If the name VinFast doesn’t immediately ring a bell, that’s no surprise. It’s one of an assortment of startups including Rivian, Lucid and Fisker hoping to carve out a niche in the new car market by focusing on battery-electric vehicles.
Where most of those nascent EV companies are scattered across the U.S., VinFast is based in Vietnam. In fact, it’s the Asian nation’s very first homegrown auto company. It was formed only five years ago, initially building a modified version of the BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle. But, in a surprise move, VinFast announced last November it is shifting gears and, going forward, will produce only BEVs.
All told, it now has unveiled five all-electric models, at least three of which will be coming to the U.S. market, including the VF 8, a midsize SUV. To get a sense of what it has to offer, I took an 18-hour flight from San Francisco to Hanoi, followed by a long bus ride to VinFast’s headquarters in the port city of Haiphong.
As the company’s name implies, VinFast moves quickly compared to conventional automakers. And it certainly needed to with the VF 8, which was originally designed to use an internal combustion engine. Now, its powered by twin electric motors mounted, along with its battery pack, below the load floor. Under the hood, there’s a modest sized frunk.
The automaker rolled out several VF 8 prototypes for a media drive last week representing the two different versions of the all-electric SUV, the base Eco model, and the sportier and more lavishly equipped VF 8 Plus.
The VF 8 features an attractive design that was largely crafted by Italian design house Pininfarina. The exterior has an elegant touch, with a subtle, coupe-like shape to it.
The nose features the distinctive VinFast “V” logo framed by a split lightbar and LED running lamps, the main headlights rising just above the bumper. Like most new BEVs, it has eliminated the traditional grille — since there’s no need for air to flow under the hood. But it avoids the awkwardly slab-like appearance of some new battery-powered cars, such as the Mustang Mach-E. A smaller grille under the bumper helps cool both the battery pack and motors. And twin air curtain intakes are designed to reduce turbulence around the front wheels.
The VinFast VF 8 is roughly the size of a BMW X3 or, among the new crop of battery-electric vehicles, the Volkswagen ID.4 and Kia EV6. Like those BEVs, it offers more interior space than its midsize footprint might suggest.
The various prototypes the automaker rolled out weren’t quite ready for production, so some details, including interior surface graining, weren’t finalized. But the overall look is meant to signal class-above refinement, a near-luxury cabin at a mainstream price point.
One of the more unusual decisions was to eliminate the traditional driver’s instrument cluster. Like Tesla, VinFast is placing all the data on a landscape-oriented 15.6-inch infotainment screen riding the top of the center stack. That approach might have been awkward, requiring you to look down and to the right for basic info like vehicle speed, but the automaker has added a large, full-color head-up display letting you keep your eyes on the road.
The base Eco model features heated faux leather seats. The upscale Plus model adds real leather and seat cooling, as well.
As has become the norm with today’s battery-electric vehicles, the VF 8 features a minimum of traditional controls, and those that remain serve multiple purposes. Among other things, you tap an image of the SUV on the infotainment screen and then set the position of your outside mirrors using toggles on the steering wheel.
The 2023 VinFast VF 8 will come exclusively in all-wheel-drive, with motors on each of the axles. The base Eco package detunes the motors to 130 kilowatts each, or a combined 260 kW. For the metrically challenged, that’s equal to 348 horsepower and 368 pound-feet of torque. The Plus model boosts output to a combined 300 kW, or 402 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque.
The difference is far greater than the numbers would suggest, at least based on preliminary powertrain tuning. The Eco model is reasonably quick, though it lacks that instant snap of acceleration some competing EVs offer, taking advantage of the immediate torque delivered by electric motors. Not so the VF 8 Plus. Swat the throttle hard and you’ll immediately find yourself sinking deep into the SUV’s seat, the twin motors continuing to deliver plenty of power as you hit freeway speeds.
Depending upon the market, VinFast plans to offer two battery pack options. The base 82 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack will deliver an estimated 260 miles per charge in the Eco model, 248 miles in the more powerful Plus edition. A bigger 87.7 kWh pack bumps the numbers to 292 and 277 miles respectively — though all range estimates are based on the European WLTP standard. Expect the numbers to dip 10% or more using the U.S. EPA test.
As for charging, VinFast claims the VF 8 will go from a 10% to 70% state-of-charge in 31 minutes or less using a public fast charger.
One disappointment was the lack of serious brake regeneration and a One-Pedal mode. For those unfamiliar with the way BEVs work, they’re designed to recapture energy otherwise lost during braking and coasting, sending it back to the battery pack. The aforementioned EV6, for example, allows a driver to choose from four increasingly aggressive brake regen modes — or to go full in with One-Pedal mode.
The best comparison is to think what it’s like driving a gas engine downshifted three or four gears. In most circumstances, you’ll be able to control your speed simply by modulating the throttle, without jumping back and forth between throttle and brake.
The good news, according to chief engineer Huy Chieu, is that VinFast is developing a One-Pedal mode. It may not be ready for the initial sales launch later this year but, if not, early buyers can expect to have the necessary software downloaded remotely once it’s ready.
As that implies, VinFast plans to offer smartphone-like over-the-air updates on all future products, including the VF 8. It will use that to offer remote software updates, add new features and support what it promises will be a suite of “smart services” it plans to offer. These are expected to include everything from onboard shopping to gaming, web browsing and smart home controls.
As is rapidly becoming the norm, the VF 8 will feature wireless versions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and Qi wireless smartphone charging.
The two models also will feature an Amazon Alexa-style virtual assistant that can handle all manner of vehicle functions. Say, “Hey, VinFast,” and it will close or open the sunroof, for example, or change radio stations, set a destination or even bump up the cabin temperature if you let it know you’re cold.
An assortment of advanced driver assistance systems will be standard on both Eco and Plus versions, including forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, blind-spot detection and active cruise control. Traffic Jam Assist and Level 2 Highway Assist will be optional. The automaker also plans to work towards adding full hands-free capabilities, though it’s not ready to talk timing.
My experience behind the wheel of the VF 8 was far more limited than I’d have liked, especially considering the distance I traveled to get to the Haiphong plant. And each of the vehicles had their quirks, reflecting the fact there is a lot of tuning left to be completed before they go into production later this year.
One model, in particular, had an unexpected tendency to lose power during hard cornering maneuvers. VinFast quickly pulled it from the test group, officials explaining there is a known problem with a power sensor.
But the glitches were, on the whole, reasonably minor, the overall driving experience suggesting the 2023 VinFast VF 8 should have a lot going for it in final trim.
And, at a base price of $40,700 — before factoring in delivery fees — it will have a lot to offer at a reasonably affordable price. By comparison, the all-wheel-drive version of the VW ID.4 starts at $44,910, the AWD version of the Kia EV6 starting at $50,900.
Whether American motorists will feel comfortable buying from an unknown startup — from Vietnam, no less — remains uncertain, but the new VF 8 appears to have plenty going for it. Add a service program meant to minimize inconvenience by offering service in your own driveway, and the new BEV could be a true breakout.
VinFast plans to open its first stores May 28, with deliveries scheduled for late 2022.