fed’s auto conference. “They were 26% [market share] a few years ago, up to more than 50% in 2022 and headed towards two-thirds by the end of the decade.”
BYD’s new luxury brand Yangwang is selling its first model, the U8, for more than 1 million yuan (US$160,000).
CNBC | Evelyn Cheng
And the growth hasn’t stayed home. Chinese companies have begun expanding into Mexico, Europe and elsewhere, Wakefield said. They’ve largely done so through cheap, relatively inexpensive models — some of which American automakers have given up on — as well as EVs, which experts view as an open market for the companies.
Chinese companies accounted for 8% of Europe’s all-electric vehicle sales as of September last year and could increase their share to 15% by 2025, according to the European Union. The EU believes Chinese EVs are undercutting the prices of local models by about 20% in the European market.
The influx of Chinese EVs has spurred the European Union to launch government support for the industry.
In Mexico, China-built vehicles with internal combustion engines increased from 0% market share to 20% of the country’s light-duty vehicle sales over the past six years, according the Chicago Fed’s Dziczek.
“Mexico is the second-largest market for China-made vehicles other than Russia,” she said. “They’re going to be on our shores in Mexico in the not-too-distant future.”
Coming to America
For decades, Chinese auto companies have said they will begin selling vehicles in the U.S. under their own brands, but none have succeeded.
That’s not to say China doesn’t compete in the U.S. market. Aside from major supply chain ties, there are also a handful of auto brands owned by Chinese companies operating in the U.S., such as Lotus, Volvo (including its Polestar spin-off) and niche EV maker Karma.
American companies, such as GM and Ford already, or plan to, manufacture some vehicles in China to be imported and sold in the U.S. GM imports its Buick Envision from China to the U.S., while Ford last year said it would import its forthcoming Lincoln Nautilus crossover from China.
But as of yet, a U.S. driver can’t easily buy a Dongfeng, BYD or other Chinese-made vehicle stateside.
2024 Lincoln Nautilus
Aside from potential regulatory hurdles and protectionism acts, some believe Chinese automakers could find success in expanding to the U.S. market the same way Japan’s Toyota Motor and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor have done.
Those automakers made their entrances to the U.S. market with affordable, accessible vehicles, then increased their offerings to boost quality and safety and ultimately expanded to higher-end models.
“The Japanese carmakers came to the U.S. in the ’70s,” Stellantis’ Tavares said. “They needed 50 years to reach the top of the market with some of the competitors that we know well. I don’t see any reason why this would not happen with the Chinese.”
— CNBC’s Michael Bloom contributed to this article.