Byton. It's not a name you're likely to have heard. But you might want to remember it, because the auto company has big plans, and by unveiling its concept SUV at CES 2018 it impressed many.
Funded by Chinese money (aren't all new car companies these days?) and with a factory ready to build its electric vehicle (EV) in Nanjing, Byton is managed by a pair of German auto industry veterans. It's tech centre is in California, and is employing the latest and best Silicon Valley technology. Meanwhile its design centre is in Munich – and headed up by the man who led the BMW i-series until a couple of years ago.
What is the Byton SUV?
The Byton SUV is an EV that's about the size of a Range Rover Velar, featuring a similarly swooping roofline.
The exterior is handsome, in a slightly generic way, but that's part of the deal – Byton hasn't set out to be at the avant-garde end of car design. Instead it's taking more of a "Tesla lite" approach, making a car that few will be offended to look at.
The model showed here is what in the industry is known as a concept preview. That means it's the production car underneath – and the body panels are stamped to the production specification. But the details are dialled up – so we're not sure whether the industry light lines that run through the body work below the head and tail lamps are set for production. The 22-inch wheels will stay though, according to Byton's team, so the powerful look and strong stance will remain.
The interior is trimmed with high quality materials and the overall ambience knocks a Tesla for six. There are phones on the door armrests, but whether they'll make production we're not sure – Byton says what you see in our photos is 85 per cent of production reality.
What's the in-car tech like?
Stealing the headlines is the cross-dashboard screen, which stretches right between the A-pillars. At 49-inches wide by 10-inches high, it makes Tesla's 17-inch centre screen seem rather old hat.
And Byton's not stopped there – the steering wheel features a capacitive touchscreen, complete with the gear selection controls. Byton is adamant that, despite this, it can still package the airbag into the wheel, and have it break out in the event of a crash, without issue.
Alright, we hear you thinking, but anyone can lash a car together and say these things. Last year, Faraday Future brought its FF-91, claiming similarly impressive specs and credentials. But the company has rather crashed and burned in the 12 months since – its factory is dead in the water and its financial backer is currently refusing to go back to China where's he wanted by the authorities.
Perhaps conscious of the scepticism it would be greeted with, Byton rather sensibly decided to let its product do the talking, and set up Byton House in one of the parking lots in Las Vegas at CES 2018. It then took out media and VIPs, all day, every day for laps in the car – proving, if nothing else, that it had a runner with some level of durability. We hopped in the passenger seat to see what the fuss was about.
It's that screen that first grabs attention. It's unbelievably eye-catching – perhaps too much so for human driven road situations – and is great to look when in the shade, but when on-the-move the reflection situation becomes rather hectic. The panoramic roof, here without a visor, probably doesn't help.
The screen is controlled by a gesture sensor, with five gestures to control the interface. Our demonstration team had these off-pat, but we wonder about being able to remember them all when you're on the move.
How does it actually drive?
Taking off up the track, the Byton doesn't shock with its speed like a Tesla does. It feel fast enough when the driver plants the accelerator, but this demo model was detuned to 75 per cent power.
It flies around corners happily enough, although even on the smooth tarmac of the car park in Las Vegas, the car felt a little heavy, the ride a little stiff and brittle. The overall refinement certainly isn't a patch on a Tesla though, or even a BMW i3. So let's hope Byton refines things in the last 10 per cent of development.
When can I buy one?
Still think it's vapourware? Well, Byton's already started production at its factory, and is ramping up and ironing things out to make sure the SUV has the best chance in the market when it goes on sale, firstly in China, later this year. It'll then come to the US, and hopefully to Europe in 2019.