A new round of tricky questions: Geely launches yet another EV brand

Automaker Geely has come up with a new EV, the Zeekr. Perhaps the company will finally get right after a series of embarrassing EV false starts.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By HOU Zhuokai


Geely, which owns Volvo Cars and 10 percent of Daimler AG, unveiled its new Zeekr 001 on April 15. Described as a “high-end” vehicle, the Zeekr is based on Geely’s open-source “sustainable experience architecture.”

Not unlike a sports car, it has a range of over 700 kilometers, with a range boost of 120km after five minutes of charging. It is equipped with Mobileye EyeQ5H autopilot chips, FalconEye ViDAR and an array of fancy configurations including adjustable suspension and frameless automatic doors. The price tag of 280,000 yuan (about US$43,000) is close to other premium EVs.

As early as 2015, Geely set the goal of taking EV sales to 90 percent of total car sales by 2020, a goal the company has never seemed likely to meet and which ultimately became a huge embarrassment. Irrespective of Zeekr’s merits, the EV market is now even more unforgiving than it was five years ago.

Five or 10 years?

Geely has been thrashing around, trying to get a foothold in EVs, for a very long time. It has recently entered into a number of “strategic partnerships” with a strong air of desperation. Attempting to join a race which it has no chance of winning, Geely has sold at least part of its soul to Baidu, Tencent, Foxconn and even (almost amusingly) to Faraday Futures. Geely is offering them engineering, assembly services and “expertise”: in fact, Geely seems determined to the high table of EV makers, regardless of its suitability or qualifications.

No one has a higher opinion of Geely’s potential than Geely itself.  Not content with being a mere contract manufacturer, in February, chairman Li Shufu reformulated from a failed 2015 plan to focus on energy-saving vehicles, spearheaded by the new Zeekr. Geely plans to use Volvo engines and power systems across its portfolio.

“A revolution is brewing in the auto industry,” Li said, hardly reassuring considering Geely’s performance so far. It has already missed countless opportunities and the ambitious Zeekr brand is nothing more than a reaction to previous failures. Geely has to do a lot more to make up for its previous EV fiascos.

Five or 90 percent?

At first glance, Geely is doing well financially, generating a profit of 5.6 billion yuan (US$860 million), but next to nothing has been said about Geely’s new energy cars. The financial statement only mentions the 68,000 units sold. Out of a total of 1.3 million sales in 2020, EVs are an insignificant fraction, and a little short of the 90 percent promised in 2015. In fact, it’s even less than last year’s 8.3 percent, a drop Geely blames on the market and the government – anyone but itself. NEVs have never accounted for more than 10 percent of Geely’s total sales.

More worryingly, Geely is still unable (or unwilling) to ditch its image as the last resort of bargain hunters and the choice of cost-conscious taxi drivers. Geometry, a premium all-electric brand the company had placed high hopes on sold only 10,000 units in 2020, a negligible 1 percent of all Geely sales laughable when compared to other EV models launched around the same time.

But wait! Geely has the capacity to make even more unpopular vehicles yet! The Polestar, another premium brand, sold only 325 units in 2020, perhaps to rare car collectors?

Li ascribed the failure of the 2015 plan to bad timing, without clarifying who made the bad decision.  Increasingly, Geely insiders admit to fundamental flaws in its early strategies. Geely didn’t bother to develop a unique subframe for electric cars, preferring to stuff batteries and electric motors into standard subframes, a brute-force approach that has never worked, and never will.

Break or brake?

Technological SNAFUs reflect Geely’s general mindset - avoid complexity and save costs, or spend more on a difficult path. The Zeekr promises a fresh start, but the junked strategy is already careering downhill.

Senior executive Lin Jie, said recently that Geely “needed a thorough break from its past,” and he is obviously right, but it can’t take another five years of failure. The EV market is shaping up to be one of the most efficient and ruthless ever. Big techs and traditional car makers are closing in, chances are the Zeekr is heading nowhere fast except the junkyard.