When a new foreign automaker with existing vehicle manufacturing experience arrives at an American auto show with flashy prototype cars, slick marketing videos and grandiose plans to sell its cars domestically, we generally react with well-founded skepticism. I mean, we’ve been here before — half a dozen Chinese automakers have claimed over the past two decades that they would be opening sales and distribution networks in the U.S. within a couple of years, which we’ve yet to see.
At the 2021 Los Angeles Auto Show, a newcomer appeared with the same kinds of promises: a company called VinFast. Turns out, one of the biggest corporate conglomerates in Southeast Asia is a Vietnamese company called Vingroup, a $35 billion juggernaut with interests in everything from supermarkets and educational services to hospitals and real estate development. The VinFast subsidiary was created in 2017 as the company’s automotive group, building cars for the domestic Vietnamese market and select export markets, like Russia.
The lineup in the home market has been a mix of heavily restyled, joint-venture vehicles, including the BMW-based LUX A2.0 sedan (based off the previous-generation 5 Series) and the LUX AS2.0 SUV (similarly based off an older X5). The automaker reportedly delivered its first electric SUV, badged the VF e34, to customers back in December 2021.
But VinFast would very much like to be the next automaker to be able to add the word “global” before the word “automaker.” To do so, it has announced plans to massively invest in new, fully modern electric SUVs for sale in North America and Europe, and it put a very emphatic stamp on that claim by revealing three “concepts” it plans to produce: the VF e35 and VF e36, first shown in Los Angeles and since rebadged as the VF 8 and VF 9, and a smaller VF 6 that was shown in January 2022 at CES in Las Vegas.
In this regard, it would seem that the company is taking a page out of the Hyundai/Kia playbook, hiring experienced global automotive executives and designers to help create and engineer the brand’s vehicle lineup, including people like David Lyon, director of design for VinFast since 2017 and former executive director of interior design and brand strategic design at General Motors North America for many years. The company is also contracting with experienced global automotive suppliers like famed Italian design house Pininfarina to style its vehicles and German supplier ZF for things like advanced driver assistance systems.
What Is VinFast Selling in the U.S., and When?
Since its initial U.S. debut at the L.A. Auto Show, VinFast has been busy revealing the production versions of the VF 8 and VF 9 electric SUVs (a five-seat mid-size and seven-seat full-size model); opening a website for U.S. reservations; announcing a $2 billion battery and EV manufacturing plant to be built in Raleigh, North Carolina; registering for a U.S.-based initial public offering of stock; and partnering with Electrify America for plug-and-charge access at EA’s network of public fast chargers. It has released pricing for the first two models it plans to sell in the U.S., but the company’s sales plan includes something new: a battery subscription program that separates the electric battery from the vehicle itself in terms of what the customer pays. You purchase a VinFast vehicle, but you lease the battery itself separately, allowing VinFast to keep ownership of the battery and eventually have it returned to them for end-of-life control and recycling.
VinFast plans on taking a page from Tesla for the dealership model as well, relying on reservations and online sales but local delivery through dedicated company-owned outlets, which it plans on rolling out across the country over the next few years. The company says that the imported VF 8 and VF 9 will begin arriving in customer hands in the U.S. by the end of this year, with the smaller VF 7 to follow in 2023. As a sweetener to entice early adopters, the company is calling on its massive reach and involvement in the hospitality industry by giving “VinFirst Pioneers” an interesting spiff: a seven-day family vacation for four at any Vingroup five-star all-inclusive Vinpearl hotel and resort in Vietnam, including a three-bedroom villa, three rounds of golf for each guest, and unlimited entry to VinWonders and Vinpearl Safari amusement parks (airfare to Vietnam is not included).
Should You Reserve One?
That’s a tricky question. The company is only asking for a $200 reservation fee, so if you’re the type that likes to take risks on brand-new products from brand-new automakers (which is not uncommon among EV early adopters), the vehicles themselves appear beautifully styled (gotta love Pininfarina’s work), luxuriously appointed models. But it is not without risk: there’s no quality history, no brand history, no crash-test data, not even any precedent for the battery leasing scheme that the company will employ — so being called a VinFirst Pioneer really is a fairly accurate descriptor of folks signing up for the first offerings.
What the company does have going for it is apparently the deep pockets of its parent Vingroup conglomerate and an apparent desire for instant legitimacy among the world’s automakers that has led to rapidly accelerated plans and timelines. Unlike previous companies that have only ever offered vague promises with loose timelines, VinFast is setting deadlines and offering up increasingly polished-looking products for ordering. Given that deliveries are slated to happen by the end of this year, we won’t have long to wait to know if this is a stunning launch onto the global stage or just the latest in a long line of ambitious corporations promising big things but ultimately failing to deliver.