Vehicle manufacturer Build Your Dreams (BYD) has started gaining traction in South Africa after its first year in the country.

While the Chinese automotive company is among the least familiar car brands in the country, it is a formidable force in its home country, where it leads electric vehicle (EV) sales.

In the past few years, BYD has rapidly expanded its footprint in European, South American, and Oceania markets, in countries with great potential for EV growth.

Globally, BYD surpassed Tesla in fully electric vehicle sales in the fourth quarter of 2023 and has been the leading seller of new energy vehicles (NEVs), including hybrids and plug-in hybrids, for years.

The company was founded as a battery manufacturer in 1995 and entered the automotive business in 2003. It has leveraged its battery research and expertise to develop packs that function well in EVs.

BYD’s Blade batteries use lithium-ion phosphate (LiFePO4) chemistries, making them substantially safer than conventional lithium-ion packs with nickel, cobalt, and manganese cathodes.

The use of those three minerals has also been highly controversial as they are often extracted by cheap labourers working in dangerous mines in Africa.

However, safety and ethical material sourcing are not the only ways in which BYD benefits from its own battery business.

The company can also offer significantly cheaper EVs than the traditional leading manufacturers.

BYD made its entry into South Africa with the BYD Atto 3 SUV in late June 2023. Priced from R768,000, it was one of the most affordable EVs in the country, undercut only by the smaller GWM Ora 03 and Mini Cooper SE.

The second model to land in local showrooms – the BYD Dolphin hatchback — became the most affordable EV in South Africa in May 2024, with a starting price of R539,900.

BYD Atto 3 (left) and BYD Dolphin (right) showcased at Parkview Shopping Centre in Pretoria.

Picking up pace

MyBroadband asked BYD about its sales performance and growth a year after debuting in the South African market.

The company said although its sales were still insignificant compared to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, it was slowly but surely putting EVs within reach of South African consumers.

BYD said the overall response to its cars has been great, with many customers arriving at dealerships having researched its products thoroughly.

“Thanks to BYD’s global presence, we found South African customers will go to the showroom with the knowledge of the product. The conversion rate from lead to actual sales is good,” the company explained.

“A lot of them saw and test drove a BYD while travelling overseas for work or visiting family and friends, which left them with a good impression.”

BYD has also found that the negative perception towards EVs — often making its way to social media platforms — has declined significantly since the Dolphin’s launch.

While it acknowledged that EVs were not yet “super affordable”, the proposition of cars around the R500,000 mark was making them more appealing for those looking to save on fuel costs.

MyBroadband’s own tests of several EVs in South Africa have shown that their per-kilometre running cost is typically between a third and half the cost of driving a similar petrol car.

An EV is also significantly less expensive to maintain, with fewer parts needing servicing or replacement.

BYD Dolphin on the road

Plug-in hybrids at incredible prices

BYD said it was still in the planning stage for introducing more models to the market.

The company has filed for or secured trademarks on 14 distinct models. However, not all of these models will necessarily launch locally.

It remains to be seen whether it will bring cars from another one of its strong subsegments — hybrids — to the market.

The company sells numerous plug-in hybrids with prices starting as low as 79,800 yuan for the Qin Plus DM-i.

Even if one doubled that price to account for South Africa’s taxes, the car would cost roughly R400,000 if rolled out locally, less than half the price of the current cheapest plug-in model.

The entry-level version features a 1.5-litre petrol engine with 74kW power paired with a 132kW electric motor powered by an 8.32kWh battery pack. It can achieve up to 55km of all-electric range without using any fuel.

Numbeo’s research found that the typical South African commutes about 44km per day, making the Qin Plus ideal for driving around town. The small battery is also easy to top up overnight.

For longer distance travels, drivers can tap into its fuel tank like with any regular petrol or diesel car.

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