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China’s Geely challenges Tesla with launch of premium electric car brand

Chinese carmaker Geely Auto has launched a premium electric vehicle brand as it seeks to better compete with market leader Tesla on its home turf and recover from a hit to its sales and profits from Covid-19.

Hong Kong-listed Geely said on Tuesday that it would develop and manufacture high-end electric vehicles under the Zeekr brand alongside its parent company, the owner of Volvo Cars. The venture, into which Geely will invest Rmb2bn ($307m), is expected to begin deliveries in the third quarter.

Geely responded rapidly to the coronavirus pandemic last year, securing supply and restarting production ahead of rivals. That allowed it to retain its spot as China’s largest domestic car brand by passenger vehicles sold in 2020.

Still, the health crisis meant Geely’s revenue fell 5 per cent to Rmb92.1bn last year and net profits dropped 33 per cent to Rmb5.57bn, according to earnings released on Tuesday. Unit sales fell 3 per cent to 1.32m, below its originally projected target of 1.41m. Geely’s Hong Kong shares fell 7 per cent after the announcement.

The pandemic has cemented China’s place at the centre of the global car industry. While year-on-year passenger vehicle sales in the world’s largest auto market fell 6 per cent in the second half of 2020, that performance was superior to many other big global markets.

Beijing wants more than a fifth of vehicles sold in China to be electric by 2025. A record 224,000 battery-powered and plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in December.

Geely hopes that the shift into China’s premium electric vehicle market will help renew the brand’s sales momentum. But it will face fierce competition, not only from Tesla but also Chinese groups Nio, Xpeng and Li Auto, as well as global premium automakers set to launch electric models in China this year. Tesla’s Model 3 was the top-selling electric vehicle model in China in any segment last year.

“The venture will likely be costly for Geely in the near term but it is a necessary move for the automaker as it seeks to take on Tesla,” said Yale Zhang, founder of Automotive Foresight, a consultancy in Shanghai. 

Zhang noted that demand from young Chinese buyers for technology-laden electric cars had put pressure on traditional automakers to set up independent brands that operate like start-ups. “Right now, being able to innovate is more important than cost control,” he said.

Li Shufu, chair of Geely’s parent group, has ambitions to turn his automotive empire into China’s first global automaker with a reach similar to Volkswagen. It includes brands Volvo, Lotus and a minority stake in Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler AG.

A plan to merge Geely Auto with Volvo was scrapped in February in favour of deepening joint electric vehicle and software development.

Through the Zeekr brand, Geely will also aim to demonstrate the competitiveness of its system for building electric cars that it plans to sell to rivals. The architecture, announced last year, is a core part of Geely’s strategy to position itself at the centre of the global industry’s pivot towards battery-powered vehicles.


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