The incredible rise of Chinese Tesla rival BYD, which recently revealed 2 hybrid sedans that can go 1,250 miles without stopping

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  • The Chinese automaker BYD briefly eclipsed Tesla as the world's top seller of electric vehicles.

  • Even though it doesn't have access to the US market, BYD's affordable EVs are popular in China.

  • Here's how a little-known Chinese brand proved it could go toe-to-toe with an industry giant.

BYD may not be a household name in America, but it recently made itself known in a big way.

For a brief moment earlier this year, the Chinese automaker unseated Tesla as the world's top seller of electric cars.

Even though you won't see a BYD car in America (yet), the company has built an affordable brand that's popular in China and elsewhere.

It also just announced a Cybertruck competitor, the BYD Shark, along with a hybrid powertrain that allows its sedans to travel up to 1,250 miles without stopping.

Here's the story of the company that proved it could outsell Elon Musk.

BYD doesn't stand for anything — officially.

View of the logo of car manufacturer BYD at the BLG Auto Terminal Bremerhaven.
The BYD nameplate is associated with the slogan "Build Your Dreams," but that came after the company was formed.picture alliance

Wang Chuanfu and a cousin founded BYD in 1995. Then a 29-year-old government researcher, Wang came from a family of rice farmers. He earned a university scholarship and eventually moved to the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen to start his new company.

The "YD" in the name came from Yadi, the village in Shenzhen where the company originally was, one South Korean newspaper reported. The "B" was added later as a promotional tool, the report said. Wang has said in interviews that, taken together, the BYD name doesn't stand for anything in particular.

It was only later that Wang derived the slogan "Build Your Dreams." The company has also acquired another nickname: "Bring Your Dollars."

The company was originally a cellphone-battery manufacturer.

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao tests a mobile phone made by South Korea's Samsung as he observes Samsung Semiconductor in Kihung, some 50 Km south of Seoul, 28 April.
Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao testing a Samsung cellphone in the 1990s. Samsung was one of BYD's earliest customers.Kim Jae-Hwang/AFP via Getty Images

The company's original business wasn't cars. It was cellphone batteries. BYD challenged the established Japanese suppliers Toyota and Sony by providing a cheaper alternative. By 2002, companies such as Motorola, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung were all using BYD batteries.

They started making cars in 2003.

A driver gets out of a BYD Auto F3DM hybrid car at its headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on February 17, 2009. BYD Auto is pursuing a project to free cars from their century-old dependence on gasoline and next month will start delivering the F3DM -- DM stands for "dual mode" -- which can go 100 kilometres (63 miles) on its battery, or 580 kilometres (360 miles) in hybrid mode with gasoline.
A BYD F3DM.Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

BYD moved into the car business after buying Xi'an Tsinchuan, a failing state-owned automaker that was then an arm of the defense contractor Norinco, the South China Morning Post reported.

The company launched its first car in 2005. The BYD F3 was a compact sedan that resembled the Toyota Corolla. It sold for as little as 40,000 yuan, or about $5,850.

Warren Buffett was a key early booster.

Wang Chuanfu, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates standing next to a BYD M6 and each giving a thumbs-up.
Wang Chuanfu welcomed the investors Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates to celebrate the launch of the BYD M6 in 2010.Visual China Group via Getty Images

The billionaire investor Warren Buffett was one of the high-profile names who took an interest in BYD early on. Looking to invest in China's booming car market, Buffett toured BYD's headquarters.

The Wall Street Journal reported that while the Berkshire Hathaway tycoon was there, Wang took a sip of battery fluid to prove how clean his batteries were. Buffett was so impressed by the experience that he offered to buy 25% of the company.

Wang declined that offer, but Buffett was not deterred. Berkshire Hathaway acquired a 10% stake in BYD — for $232 million — in 2008.

Their first electric car drew scorn from Elon Musk.

The BYD E6 electric car on display.
A BYD E6.Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images

The company debuted its first fully electric vehicle, the E6, in 2010. Benefiting from Chinese government subsidies, it was able to compete with its Japanese counterparts.

But not everyone was impressed. Tesla CEO Elon Musk laughed in a 2011 interview when asked whether he considered BYD a serious rival to Tesla.

"Have you seen their car?" he said. "I don't think they make a good product. I don't think it's particularly attractive. The technology is not very strong."

BYD's hybrid cars turned it into a titan of Chinese automakers.

Wang Chuanfu presenting the BYD Qin onstage.
Chuanfu introduced the BYD Qin in 2012.AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

BYD established itself as one of the top automakers for hybrid vehicles in China in the 2010s. Its most popular offering was the Qin, introduced in 2012, which became one of the best-selling cars in China.

That wasn't the only offering that propelled BYD to prominence, however. The company also released the Tang, a hybrid SUV, and partnered with Daimler AG (now Mercedes-Benz) to make its Denza line.

BYD took the EV crown from Tesla — briefly.

A BYD Atto 3 driving down a road.
A BYD Atto 3.Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Even though most of its sales in the fourth quarter of 2023 came from the Chinese market, BYD made headlines across the globe when it seemingly did the impossible — it unseated Tesla as the world's top seller of electric cars.

The Chinese automaker rode the EV wave on the back of its new Seagull, which debuted for 73,000 yuan, or about $10,000, as well as its Song, Qin Plus, Dolphin, Yuan Plus, and Han EVs.

Tesla reclaimed the crown in the first quarter of 2024, though both companies saw steep declines in their sales.

BYD's Shark takes aim at Tesla's Cybertruck

Two BYD Sharks, one black and one white, on display.
The BYD Shark is supposed to represent an actual shark, according to the launch event. BYD Auto México

The Shark, unveiled on Tuesday, is the latest model offered by BYD.

It's a midsize hybrid pickup truck, and the cabin's design fuses outdoor functionality with modern style and durability.

The truck has more than 430 horsepower, or 170 less than Tesla's all-wheel-drive Cybertruc. BYD says it can accelerate from zero to 100 kilometers an hour, or about 62 miles an hour, in roughly 5.7 seconds. The vehicle has five seats and a maximum towing capacity of 2,500 kilograms, which is just more than 5,500 pounds. That's about half of the Cybertruck's towing capability.

Designed for everyday trips and off-road driving, the Shark has three terrain modes: sand, mud, and snow.

It also has built-in features to make camping and off-roading more accessible. The vehicle offers bidirectional charging, according to BYD's site.

While the Shark isn't in direct competition with the Cybertruck as a hybrid model that doesn't sell in the US, it may entice EV fans looking for a more traditional pickup design. It's also priced competitively at about $53,451, which is lower than Cybertruck's $60,990 starting price tag.

Don't expect to see a BYD car on American roads anytime soon.

Hundreds of BYD cars on a dock.
New BYD cars waiting to be loaded onto a ship in China's Shandong province.Future Publishing

For a time, it looked as if we were just a few years away from getting Chinese electric cars in the United States. A BYD executive said as much in 2017, and the company even hired Leonardo DiCaprio as a brand ambassador for English-speaking customers.

Since then, BYD has expanded overseas. The Chinese automaker is planning a factory in Mexico — alarming US officials — and even created its own shipping fleet in a bid to cut down on export costs.

But the company says it has abandoned its plans of selling its EVs to Americans. Analysts have pointed to geopolitical tensions and trade barriers between the two countries, as well as the slumping demand for EVs in the United States.

BYD is launching a new hybrid powertrain system on two midsize sedans — and it can drive 1,250 miles without charging or stopping to fill up for gas.

BYD Seal
The upgraded powertrains will launch in two sedans for under $14,000. Getty Images

BYD is upgrading its hybrid powertrain system.

The company announced that the upgraded powertrains will launch in two of sedans, one of which will be the BYD Seal 06, Bloomberg reported. Both models will reportedly be under 100,000 yuan, according to the company.

Hybrids make up the majority of BYD vehicles sold, according to a Reuters report. The new upgrade gives them a competitive edge against rivals like Toyota and Volkswagon, which mostly sell fuel-powered vehicles.

The powertrain system translates to about 81 miles per gallon at full charge, which is over triple the US fuel economy average for 2022 cars. That's also close to 500 more miles of range than a hybrid 2023 Lexus ES, which was the longest-range hybrid in the Kelley Blue Book's list last year.

Additional reporting by Graham Rapier.

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