Tesla’s biggest overseas market is kind of bored by Model Y

Model Y.
Model Y.
Image: Tesla Motors/Handout via Reuters
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Tesla’s Chinese fans are pretty underwhelmed by the just-unveiled Model Y.

“Tesla’s Model Y launches today… is it a fat Model 3?” wrote a user on microblogging site Weibo.

On Thursday (March 14) in Los Angeles, Tesla described the latest addition to its lineup, a compact sport utility vehicle (SUV) that will sell for between $39,000 and $60,000. The California-based carmaker’s founder Elon Musk said at the launch event that he expects to sell more Model Y units than the Model 3 sedan—its best-selling car in the US in 2018—and Model S combined. Deliveries of performance versions of the car will start late next year, while the standard version with a range of 230 miles (370 kilometers) will be available in 2021.

It’s true that SUVs are immensely popular across the globe—with their market share of passenger car sales rising from 22% to more than 30% since 2014, according to data from research firm JATO Dynamics. A cheaper SUV could help Tesla capture more of that market than its premium Model X SUV, as it preps for fierce competition from fossil-fuel car players who are going electric.

All of that underscores how important Model Y is for the firm. Unfortunately, the initial response out of China, Tesla’s biggest overseas market, according to multiple comments on Weibo, shows the Model Y has not impressed. That could spell trouble for the car manufacturer, which is planning to make the Model 3 and Model Y in its Shanghai Gigafactory to get them to be more affordable for China. The world’s largest EV market, like the US, loves its SUVs.

“There was barely any surprise, [the car] looks like a taller version of Model 3,” wrote Beijing-based user Meng Gou Unignite, who noted that while it’ll only start delivering from the fall of 2020, multiple electric car models from both domestic and international brands, such as Shanghai-based electric car startup NIOs five-seater ES6 and Germany car brand Audi’s E-tron, will be delivering in high volumes by then. “Model Y offers no advantage in battery life, the functionality of its autopilot feature also isn’t obvious. It’s a big question mark how Tesla can keep its market share.”

Many commenters were disappointed by the crossover car’s design.

“Model Y is here, but it’s just like the SUV version of Model 3 with only a range of 230 miles, which feels like a chicken rib,” said a Beijing-based user, using a Chinese metaphor for something that’s not of much use but would also be wasteful to throw.

“Its front face looks really strange, almost like a platypus,” wrote Jin Cuodao, a Beijing-based user (link in Chinese). Jin’s comparison was echoed (link in Chinese) by another Fujian-based user.

“I feel like the launch event is average… Model Y is said to be the combination of Model 3 and Model X, it’s tiny to look at but it has seven seats. However, I don’t think its appearance can compare with Model 3. It’s like a babysitter’s version of a sedan. I got excited for nothing,” wrote user Nobodyyyyyy (link in Chinese).

Another said that Y “looks like it’s pregnant or a loaf of bread… This doesn’t pass the requirement for people who care about looks.”

Car industry watchers appeared inclined to agree with some of the criticism.

“Based on the disclosed specs, such as driving range, it’s not very competitive,” Toliver Ma, an auto analyst at investments and securities company Guotai Junan International told Quartz. “However, [Tesla] could have another edge such as better technology or brand name that will appeal to customers.”

Already, Model Y’s facing a slew of competitors in China, where local carmakers are churning out lots of affordable EV SUVs. Tesla might have an advantage in China among luxury-loving buyers, but its recent see-saw pricing strategies (link in Chinese) have shaken confidence among its loyal Chinese consumers.

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