The star of the Beijing Auto Show isn't a Volkswagen, or a Porsche, or a Mercedes. It's something most people have never heard of before: the LeSee, a car from LeEco (formerly LeTV).
You might be thinking, "so what?". But this car is significant for a number of reasons, so we went hands-on in Beijing to get a closer look at China's latest exciting car.
We say "went hands-on", the truth being we simply couldn't get near the LeSee, because every time we went to look at it, we had to battle through crowds 10-deep — which tells you all you need to know about how interested the Chinese are in this car. They're interested because it comes from a company that over the past few years has become a massive player in the electronics and media sector in China, rivalling the likes of Xiaomi, in a bid to become the "Chinese Apple".
LeEco's CEO is a man called Jia Yueting, and while the world is looking at Apple and Google to disrupt in the car space, they might be looking in the wrong direction. Yueting is worth billions, and he's already backing Sino-American start-up car brands, Faraday Future and Atieva. The latter hasn't show its hand yet, but Faraday's FF-Zero concept caused a huge stir at this year's CES (read our hands-on preview, link below) and it is working on a series of autonomous production cars, to be built in a Tesla Gigafactory-like operation in Nevada. Apparently the guys behind it, also designed LeEco's latest.
What we know about that LeSee is that mother brand LeEco sees the car as an important part of the future digital landscape. With cars likely to become autonomous in many markets — the LeSee can move autonomously, up to 130mph — you're going to often be doing different things in the car, other than actually driving.
The company would very much like your car to be part of its wider media-electronics portal. So the LeSee's steering wheel is unlike others — it's sort of solid, with digital elements and retracts in and out of the dashboard.
The interior features a number of digital displays — a high passenger side dash interface, a floating centre-screen tablet, and digital displays built into the exterior surfaces and the rear seat zone. We say "zone" because you could hardly call the rice-paddy-field-inspired contours in the rear area of the car "seats". But they do show us that LeSee is bothered about its Chinese heritage (it doesn't just want to ape western approaches), and it's following the Chinese way of putting much greater emphasis on the comfort and experience of those in the rear of the car.
While most brands looking at autonomous driving are trying to hide their sensors, we liked that the LeSee had stuck a kind of antenna in the middle of its glass roof, which flashed and strobed when in the autonomous mode. But perhaps while the interior is a wild, digitally focused design, we found the most intriguing thing about the car to be the well resolved, yet distinct exterior design.
The LeSee is about the size of a Porsche Panamera. And we mention that car because it's the one which the LeSee's roofline is most similar to. But the LeSee is sleeker, less hunchback. It features clean surfacing which is punctuated by break-aways for the A-pillar (which becomes the door surround) and the sill. Just enough variation to keep things interesting.
The front and rear aspects are similar too: a big, closed-loop lamp graphic, no grille and those hologram-style digital animations just visible if you look closely enough.
It's a concept, though, so what it previews in reality is open to debate. But Yueting is ambitious and powerful and there's a will here to get things done in a much quicker way than we would in Europe. So don't expect to have to wait for long before LeEco makes its next move. We're fascinated to see what that is, and whether one of China's richest billionaires can truly disrupt the 100-year old car market...