EV NEWCOMER AIMS HIGH
Masterstrokes and missteps as Vietnam's Vinfast sets sights on established competition
For a first-time effort by an all-new electric vehicle automaker, there is some good in the 2023 Vinfast VG 8. But there are also missteps.
After getting some quality seat time in the mid-size SUV EV on a variety of roads in and around Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this week, it was very apparent that the startup Vietnamese automaker has put a lot of time, money and energy into its ambitious goal of going headto-head with established global EV manufacturers in Asia, Europe and here in North America.
The VF 8 is just the first of several all-electric SUVS and crossovers destined for Canada, with the VF 9, full-sized, three-row SUV expected to be here by the end of the year, followed by two smaller crossovers in 2024, the VF 6 and VF 7.
We'll start with the positives. First and foremost, it was a masterstroke by Vinfast to commission legendary Italian design house Pininfarina to sculpt the VF 8 and VF 9 exteriors. The VF 8's body is nicely proportioned, with a coupe-like roofline and signature `V' front grille and rear light bar giving the mid-size SUV a distinct look in an increasingly bland and generic segment.
Esthetically, this is one of the top three all-electric SUVS available in Canada. The long wheelbase and flat floor architecture are typical of EVS in this segment, and the VF 8 takes advantage of that chassis layout with a spacious cabin and first-rate ergonomics.
And despite that sloping, coupe-inspired roofline, headroom for rear seat passengers is excellent. Legroom too. Rear cargo space maxes out at an impressive 1,359 litres with the 60/40 rear seats folded down. Up front there is a 76-litre frunk, not the largest in the segment but still usable.
As to the cabin, the cockpit design reflects the current thinking surrounding controls and interface in EVS. Namely, all but a handful of functions — from car settings to climate controls, and from navigation to infotainment — are controlled via the 15.6-inch touchscreen display. Unlike most EVS, however, that includes vehicle speed, as there are no gauges or even a display screen behind the steering wheel.
This takes some getting used to, as does scrolling through the numerous submenus on the display screen to do things as simple as adjusting outside mirrors — which you first select on the screen, then use steering wheel-mounted controls to adjust — opening the sunroof and all climate controls. That latter function is a pain point for me; I still like the redundancy of dials and buttons to adjust climate settings.
Another personal preference is a somewhat firm driver's seat, and the VF 8's 12-way and ventilated power seat is just that. That said, a longer road trip might have you wishing for a little extra cushion.
The standard equipment list punches above the price point, with such Canadian-friendly features as heated outside rear-view mirrors, a heated rear window and auto-levelling headlights. And the power tailgate with kick sensor, while not an industry first, is still a very smart feature to include.
One of the VF 8's problems is in the cabin. And that is the somewhat inexplicable use of low-quality plastic in a couple of places. These include the inside door handles, which also have a somewhat sharp seam running along on the top, and the lower map pockets on the front doors, which are so thin I can imagine them cracking if someone wedges something a little too wide down there. And there were a couple of unsightly gaps, most notable where the dashboard meets up with the front doors.
The good news is that these are easy issues to fix. For comparison's sake, the sumptuous interior of the VF 9 has no plastic and solid fit and finish. In addition, once the Vinfast manufacturing facility in Raleigh, N.C., is up and running in a couple of years, the vehicles will benefit from North American standards and practices. The current vehicles are built in Vietnam.
Back to the positives. From supplied tech data and just-released EPA ratings, the EV powertrain of the VF 8 appears to be competitive with the competition.
According to Vinfast, the 400volt architecture allows for a DC fast charging rate of 24 minutes to bring the 87-kwh battery pack up to 70 per cent from 10 per cent. The EPA estimates, which are typically more conservative than real-world experience, are full charge ranges in the 391-kilometre (Plus trim) and 425-km (Eco trim) neighbourhood. Like the 400-volt system, not the best in the segment, but still very much in the average range.
It's never a good thing when you get in a new vehicle, put it in drive, then hear a clunk and feel a shudder. Well, that's what happened as I got underway in the VF 8. Over the course of the next couple of hours, my co-driver and I put it in drive at least a half dozen times after that initial experience and never heard, or felt, anything untoward as it went into gear. A Vinfast rep told me the clunk could have been a result of being parked on an incline and the brakes were under pressure.
Once underway, the VF 8 performed very much like any other mid-size, all-electric SUV. It was quick, stable and handled the twisty country roads confidentially. Steering was mid-range in terms of weighting and the brakes worked well under emergency circumstance testing. All VF 8s come standard with soundproof glass, and coupled with that slippery Pininfarina design, road and wind noise were minimal. Something that can't be said for all the competition.
There are three drive modes — Eco, Normal and Sport — along with two regenerative braking settings and a creep mode setting. There was a definite surge in power when going from Eco and Normal to Sport, but little noticeable other than that.
Despite some fixable issues, for a first effort the VF 8 is a good electric vehicle and seems well positioned for its $57,500 starting price (and yes, it qualifies for all provincial and federal EV rebates).