EVs with a Vietnamese twist
Vinfast VF 8 and VF 9 mark global expansion for upstart South Asian carmaker
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NHA TRANG, Vietnam — This upstart automaker is only five years old yet is on the cusp of a massive global expansion driven by a jump into the electric vehicle market.
Vietnamese automaker Vinfast intends to launch in Canada later this year with the VF 8 and VF 9 electric SUVs. Although it made its name in Vietnam building internal combustion-powered cars, its global plans involve electrons only. Expect also to see its line of electric scooters cross the ocean, as well.
On a recent trip to this S-shaped nation, about a dozen Canadian automotive journalists had a limited chance to drive pre-production examples of the smaller VF 8, which competes size-wise with the likes of the Mazda CX-5 or Toyota RAV-4. The VF 9, a stylish three-row sized like a Chevrolet Traverse, was available as a static display only. Both body designs were penned by Italian design powerhouse Pininfarina.
There’s a lot to like, but there’s also a lot of work remaining before they’re ready for prime time.
As mentioned, these were pre-production units, sometimes called mules, that automakers use to test out vehicles and fine-tune the final production models. Vinfast admitted as much and asked that we not view the samples as representative of finished product.
First, here’s what to like: both vehicles are stylish, with the VF 9 perhaps setting itself apart from the competition the most, with a cool floating-roof design and some signature Vinfast styling cues that tie the vehicle to others in the brand without appearing to be just a larger version of others.
The VF 8 is a bit more conventional, but also striking in its appearance.
While we didn’t drive the VF 9, we did find the VF 8 to be very quiet and powerful. Handling was on par with other crossovers. The VF 8 Plus, with 402 hp, is rated to 5.5 seconds 0-100 km/h, though the versions we drove felt more like the 349-hp VF 8 Eco. Not blistering fast, but still powerful.
The interior styling matches Vinfast’s positioning as a premium product, though it will be an adjustment to some drivers to have only the heads-up display in front of them: there’s no IP, all functions are visible either in the large, centre-mount infotainment screen or in the heads-up display in the windshield.
What was not to like: The infotainment system was wonky, with the display cutting in and out. Panel gaps in the exterior, such as the space around the hood, the tailgate, and between door panels and body, need some tightening. We also pointed out visible spot welds and seams in door jambs and other spots that other brands normally take pains to hide.
Range, as currently configured, will be at the low end of the competition, too. Whether that gets extended prior to launch remains to be seen. The VF 8 has a range of 420 kilometres, with up to 471 kilometres available with the extended-range option. The VF 9’s standard range is 438 km, or 594 km extended. By comparison, the 2024 Chevy Equinox EV, due out next year, is estimated at about 482 km of range out of the box, for what GM says will be a $35,000 vehicle. The VF 8, Vinfast’s Equinox rival, starts at $51,250.
In fairness, engineers and executives on hand were listening intently, eager to get our perspectives and not being the least bit defensive at our critiques. From what I’ve seen, the company will follow through on its feedback.
The VF 8 starts at $51,250 and the VF 9 at $69,750. Each price doesn’t include a battery subscription. Essentially, that means you own the car but lease the battery. Estimated subscription prices are $110 and $130 per month. If the battery dies, you get a new one. The cars come with a 10-year warranty, which includes the battery, and officials said buyers who want to purchase the battery outright can do so, though there’s no indication of the cost.
Vinfast is part of a massive corporate ecosystem in Vietnam, as part of conglomerate Vingroup, the country’s largest. Executives note that the company comprises five per cent of Vietnam’s US$271-billion GDP. It has interests in real estate, hospitality, manufacturing, technology and education. Each division’s name begins with the letters Vin. Its chairman and founder, Pham Nhat Vuong, is Vietnam’s richest person.
In addition to its main manufacturing complex outside Hanoi, Vinfast is building an assembly plant in North Carolina expected to break ground Sept. 29.
Its main manufacturing centre is built on 877 acres, 30 per cent of which didn’t exist when it began. Massive earth-moving projects filled in the swampland. The company assembles its own batteries on site, and has plans to begin producing the individual cells itself in the next year. The plant was outfitted by some of the biggest names in manufacturing, including Siemens and ABB.
Our journey included stays at two Vinpearl resorts — in Ha Long and here, at Nha Trang — as well as visits to Vinuniversity, Vinhomes and the Vinfast factory. The university, founded as a private non-profit, has had its curricula vetted by Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. Tuition runs US$35,000 per year and it claims average SAT scores of its students to be higher than 1,400 (the maximum SAT score is 1,600).
Construction at all the Vingroup properties we saw is first-rate: marble and stone everywhere. This is not a company given to half-measures.
The automaker’s story is also unique: founded in 2017, it was producing its first cars 21 months later. It is run by chief executive officer Le Thuy, who is one of four women running global car companies.
While the cars we drove still had some work to do, everything we saw about this company seems to say one thing: Do not bet against it.
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter
Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.