When picking up the NIO ET7 in Amsterdam for a week-long test drive, it was apparent right from the first moment we stepped into the 5,1-meter sleek sedan this is not your average Chinese low-budget electric car. This one is conceived to be a luxurious ‘second living room’ on wheels, playing in the highest categories like a Mercedes EQS or BMW i7. But will it be up to the challenge?
Looking at its credentials, with ex-BMW i-model designer Kris Tomasson as VP of Design at NIO and the ET7’s spiritual father, the latter is at least imaginable. NIO isn’t actually present yet in Belgium, but the Dutch were among the first in Europe, after Norway, to meet this Chinese premium brand. Today, NIO features a line-up of six models and delivered 327 255 cars worldwide by April 2023.
Pure and spacious
Two things strike immediately when sitting in NIO’s flagship sedan, the ET7: the pure, simple design lines and the spaciousness, accentuated by the glass roof spanning the whole car length. With more than three meters of wheelbase, the front and rear legroom are ample. Bearing close to overkill in our perception. But then there is a shorter ET5, if you like.
Everything breathes clean simplicity. The light two-tone interior extended to the two-spoke steering wheel, the floating displays with a small rectangular instrument cluster and a Tesla-like portrait-oriented 12,8-inch touchscreen in the middle, the hidden air vents, and the ‘waterfall’ ambient lighting, heated and ventilated Nappa leather seats with massage functions in the front and rear. What else can you wish for?
At first, the white and grey graining of the tropical ratan called ‘karuun®’ used as inlays makes you knit one’s brows. It’s not cheap plastic as you might think at first sight, but rather beautiful material you’ll learn to appreciate. That goes for the whole car and the overall built quality – no doubt about that.
There are a few to almost no physical buttons in this car. That means you have to dig endlessly into digital menus on the center screen for nearly everything, like choosing a perfume to be streamed from the air vents and getting a seat massage, or even the simplest things like adjusting the steering wheel (electrically).
NIO has developed its own operating system for that, luckily resembling that of Apple’s IOS for the smartphone, so it feels pretty intuitive. Nevertheless, prepare for serious studying of the (digital) manual to get acquainted with all the car’s features.
But the most noticeable feature is Nomi, the little robot head sitting right in the middle on top of the dashboard, blinking its digital eyes and turning its head to you when you address it with ‘Hi, Nomi !’. It uses four microphones in the car for sound localization to turn to the one speaking. And you actually can start a whole conversation with this chatbot as a traveling companion.
You might call it childish, but the AI-powered assistant that can turn on the music, open windows, or program the navigation system for you by asking it (in English for now) is quite amusing. Nomi is a standard companion in all NIO models, and not only the Chinese love it.
Blowing virtual soap bells or flower fluffs, playing the guitar along with the music coming from a 23-speaker immersive sound system. My wife adored Nomi all the way, and she outgrew playing with dolls a long time ago.
643 horses under your foot
But we’re here for driving. And that’s something the ET7 does exceptionally well, too. There is no start button, just put the switch on the center console into drive mode and push the throttle. With an electric all-wheel drivetrain of 480 kW (180 kW front, 300 kW rear) and 850 Nm torque, you have a staggering 643 horses under your right foot.
Accelerating in 3,8 seconds to 100 km/hour is breathtakingly fast. Beat that, BMW i7 with 544 hp and Mercedes EQS with 516 hp and 4,1 seconds needed to get to 100. It’s not up to a Tesla S Plaid though; 760 kW or 1033 hp and needing only 2,1 seconds. But honestly, who needs that in daily traffic?
Smooth air suspension
You could use the ET7 in sports mode to near race track performance, but this is rather a car to enjoy the luxury of a whispering silent drive and the smooth air suspension. Using its high-definition maps and the NIO Aquila sensor system with 33 sensing units, including an ultralong-range high-resolution LiDAR, and seven 8 MP high-resolution cameras, it can ‘read’ the road conditions in front of you and adjust accordingly.
All this electronic comfort and incredible power come at an energy price, with electricity consumption nearing 28 kWh per 100 km. That, too, isn’t something to blush for, compared to the German competition.
Although 19 kWh per 100 km as advertised proved feasible too, when ‘treading on eggs’. That’s not bad for a car that, despite its sleek profile and ultra-low drag coefficient of 0.208, still weighs a hefty 2,4 tons. One advantage: you can tow up to 2 000 kg, and the electric folding towing hook is standard.
150 kWh battery
With the choice of a 75 kWh, 100 kWh, and even 150 kWh battery, there is no real need for range anxiety, as NIO claims a maximum range of +1 000 km with the latter. But that’s according to the Chinese CLTC standard, which tends to be 15 to 25 percent higher than European WLTP figures.
Mercedes squeezes up to 700 km out of its 120 kWh battery. Nevertheless, 580 km (WLTP) with the 100 kWh battery of our test NIO ET7, comparable with the BMW i7, is not bad at all. The Mercedes and the BMW i7 beat the NIO in DC fast charging with 200 kW max DC, compared to 140 kW.
That means 28 minutes charging from 10 to 80% for the Germans, and 40 minutes for the ET7. But that’s no match compared to the unique battery swapping the latter offers in under five minutes. All NIOs are developed with battery swapping in mind, meaning you can choose 75 kWh for commuting and 150 kWh for going on holiday, for instance.
New 580 range in five minutes
NIO has built 1 383 Power Swap Stations in China and Europe, with five already operational in the Netherlands. On our trip back to Belgium, we stopped at NIO’s first swapping station in Tilburg, conveniently situated on the Van der Valk hotel parking next to a bunch of Tesla Superchargers.
It looks like a clean carwash tunnel without the brushes. You park the car in front between the marks on the asphalt and let go. The ET7 drives itself entirely automatically backward on the platform. It is positioned precisely above the drawer where the battery will be lowered in.
While you remain seated, the car is lifted a few inches, and a robot unscrews the ten battery bolts underneath the vehicle. A new battery slides from its storage under the car and is bolted, and you get the green light to start again with a full pack and 580 km of range. The process took less than five minutes, and with the latest 3.0 generation, NIO is now installing, this would be only three.
When swapping fails
For its introduction in the Netherlands, NIO provides a ‘supervisor’ at the Power Station to help clients if needed. But it should work utterly unmanned in the future. But that might not be a good idea, as we experienced going back to Amsterdam, popping in at Tilburg swapping station again.
Everything went smoothly as described before, but while unscrewing the bolts, one got too loose and slipped under the battery while it was lowered. Result: the 500 kg battery shifted a few millimeters sideways, triggering the alarm. There you are helpless with a 100 kWh battery lying on the floor and the car’s 12v system draining rapidly, so the car warns you to shut off.
This was something new for NIO Netherlands and quite embarrassing for a press car, as a ‘rescue’ squad had to dispatch all the way from Amsterdam. Luckily, we were back on the road after one and a half hours. Murphy’s law, without a doubt?
Lagging… in price
So finally, what’s the verdict on this Chinese challenger of Germany’s top electric cars? Apart from the one swap failure and a situation where the ET7 packed with radars, cameras, and Lidar started ‘hesitating’ on autopilot and braked unexpectedly when being overtaken by the left and right on a busy Amsterdam 10-lane ring road, there is little to criticize. But a thing the car did flawlessly was fully automatic stop-and-go in traffic jams, for instance.
The NIO ET7 proved to be well up to the luxury standards of the German premium brands, even outclassing them in performance. There is one thing this NIO is lagging far behind. If brand prestige and bragging about the price you could afford is essential for you, which is not uncommon in this segment, the ET7 fails.
With a starting price of €94 900, you’re quite some distance away from the €143 000 starting price of the BMW i7 xDrive60 or the €172 425 price tag of the Mercedes EQS 580 4MATIC. You can even spare €12 000 by renting the NIO battery at €169 per month for the 75 kWh battery pack or €289 for 100 kWh.
Or even better: the ET7 is also offered on a subscription base at a monthly fee of €1 719,22, decreasing with the age of the vehicle and with the option to cancel with a two-week notice or even switch to another one. That, too, is unseen in the German premium branch.
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