We traveled all the way to Vietnam to get a behind-the-scenes look at all that new automotive company VinFast has going on, including some time behind the wheel of the VF 8 electric SUV hitting our shores late this year.
It seemed like little more than a fantasy when VinGroup, Vietnam’s biggest conglomerate, announced it would enter the auto industry 5 years ago. Until then, it was best known for its hotels, hospitals, schools, and shopping malls.
Now, its new VinFast subsidiary is getting ready to roll out a series of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), the first of which will be coming to the U.S. later this year. And the startup is intent on doing things its own way, selling the EVs online — and leasing buyers their battery packs.
Only a few years ago, it was all swamp and water. Today, VinFast has transformed a corner of Vietnam’s busy Haiphong Harbor into a sprawling manufacturing complex, including the startup’s headquarters, R&D center, and manufacturing facility.
When production began in 2019, barely 2 years after the company was formed, VinFast started building a heavily modified version of the BMW X5. Today, it’s winding down production of that gas-powered Lux model and making room for a lineup of fully electric vehicles.
2023 VinFast VF 8 Review
Eventually, an assortment of those products will be marketed in the U.S., starting late this year with the VF 8 and VF 9 crossovers. During a visit to the Haiphong complex, I got a chance to drive the smaller of those two models, albeit briefly.
A Surprise Move
VinFast’s decision to go all-electric came as a surprise when it staged a news conference at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November. It delivered another shock in January when it expanded its proposed line to five EVs. And, during my visit to Vietnam, I learned that yet two more models are in the works.
But the surprises continue: Barely a month ago, the startup announced plans to build a $6.5 billion manufacturing complex in North Carolina. It subsequently filed paperwork with the SEC that will let it stage a U.S. IPO.
The first of VinFast’s new battery-electric vehicles, the VF 34, rolled out while I was in Vietnam. But I stayed focused on the VF 8, a compact crossover that is likely to be the brand’s bestseller when it reaches the states.
Where the three-row VF 9 will be comparable in size to the Hyundai Telluride, the two-row VF 8 will be more on par with the Santa Fe — or, in the electric world, Hyundai’s new Ioniq 5 and the Volkswagen ID.4.
The design is attractive enough, if more traditional-looking than those two BEVs. It was jointly penned by Pininfarina and VinFast’s own design studio, which is run by former General Motors wunderkind Dave Lyon.
Inside and Out
As with the BMW-derived Lux, the VF 8 originally was set to use an internal combustion engine. The carmaker had to order some major changes in its underlying platform — shared with the VF 9 and other upcoming models — once the switch was approved.
The architecture hasn’t been fully optimized for going electric, but it does place the big lithium-ion battery pack below the load floor, freeing up space for a modest-sized “frunk” under the hood. It also has a roomier interior than its compact body might suggest.
The cabin has a more luxurious appearance than many key competitors, including the Ioniq 5 and ID.4. VinFast is picking up on a strategy that has helped a number of other Asian manufacturers carve out a niche in the U.S. market over the years.
But the design isn’t without controversy. Most notable is the absence of a traditional gauge cluster behind the steering wheel. If you want to check your speed, you’ll either have to look over at the big 15.6-inch digital touchscreen atop the center console — or at the optional head-up display.
The strategy isn’t entirely new. Toyota first took this approach with the Prius, and Tesla has followed suit with products like the Model S and 3. Still, it takes time to get used to — and it won’t appeal to everyone.
A High-Tech Focus
Like so many manufacturers getting into the battery-electric space, VinFast is putting a premium on connected car technology. The infotainment system uses an Amazon Alexa-style voice assistant, for one thing. Say, “Hey, VinFast,” to adjust the temperature, change radio stations, and even operate the sunroof — though the system was a little buggy in the prototypes I drove.
The system will offer cloud-based navigation. And VinFast plans to introduce an entire marketplace on the big screen, allowing you to shop, make reservations, download streaming content, and play games.
As is rapidly becoming the norm, it also will permit smartphone-style over-the-air updates. And that could be crucial considering the pace at which the VF 8 and VF 9 models are being rolled out.
Chief Engineer Huy Chieu acknowledged that some features VinFast hopes to offer won’t be ready at launch. This includes 1-Pedal driving.
The concept amps up the level of regeneration used by the powertrain to recapture energy normally lost during braking and coasting. And 1-Pedal mode feels a bit like a gas engine operating several gears lower than normal and allows an EV driver to modulate the throttle to slow, even stop, rather than hitting the brakes.
When the VF 8 comes to the U.S., we can expect two different packages — the base Eco model and the more lavish and sporty Plus.
Both will feature all-wheel drive, with motors on each axle. The Eco package will be detuned to a combined 260-kilowatt output, with 348 horsepower and 368 pound-feet of torque.
It’s reasonably quick, in line with the new all-wheel-drive Toyota bZ4X, based on my brief drive in Haiphong. But it doesn’t have the sort of launch kick that more sporty new offerings, such as the Kia EV6, deliver.
For that, you would want the VF 8 Plus, uptuned to a combined 300 kW, or 402 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque. It’s got some serious chops off the line — and the blended regen/hydraulic brakes needed to scrub off speed in a hurry.
Squashing the Bugs
I had the chance to get into several prototypes. The white VF 8 Eco was buggy and, as several colleagues experienced, power actually dropped out briefly when making a hard turn. Chieu showed no surprise at that report, saying it was due to a known sensor fault that is being replaced.
The VF 8 Plus prototypes were much closer to production-ready from a drivetrain perspective. However, there were numerous refinements in the works, including final graining of plastics and leathers, as well as additional molding around the big sunroof. But if this work in progress is any indication, the VF 8 Plus, in particular, could find a market in the U.S.
It helps that it will offer a reasonable range. The base 82-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack will deliver an estimated 260 miles per charge in the Eco and 248 miles in the more powerful Plus edition.
A bigger 87.7 kWh pack bumps these numbers to 292 and 277 miles, respectively — though all range estimates are based on the European WLTP standard. Expect the numbers to dip 10% or more using the U.S. EPA test.
As for charging, VinFast claims the VF 8 will go from a 10% to 70% state-of-charge in 31 minutes or less using a public fast charger.
An Unusual Sales and Marketing Strategy
VinFast plans to take some unusual approaches when it comes to the U.S. Though it will set up showrooms, for one thing, it will take orders online.
Meanwhile, it plans to offer buyers a novel option that would allow them to buy the vehicle but lease the battery pack. In fact, you’ll only be able to lease the pack through the end of 2023. After that, it plans to allow up to 50% of buyers to buy the complete vehicle.
Why lease? Not only to hold down the initial price but also to get an extended battery warranty. VinFast will completely replace the pack under a number of circumstances, such as if its range drops below 70% of the initial target.
VinFast VF 8 Pricing
Before factoring in the lease, the base 2023 VF 8 Eco model will start at $40,700, plus delivery fees. There will be two leasing options. The basic plan is $35 a month, which will jump to $44 for the VF 9.
Motorists will get up to 310 miles of free use each month. But go above that, and they’ll pay an additional 11 cents per mile for the VF 8, 15 cents with the VF 9.
The alternate, all-you-can-drive plan will run $110 a month for the VF 8 and $160 for the VF 9. The startup hasn’t announced what it will charge to buy the battery pack starting in 2024.
You’ll need to factor in the cost of the lease to get a true picture of how pricing stacks up. By comparison, the all-wheel-drive version of the VW ID.4 starts at $44,910, and the AWD version of the Kia EV6 starts at $50,900.
Is There Room in the Market?
Based on my initial experience — and trusting that the more obvious fixes get made before launching sales in the U.S. — VinFast should have a competitive offering with the new VF 8. Pricing appears reasonable and the Plus, in particular, will offer a more luxurious package than its mainstream rivals.
Whether American motorists will warm to this new entrant is likely to be the bigger question. And lingering sentiments about the Vietnam War cannot be dismissed, at least with some U.S. buyers.
But we’ve seen the American market open up to promising new entries in recent years, Tesla being a prime example. So, if VinFast can pull things together — in a hurry, as always — it could meet its admittedly bold expectations.
For more on VinFast and the VF 8, check out the company’s U.S. website.