We get to know the global juggernaut behind America's next carmaker and take its first product, an all-electric SUV, for a spin.
VinFast says it already has 60,000 reservations globally for its VF 8 and VF 9 electric SUVs. VinFast
In the wake of Tesla’s industry-shaking success and the future promise of electric, autonomous mobility, would-be electric car companies are sprouting up everywhere. The floodgates have opened, with the last decade seeing more startups get off the ground than at any time since the dawn of the automobile. Most are already finding out the hard way that car building is a terrible way to make money. Developing and selling cars is a hugely cash-intensive business, and automobiles are the world’s single most complex consumer goods, subject to the most numerous and varied global regulations and operating environments. It all adds up to a world where an overwhelming majority of intenders will fail, most without ever having delivered a single vehicle.
Despite such dire conditions, if I had to place my chips on a single new automaker to escape the mire, it’s Vietnam’s VinFast. In fact, there’s ample reason to believe the company won’t just survive, it will likely shortly emerge as a global force, including right here in America. I say this after having flown to Asia to learn about the company and drive its first US-bound model, the 2023 VF 8 electric SUV. My trip quickly turned out to be as much of a test drive of VinFast itself as it is of its forthcoming battery-powered compact crossover.
While my very brief drive of VinFast’s electric future took place in a preproduction prototype, you won’t have to wait long to have your chance to buy a VF 8 — plans call for initial examples to land in US driveways by year’s end. In fact, the young automaker even expects to deliver the first units of its larger sibling, the handsome three-row VF 9 EV, before 2023. These are hugely ambitious goals, but the company already has an established track record for accomplishing the nearly impossible, thanks in part to an executive team made up of industry veterans. VinFast started in 2017, and just 21 months later, it had three different passenger cars in production in a massive, fully modern factory complex in Haiphong, about two hours east of Hanoi. Those first models were admittedly based heavily on tech purchased from other automakers like BMW, but even so, the accomplishment can’t be overstated.
Vingroup corporate power
While CNET isn’t normally in the habit of test-driving prototypes from startups, there’s ample reason to believe VinFast will buck the trend and find success. For one thing, this company has the financials to see things through. It’s part of Vietnam’s Vingroup, a mega corporation that owns and operates dozens of businesses, including luxury resorts, amusement parks, hospitals and even massive housing developments that are more like small cities, replete with skyscrapers and malls. More to the point, Vingroup also appears to have a slew of helpful related technologies in its portfolio, including divisions focused on AI, cybersecurity and cloud computing. The organization even built a new university from scratch to cultivate homegrown talent. All of this illustrates that not only does this company have the resources to become a global automotive player, it develops businesses at a breakneck clip. At 28 years young, Vingroup is barely out of corporate adolescence.
Given VinFast’s damn-the-torpedoes corporate pace, it should come as no surprise that the two VF 8 prototypes I’m testing are decidedly unfinished. In fact, they’re not even operating on the same development software versions, and many of the vehicles’ software functions… don’t. Combine that with a makeshift drive loop that’s perhaps a couple of kilometers long, and it’s all but impossible to draw concrete conclusions about whether or not this EV belongs on your shopping list. Having said that, what my drive points out clearly is the promise baked into the VF 8. There’s a lot of work to be done in a very short time, but critically, the fundamental ingredients are all present.
For starters, the 2023 VinFast VF 8 is the right vehicle at the right time. North America’s compact electric crossover SUV segment is rapidly blooming, and this five-seat model is sized and designed to establish a beachhead in the heart of this emerging market. That strategy may sound basic and obvious, but it’s worth noting that it took literal decades for Japanese automakers like Honda and Toyota to introduce the right types of vehicles for the vast majority of Americans to take them seriously (let alone deliver vehicles with styling acceptable to the masses). Ditto for Korea’s Hyundai and Kia, both of which admittedly managed the trick significantly more quickly.
The VF 8’s exterior is contemporary, with standard LED illumination and a V-shaped grille with integrated daytime running lamps that echo the brand’s logo. The nose is the single most expressive and potentially controversial aspect of the exterior, but even if the face isn’t your favorite, the design isn’t so out there as to be a turn-off for most buyers. In profile, the VF 8 looks rather nondescript — its most interesting details are the tapered indentation along the door bottoms and a raked rear window.
VinFast promises a full range of connected services, including e-commerce functions and gaming. VinFast
Cabin tech and features
Inside, the VF 8 is clearly a modern EV. Its dashboard is dominated by a landscape-oriented 15-inch infotainment touchscreen. There’s a color head-up display, but notably, there’s no traditional gauge cluster — you either look at the HUD or glance at the main screen to see how fast you’re going. The center console is dominated by a push-button gear selector, and the three-spoke steering wheel’s most noteworthy feature is a tiny driver-facing camera atop the column, a hint that VinFast plans to offer some kind of hands-free driving assist. It’s too early to judge the VF 8’s fit and finish, as there are some preproduction and ill-fitting parts in evidence (including a power seat controller wired in reverse).
It’s worth noting that VinFast is hinging much of its success on its ability to offer a full range of connected services and infotainment features, including everything from a sentry mode and an e-commerce tool to the ability to play games and videos on the center screen (sound familiar?). These features are not functional in the test vehicles I’m sampling. Further, attempts to cajole the voice control into opening and closing the panoramic moonroof meet with limited success, and when I tell the virtual assistant I am cold, it raises the temperature by a single, miserly digit. A subsequent attempt sees the system jump directly from 65 to 90 degrees. If VinFast delivers all of the conveniences it claims it will, the VF 8 ought to have an extremely competitive feature set.
At 187 inches long, 74.8 inches wide and 65.4 inches tall, the VF 8 is the same length as a Tesla Model Y and only around an inch separates their width and height. Interestingly, chief engineer Huy Chieu tells me that in developing the VF 8’s driving performance, the company recently benchmarked Hyundai’s excellent Ioniq 5 EV, a great bogey. Like many of his fellow executives, Chieu joined VinFast recently after decades in the business at established automakers (Chieu worked at General Motors from the late 1990s). Importantly, VinFast is stacked with veteran industry talent from top to bottom — people who know how to design and build cars in volume. With all that said, we’ll need to have to wait for a final-production VF 8 to figure out if Chieu and Co. have hit the mark with the VF 8’s dynamics and tech, because it’s clear that engineers are still dialing in the vehicle’s performance as it rushes toward production.
The five-seat VF 8 will compete against EVs like the Hyundai Ioniq 5, Tesla Model Y and Volkswagen ID 4. Chris Paukert/CNET
Power and performance
VinFast will build two VF 8 models, with dual-motor Plus trims like the ones I’m sampling delivering up to 402 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque. With standard all-wheel drive, official estimates call for 0-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds — quick, but about a half-second shy of what we’ve seen from the aforementioned Tesla and Hyundai models. (A lower-power Eco model with 348 hp promises 60 mph in 5.9 seconds.)
My drive is limited to quick acceleration blasts up and down a road between factory buildings, with a U-turn on one end and a keyhole loop return on the other. Signage suggests our tests are to be capped at 80 kph (50 mph), but the engineer sitting in my passenger seat allows me to go far more quickly, touching 100 mph before braking hard into the left-handed keyhole. Being an EV, acceleration is predictably smooth, but with the 19-inch Goodyear Eagle Touring tires under load in the final turn, the steering’s power assistance has brief moments where it feels oddly nonlinear.
Further, regenerative braking was notable by its absence. VinFast engineers say a one-pedal drive model is under development and will likely be released to early vehicles via an over-the-air update. I also noticed inconsistencies in power levels between the two test vehicles (likely attributable to different software versions), and at least one other media member reported a momentary total loss of power during their test drives after coming off the brakes. These sorts of experiences are relatively common in early prototype vehicles, but given that VinFast plans to hand over production models to expectant owners in a little over six months, engineers clearly have their work cut out for them.
VinFast built a highly automated plant and churned out 3 different models in only 21 months. As a startup. VinFast
Pricing and range
Strangely, VinFast plans to release two different battery sizes in both its Plus and Eco variants. I say “strangely” because the separate ranges and prices aren’t well differentiated. For the base Eco Battery Version 1, the company is targeting 260 miles on Europe’s more-lenient WLTP test cycle at a cost of $40,700 (plus a yet-to-be determined destination fee). The enhanced-range Battery Version 2 Eco is slated to deliver 292 miles for $41,000 — just $300 more. The more luxurious (and consequently heavier) VF 8 Plus is expected to achieve 248 miles of range in Battery Version 1 guise ($47,700) and 277 miles in its $48,000 Battery Version 2 spec. US mileage estimates on the EPA’s more-stringent test cycle figure to be somewhat lower.
While VinFast has yet to disclose exactly how large the Samsung-celled packs are in the Battery Version 1 models, the larger packs are 90 kilowatt-hours. On a DC fast charger, Version 1 models can go from 10% to 70% full in 24 minutes, while vehicles with the larger packs take 31 minutes.
Batteries not included
There’s one other key point regarding the batteries mentioned above: You pay extra for them. VinFast will become the first automaker in North America to offer cars with a separate battery lease/subscription and charging plan. Because batteries are the biggest fixed cost in EVs, the company is betting that by subtracting the cost of the pack, it will be able to make pricing more attractive. Officials also hope to temper concerns about power pack longevity and reliability by assuming responsibility for such variables. It will eventually also offer a more traditional car-with-battery pricing option, but not until 2024.
VinFast has already announced that Electrify America will be its preferred charging partner in the US, and costs range from as little as $35 per month on the Flexible plan for up to 310 miles of range (plus $0.11 per mile for overages) to $110 per month for the unlimited-range Fixed battery lease plan. For the full details, check out our explainer feature. The math is complicated, but for now, you should know that even if gas prices come down substantially, the value equation looks promising (if obscure).
Nothing if not ambitious, VinFast plans to have models in US customers’ hands by year’s end. Chris Paukert/CNET
As you can plainly see, there’s a lot of promise in the 2023 VinFast VF 8, but there’s also a lot of work to be done — and that’s before taking into account the company’s ambitions around advanced driver-assist systems (the VF 8’s spec sheet calls for automatic lane-change and summon tech among other advanced skills). It will be interesting to see if officials can reach their self-appointed on-sale deadline, and it will be telling if the company manages to deliver a quality product right out of the gates — with or without most of the features it’s promising.
Of course, simply delivering those vehicles on time isn’t enough for a company with VinFast’s vast ambitions. Not by a long shot. Even before the company has sold a single vehicle in the US, officials have already announced plans for a multibillion-dollar EV plant and battery factory outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. The brand quickly followed this news by disclosing it has filed for a US IPO.
It will be very interesting to watch this new company from Vietnam as it finds its footing in the US. If VinFast can manage to tick all of these items off its to-do list in anywhere near their promised timeframes, I humbly suggest it considers renaming the company “VinFaster.”