Battling history and scale, Nio and Genesis look to crack Europe’s luxury car market

May 10, 2021, 3:55 PM UTC

China’s Nio and South Korea’s Genesis are looking to go where they have not been before. Both have launched ambitious plans for a place in Europe’s luxury car market, and the odds are stacked against them.

The upstarts have picked contrasting paths. Nio is looking to crack the newer battery electric vehicle (BEV) market, while Genesis will be taking on the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the combustion engine segment. For Nio, the initial focus will be on progressive buyers in Norway, while Genesis targets more conventional ones in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.K.

“Europe is the spiritual home of the premium car market,” said Dominique Boesch, general manager of Genesis Motor Europe, during a presentation on Wednesday. “We will need to work hard to earn our place.” 

At stake is the cachet that comes from becoming a global premium brand. Winning over the discerning tastes of the world’s most sophisticated consumers will bring with it the ability to command top-dollar prices the world over. 

Spun off into a separate brand by Hyundai in November 2015, Genesis has been building up its global business step by step. Last year alone it sold 130,000 vehicles, eclipsing the 100,000 Nio sold cumulatively since its first car left the factory gates in July 2018. Norway would, however, mark the first time the Chinese brand has expanded beyond its native shores.

Not great odds

The odds are stacked against the Asian carmakers. For one, car manufacturing is a scale business: Disproportionately high fixed costs are best absorbed over large volumes. Industry leader Daimler could spread these costs across the nearly 2.2 million cars it sold in 2020.

Secondly, premium consumers buy into an image—one reason why Elon Musk’s Tesla has enjoyed rare success. Simply packing a luxuriously equipped car to the brim with the latest features and calling it premium won’t do if a brand wants to take on established German heavyweights such as Mercedes and BMW.

“Generally speaking it’s quite difficult to get a foothold as a new premium brand in Europe; you need a unique proposition in order to differentiate yourself,” said Stefan Bratzel, director for the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Germany’s Bergisch Gladbach. 

Spoiled by a racing tradition that stretches back to the turn of the 20th century, Europeans prize history just as much as they do handling and performance. Mercedes and Ferrari have millions of fans, while a comparative latecomer like Porsche earned its stripes in the postwar era, winning the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Paired with the promise of hassle-free personal service, high quality, and a price tag that offers value for money, Genesis hopes the European styling of Belgian designer Luc Donckerwolke will attract customers to cars like the G80 sedan or the GV70 crossover. There is even a dedicated European model in the works and eventually fully electric models. 

The Hyundai offshoot is, however, a test-tube brand created in the boardroom by marketing professionals—a formula that has not proved viable thus far as carmakers such as Lexus, a unit of Toyota Motor Co., have discovered.

While it may do roughly as much business in the U.S. as Mercedes and BMW, Lexus sold just 32,000 cars last year in Europe, fewer than the traditionally more exclusive Porsche. Nissan’s Infiniti simply gave up after more than a decade in which sales only twice cracked the 10,000 unit mark as consumers failed to connect with a brand lacking any heritage.  

Nio better placed?

By comparison, Nio stands a stronger chance of success with its focus on electric cars. Oil-rich Norway has made the switch to BEVs on a scale that dwarfs all other countries across the world. The market may be small at roughly 150,000 cars on an annual basis, but every second new vehicle sold runs solely on batteries. 

Traditional heavyweights have only a handful of competitive BEV entries among them, leaving a larger slice of the pie for Nio and its flagship ES8 full-size SUV. The darling of U.S. investors, Nio is widely considered the Tesla of China, and its market capitalization on the NYSE surpasses that of veteran carmaker Ford. 

A prototype of Nio’s EP9 supercar held the record for the fastest lap for an electric car on the 13-mile–long Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany for two years. Nio even aims to bring its innovative three-minute battery swapping stations to Norway, for which it earned 47th place in Fortune’s Change the World rankings

“It will be extremely difficult to compete with the premium German brands with combustion engine cars. But if you’re moving into a growing market like battery electric vehicles like Nio, then the chances look more promising,” Bratzel told Fortune.

One good example is General Motors. Rekindling its interest in Europe, it brought Cadillac back late last year with the XT4 compact crossover now available in a fuel-efficient diesel. Nevertheless with a few dozen sales points in a handful of markets, it’s likely buyers do not know the brand has even returned after a hiatus. Fewer than 100 were sold in Germany so far this year.

Genesis and Nio, which is known as Weilai in China, can take heart in the fact that even European premium brands had to start somewhere.

BMW needed decades to go from the 1950s Isetta podcar to an M3 that set the benchmark for performance sedans. Ferdinand Piëch, the former Volkswagen Group patriarch who died two years ago, gradually moved the entire Audi brand upmarket starting in the early 1990s with cars such as the first A8 limousine. Yet Piëch, a brilliant engineer in his own right, had a notable setback as well with the luxury VW Phaeton flopping a decade later. 

Nio’s general manager in Norway, Marius Hayler, acknowledged patience is required to build the brand as nothing happens overnight. 

“We have to be humble because we know that our competitors are strong,” he said at the presentation of the carmaker’s launch plans on Thursday.

“There will be mountains to climb, but we are used to that here in Norway.”

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