Erin Baker on the success of the BYD Atto 3

Sweden’s best-selling electric car last month was BYD’s Atto 3.

Which just goes to show that money, time and creative-agency budget spent thinking up a cool name for your car brand is money wasted: Build Your Dreams is both unbelievably naff and unbelievably successful. 

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The triumph of the Atto 3 is not just a head-scratching exercise for branding agencies, however. The popularity of this car, and, no doubt, the similar sales success story of every BYD model that follows, will also cause much head-scratching among car reviewers and so-called motoring “experts”, especially at traditional industry magazines such as Auto Express, Evo, Car and Autocar. Because every single rule, parameter or metric by which cars have been evaluated and rated for the past hundred years, from ride and handling to build quality, comfort and design, has now sailed out of the window in the solitary consumer focus on one attribute: price.

Consumers have always been driven by budget first in their quest for their next car, but that budget, to date, would normally give drivers access to a large range of models, a combination of new and used cars, and multiple powertrain and trim options to choose from.

No longer: the choice is now between, at most, two battery sizes and a couple of trims. For most people, the Atto 3 is where it’s at, because it’s a family-sized electric SUV for under £40,000 and there ain’t much choice elsewhere. No matter that it handles like a soggy bath sponge, offers braking with almost zero feedback, has really weird soft-moulded plastic on the dash that looks like it might ooze at any moment and “guitar strings” forming the door pockets. It’s a large, affordable EV, so it’s a sale, and who can blame that line of thinking with inflation still sky-high?

The success of the Atto 3 (and, to an extent, the MG4 and MG5 plus whatever is coming down the line next from Ora, Omoda, Xpeng, Ceer and maybe the cheaper cars from Nio and Zeekr) wipes that table clean, and confirms once and for all that unless motoring journalists get their heads round the new electric landscape, they will be out of jobs, save for a few column inches each month on the small band of luxury EVs where drivers don’t blink at spending over £120,000 on an EV and can still afford to spend a further premium on one with decent looks, trim levels or handling.

Of course, there are brighter spots here and there: the MG4 handles better than the Atto 3 and costs £27k which is now considered an absolute bargain (ha!), but it’s smaller and still – whisper it – not a great car, with horrible hard black plastics inside, a tinny, thumping ride and quite ugly design that was disguised by that brilliant orange launch colour, if we’re honest. Ditto the MG 5, but it’s a cheap electric estate which is rarer than a new diesel car these days, so, like many drivers, I threw myself at it with relief and gratitude when it was launched, because it doesn’t force you to choose between planet and pocket. 

It’s pathetic really: we’re just grateful to find anything within our monthly finance range at this stage, because electric cars are still on average 38 per cent more expensive than their combustion-engined counterparts, a differential that hasn’t shifted for months.

So what to do about evaluating this new breed of cars with their single powertrain, which are no longer valued by customers for the way they drive, the quality of their interior materials or their internal and external aesthetics, but only for the price tag? We motoring journalists and road testers risk being left, shouting into the wind, a collection of decrepit magi lauding attributes that the general public long since ceased caring about.

Can scribes used to penning articles about the snap oversteer, double-wishbone suspension, limited-slip differential and torque of the naturally aspirated V10 really pivot to evaluating the integrity of bamboo-derived synthetic leather, the Pivi Pro touchscreen, augmented-reality satnav and real-world range from a battery? I think we’ll see many opt for early retirement or fall by the way. I also wonder, however, how many of the general public ever cared about any of this stuff to begin with. Maybe EVs are rightly bringing the automotive media to a day of reckoning that was long overdue, when we stop gazing at our own navels and start rating cars for the features that consumers actually care about. Radical or what? 

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