BYD Atto 3 review: the latest Chinese electric car is credible enough to worry the establishment
Sometimes, it can be a bit frustrating if people won’t say your name correctly. Just ask Hyundai. No wonder, then, that BYD is at pains to point out that its name is pronounced “bee-why-dee”, not “bid”. That’s the first thing you need to know about this company.
The second is that this is not some Johnny-come-lately startup hashing together an EV from bits it’s bought in, to cash in on the zeitgeist. In fact, BYD was founded in China in 1995, as a supplier of rechargeable batteries; in its early years it achieved dominance in supplying half the world’s mobile phone batteries.
First and foremost, then, BYD is a battery maker. However, it branched out into the automotive market in 2002 with the acquisition and rebranding of Qinchuan Automobile, a small car company based in the city of Xi’an.
Since then, BYD has made a name for itself producing not only cars for its home market but also buses and trucks, a large number of which have made their way to our shores already.
Now, BYD has decided it’s ready to sell us some cars, too, and this is the model with which it intends to lead the charge. The Atto 3 is a compact electric SUV that’s bigger than a Vauxhall Mokka-e, smaller than a Volkswagen ID.4. But with extremely competent rivals from names already established in the UK such as the Kia Niro EV and Renault Megane E-Tech in its sights, does it have a chance?
Advanced battery technology
Slick to drive
Build quality seems good
Interior won’t be to all tastes
Lacking some key bits of equipment
Some unintuitive infotainment layouts
There’s a lot to discuss about the battery technology underpinning the Atto 3. Put simply, it’s of a chemistry relatively little-used in automotive applications thus far (lithium ferro-phosphate, LFP for short) and constructed in a unique way, with each cell taking the form of a long, thin “blade” running the length of the car, rather than in large, cuboid cells as is the norm with the prevalent lithium-ion batteries.
The advantage of LFP is that it uses no cobalt, which makes it more sustainable, not to mention more ethical, given the way cobalt is mined in some countries. The disadvantage is its lower energy density, which means you get less range for any given physical battery size.
But this is where BYD’s ingenious construction comes in, because the shape of the cells means you can cram more in. It also means the battery is a stressed member – it doesn’t need support from the chassis because it’s part of the chassis.
What’s more, LFP batteries are much less prone to bursting into flames when they’re pierced, and because they don’t produce oxygen if they catch fire, they’re highly unlikely to suffer from thermal runaway, which is the term for what happens when a battery fire feeds itself oxygen and is therefore very hard to extinguish.
Also of note is the Atto 3’s eight-in-one motor unit, which combines the electric drive motor with seven other components including the battery management system, the single-speed gearbox and the on-board charger into one compact unit, which should save space and improve packaging.
The charge sheet
The theory is good, then. But what’s the car itself like? Official figures suggest you’ll get 260 miles from a full charge, which is about 20-30 miles behind its best rivals (although because you get a heat pump as standard, the effect of cold weather will be less severe than with non-heat pump-equipped competitors). Expect between 180 and 210 miles of real-world range.
The Atto 3 will take 44 minutes to charge from 10 to 80 per cent, which is a little on the slow side (as you’d expect given that its 88kW maximum charge speed is slower than most rivals’). However, it does support vehicle-to-load (i.e. you can plug in electric bikes, appliances and so on to charge them) and BYD says it intends to add vehicle-to-grid functionality soon (so that it can power your home in the event of electrical outage).
Otherwise, though, the Atto 3 is there or thereabouts, on paper at least. The official efficiency figure is good, at 4.0 miles per kWh (mpkWh). Prices start from £36,500 or so for the Active and rise to a shade under £37,000 for the mid-range Comfort. It’s then another £1,000 for the top-spec Design version tested here. Like-for-like, it undercuts its rivals, but only just.
And while BYD won’t quite match Kia’s seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty, you get a guarantee for four years with no mileage cap, which is better than what VW will offer you.
All Atto 3s have the same 60kWh usable battery capacity and the same 201bhp motor powering the front wheels. That means performance is brisk, but not unnecessarily so, with a 0-62mph time of just over seven seconds.
Active versions have synthetic leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, mood lighting and BYD’s party piece, a 12.8-inch rotating touchscreen (more on which later).
The smart money sticks with this model; upgrading to Comfort only adds support for three-phase charging which, given you’ll have to upgrade your home to a three-phase supply, which is hugely expensive, to take advantage of this, feels a bit pointless.
Move up to the Design variant and you gain a larger, 15.6-inch touchscreen, an air purification system and a powered boot lid – but these are things you can probably live without given the cost saving of sticking with the base model.
Bizarrely, though, none of these is available with automatic windscreen wipers – a standard feature you’d expect to find on all but the most basic cars these days. And while there are electrically adjustable seats, they don’t have a memory function.
That’s a bit of a frippery, granted, but less so adjustable lumbar support, which is also notable only by its absence. That’s something buyers will probably miss, especially if they suffer from back pain on longer trips.
On the outside the Atto 3 is modern and crisp, if a little generic – although the full company name, Build Your Dreams, spelled out across the boot lid is a little cringe-inducing. Inside, though, it’s a different story.
How best to describe the Atto 3’s interior? Let’s just put it this way: if you think most other car interiors are dull, you’ll be very pleased. Absolutely nothing in here is conventional.
Take the swooping dashboard design, for example, that looks like huge, ribbed cylinder of cream-coloured squishy fabric that spans the width of the car, atop which is draped a sash of blue faux leather, pinned back at both ends by the air vents and in the middle by the touchscreen.
Then there are the air vents themselves and the gear selector, which look like control sliders and a throttle lever from a 1950s sci-fi spaceship cockpit; the armrests, meanwhile, resemble vast, bent ring spanners. Then there are the art-deco door handles, which rotate backwards around the top of a cylindrical, protruding tweeter housing.
Probably the most whimsical touch, however, is door pockets formed of three red nylon strands that spear out of the centre of the speaker, designed to look like guitar strings – they actually play, too, so you can pluck out a tune if you’re so able (a fellow journalist even managed to pick out a creditable version of Smoke On The Water).
The trouble is there’s a fine line between playful and toy-like, and in some places the clacky switchgear and sheer abundance of trinketry shifts from the former into the latter.
There’s no denying it’s different – and refreshing, on first acquaintance. But when you just want a relaxing place to decompress on the trip home from work it might feel a little bit too… well, too much. And what’s the betting you’ll soon tire of cleaning grubby hand prints off that spongy cream fabric?
Gimmick or tech essential?
I haven’t even started on the infotainment touchscreen; here you’ll find the Atto 3’s party piece, because at the touch of a button it rotates from landscape to portrait format. This feels like a gimmick, and probably is one, although the way you can switch the screen to better display the road and junctions ahead while using the satnav is not without merit.
This function has been a BYD trademark for years, apparently, so the company is confident of the mechanism’s reliability, and indeed there’s no evidence yet to suggest it wouldn’t stay the course – but you can’t help but wonder whether it’s a bit of potentially costly complication you don’t really need.
The screen itself is brilliant – responsive to the touch and with super-quick software. However, some of the menus are not very well designed. For instance, there’s an overlay for the climate control through which you can adjust the temperature, which is fine, but to get to the main climate control settings – which you must do to switch on the heated seats and the rear screen element – you have to press the fan icon in this overlay, which isn’t exactly obvious.
Of course, BYD is hoping that you will instead use its on-board voice assistant to access most of the car’s functions – and it has to be said that this works better than most similar set-ups, as BYD has given it the ability to control physical features. So you can simply tell it to close the sun blind over the panoramic roof, adjust the temperature or, indeed, turn on the heated rear screen.
However, you have to get the language right – remember to call it the “rear screen defrost” if you want the software to understand you, for example. As always with these things, it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that a simple physical button with an indicator light would be simpler.
There’s no variable boot floor, which is a shame because there’s space for one; the boot floor is set high, level with the load lip, and there’s a huge compartment beneath in which the bags for cables float around. This compartment forms part of the 440-litre boot space figure, too, so beware that the usable space on offer above the boot floor isn’t anywhere near as big as that figure makes it sound.
By contrast, the Kia Niro EV offers more room overall (475 litres), while its boot floor can also be adjusted for height. It's a bit of a shame, too, that there’s no second compartment under the bonnet, to take advantage of the space freed by the eight-in-one motor unit – there’s certainly space for one.
Having said that, the unit’s compactness allows more passenger space, as does the innovative battery, which results in a lower floor. In the front you won’t have any complaints, while in the back there’s room for a six-footer to sit behind a six-footer from where, by the way, they can gaze at the immaculate stitching on the front seats.
Because it has to be said that for all its bright colours and bonkers styling, the Atto 3’s interior feels well put together. This applies to the whole car; the doors of our test car shut with a reassuring thunk, the shut lines match and the panel gaps are tight.
It’s tempting to say “not bad for a start-up” at this point, but of course BYD has been building cars for 20 years. Even so, it’s done well to get its production processes to such a competitive level so quickly.
It has also done well to make the Atto 3 drive so convincingly. It isn’t entirely settled over bumps, but it treads a good line between comfort and control, with the sting taken out of most of the sharper edges.
The vertical body control could be a little better, but you won’t really notice unless you’re pushing on a bit along an undulating country load, whereupon the Atto 3 floats momentarily off crests. For the most part, though, the ride is composed and well judged.
It feels pretty responsive in bends, too; the front end bites well when you turn in, which gives you confidence to push harder, although you notice the softness in the suspension in the form of a bit of body lean if you really throw it around.
On mucky or damp roads you’ll also find it’s quite easy to overwhelm the grip of the front tyres, and there’s quite a bit of kickback through the steering when you do; planting the throttle uphill can cause the nose to skip and the wheel to yank itself to one side, which isn’t particularly edifying.
Yet this sort of use is extreme; for the most part, while it might be a stretch to call the Atto 3 fun, it’ll certainly take being hustled along a back lane without too much complaint.
And at cruising speeds the suspension settles into a comfortable lope, while the motor provides more than enough get-up-and-go to take advantage of gaps in a congested outside lane of a motorway, which makes the Atto 3 a capable cross-country cruiser.
The Telegraph verdict
This is essentially a car built around its battery. And with good reason; it’s an ingenious solution, after all. But on its own it wouldn’t be enough to secure a place at the top table.
Fortunately, the rest of the Atto 3 is pretty good, too. It drives well, it’s generously equipped (with a few notable exceptions), it’s pretty roomy and it seems well built. Granted, the mildly loopy interior will be a deal-breaker for some, but there is a certain appeal in its quirkiness, its sense of humour – in the fact that it isn’t the usual slab of grey plastic.
While not exceptional, then, this is nevertheless a solid all-rounder and a rather impressive entry to the market. And on the strength of this evidence, while it might be new to the British market, BYD isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Best make sure we get its name right from the start, in other words.
On test: BYD Atto 3 Design
Body style: five-door SUV
On sale: now
How much? £38,990 on the road (range from £36,490)
How fast? 99mph, 0-62mph in 7.3sec
How economical? 4.0mpkWh (WLTP Combined)
Electric powertrain: AC permanent magnet synchronous motor with 60.5kWh battery, 88kW on-board charger, Type 2/CCS charging socket
Electric range: 260 miles (WLTP Combined)
Maximum power/torque: 201bhp/228lb ft
CO2 emissions: 0g/km (in use), 28g/km (well-to-wheel)
Warranty: 4 years / unlimited miles
Spare wheel as standard: no (not available)
Kia Niro EV 3 with Heat Pump
201bhp, 285 miles, £40,445 on the road
After the madness of the Atto 3’s interior, the Kia’s dour blandness can feel like a relief. Compare them spec-for-spec, though, and it isn’t hard to see where BYD is pitching the Atto 3 – right at the Niro EV. The two have identical power outputs and very similar pricing strategies, although to get a Niro to a similar spec you have to spend a little more. Having said that, the Atto 3 won’t go quite as far on a charge, nor will it charge as quickly.
Renault Megane E-Tech Techno
217bhp, 280 miles, £39,495 on the road
Again, you’ll pay less for the Atto 3 than you will for the Megane, although you also get less range and slower charging. You get a more generous equipment list however, and especially notable is the heat pump as standard – which is something you can’t have in the Megane. That means the BYD should hopefully avoid the parlous drop in range from which the Megane seems to suffer in colder temperatures.
Volkswagen ID.4 Pure Life Edition
146bhp, 223 miles, £38,845 on the road
The ID.4 is larger and more spacious, with a much bigger boot, but at this price point it’s also less powerful, shorter of range and less well equipped. You’ll also have to live with the ID.4’s miserly build quality, which means while its interior is a bit less of an assault on the eyes it’s also rather less pleasing to touch and use than the Atto 3’s.