However, that could be about to change with the arrival of cars like the BYD Dolphin. Thanks to low production costs and what’s known in the industry as a ‘vertical supply’ chain (which means one company builds and makes everything from the microchips to the mirrors) Chinese brands are perfectly placed to bring their products to the market at prices that European carmakers simply can’t match.
The Dolphin is set to follow the Atto 3 into UK showrooms by the end of 2023 and has the potential to be a real game-changer. With precious few rivals (the MINI is set to be replaced, the Fiat 500e is gorgeous but expensive and the Renault Zoe comes with a zero star EuroNCAP safety rating, the Dolphin is aiming at an open goal.
Design and dimensions
The Dolphin is just over 4.2 metres long (4,290mm) and around 200mm longer than a Vauxhall Corsa-e and a Peugeot e208. However, unlike the Corsa, Peugeot and MINI it’s built on an all-electric platform designed from the outset to be a purely electric set of underpinnings. As result, the BYD designers and engineers have been free to place the battery pack and motor where they want, without having to take into consideration mounting points and space for a petrol engine. The stand-out measurement in the specification is the wheelbase, which at 2,700mm is longer than a Vauxhall Astra.
Like the Atto 3 – with which it shares all its underpinnings – the Dolphin is fairly conventional both in terms of exterior design and layout. The motor is mounted at the front and drives the front wheels while the battery pack, which uses BYD’s space-efficient ‘blade’ assembly system, sits underneath the car.
In terms of appearance, I don't think the Dolphin breaks much new ground – which is a sensible move given its mass market intentions. The front grille looks neat enough and gives the front end some character, but the rest of the package borrows bits and pieces from other brands to form a familiar but somewhat forgettable look. Hyundai IONIQ 5 owners will recognise the distinctive reverse crease on the doors while the rear wraparound lighting bar is almost a carbon copy of that fitted to the Mercedes EQC.
Inside is where BYD has really chosen to let its hair down, and on the whole, it’s a success. Like the Atto 3, designer Wolfgang Egger (a man with Audi, Alfa and Lamborghini on his CV) has thrown seemingly every idea at it. There isn’t a single surface that doesn’t feature a texture, crease or pattern. Some elements, such as the crazy air vent surrounds, feel as though they’ve come straight from a concept car. Others look a little convincing and just there for the sake of being different. If you’re a fan of Tesla minimalism, you’ll hate it. If you’re the kind of person who wears Hawaiian shirts all year round, you’ll probably love it.
While we’re on the subject of questionable features, the jury is very much still out on BYD’s decision to plaster the tailgate with the tagline ‘Build Your Dreams’ rather than just the BYD badge. For us, it’s a step too far - the automotive equivalent of having a framed “Live, laugh, Love” poster on your living room wall. What’s more, the lettering is embedded into a perspex frame, making it impossible to remove. We understand that BYD’s UK management is considering offering a ‘delete badge’ option in the same way Porsche does, but that isn’t confirmed yet.
In true BYD style, the Dolphin also comes with plenty of kit. The brand has yet to announce specification grades for the UK market, but if the Atto 3 is anything to go by, the Dolphin is likely to out-kit all its key rivals. BYD’s trademark rotating infotainment screen sits atop if the main dashboard and can be operated via a button on the steering wheel or via the screen itself. A secondary display is mounted behind the steering wheel and delivers key information such as speed. However, like the unit in the Atto 3, the smaller screen isn’t particularly clear and feels a little cheap compared to the main display.
Thankfully, BYD has spent a bit more money on the seats, which look and feel very impressive. Thanks to a one-piece backrest (think Cupra Born), they provide excellent support and although I wasn’t able to verify their long distance comfort (my test drive was limited to less than an hour around a track), I’d expect them to be fine on longer hauls.
All the usual creature comforts are available, including heated seats and air-conditioning (driven by the standard heat pump). Wireless phone charging and a multitude of USB ports come as standard while the lovely panoramic glass roof bathes the interior in natural light.
As for space, the Dolphin offers a decent level of room for passengers. Thanks to the long wheelbase, BYD has been able to maximise cabin space. That’s particularly noticeable in the rear, where even adults get a decent quota of legroom. Further back, the boot is deep, wide and can hold 345 litres of luggage. Fold the rear seats forward and that figure rises to 1,310 litres.
Battery, range and charging
Although BYD offers the Dolphin in its home market with two battery options (30.7kWh and 44.9kWh) the brand has reworked the car for Europe with a bigger 60kWh pack and faster charging capability. Bosses are planning to introduce a smaller battery to the range at a later date, but its size and a timeline for its arrival have yet to be confirmed.
The battery features BYD’s blade design (which allows for more cells to be packed into a smaller space) and uses LFP chemistry. LFP batteries are cheaper to make, more durable and don’t have cobalt in them. The blade arrangement is also incredibly strong which has the dual benefit of helping structural rigidity and improving safety.
The Dolphin also comes with a heat pump as standard which means that the heating system draws far less power from the battery to warm and cool the cabin. Buyers also get vehicle to load (V2L) as well, something unique in the electric supermini sector.
Linking the battery to the wheels is a 204bhp, 290Nm motor that drives the front wheels. It’s the same motor that BYD fits to the larger and heavier Atto 3, so expect Dolphin owners to fancy their chances at the traffic light grand prix.
As for range, the Dolphin comes with a WTLP figure of 265 miles, which puts it ahead of all its sector rivals, most of which offer around 200 miles. In the real world, I'd expect the Dolphin to manage between 180 and 220 miles depending on conditions and the kind of roads you’ll be driving on.
But while the range and the performance impress BYD’s decision to fit the Dolphin with 88kW DC rapid charging capability doesn't. While it isn’t the lowest speed in the sector – the MINI and Renault Zoe are both limited to 50kW, cars like the Vauxhall Corsa-e and Peugeot e208 come with 100kW charging as standard. On the plus side, the Dolphin does come with 11kW AC charging capability.
BYD Dolphin driving
On the road, the Dolphin behaves much like its bigger sibling, the Atto 3. Although my test drive was limited to a few laps of a race circuit in a pre-production (but UK spec) version, I reckon that the Dolphin will offer a decent, safe but unremarkable driving experience when it arrives the UK. The ride quality appears to be well resolved while its low centre of gravity allows it to switch directions keenly and cleanly.
On the downside, the steering offers little in the way of feedback and feels rather artificial – especially in the dead-ahead position while the brakes on our test car (which was admittedly a pre-production model that had spent the day doing track work) would benefit from more bite. And, thanks to a combination of a high torque output and front-wheel drive, the front wheels can squirm around a little too much if you get heavy-handed with the accelerator. That said, for the average urban commute, the Dolphin’s dynamics will be just fine.
UK specification and price
Finally we have the question of price. In Europe, the Dolphin will start from around 30,000 euros. So I’d expect that to translate to an on the road price of around 27,000 for the entry level model. The UK is likely to get three trim levels initially with more versions - including a smaller battery option - to come later in the product cycle.