Everyone talks about NIO as the 'Tesla of China,' but the automaker is carving out its own path in the largest car market in the world

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NIO ES6A selection of NIO ES6 crossover SUV are displayed on stage at NIO Day in Shanghai, China, December 15, 2018.NIO

SHANGHAI, China - In no place was China's growing obsession with electric cars more evident than inside the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai on Saturday night, where the Chinese electric automaker NIO unveiled its new crossover SUV, the ES6, at an event it calls "NIO Day."

It was, at points, a sales pitch on the future of electric automotive transport on the mainland, and a raucous pep rally, packed with an audience that already believes. Some of the people in attendance Saturday night were current owners of NIO's large luxury electric SUV, the ES8.

They gathered to watch William Li, NIO's chairman and CEO, unveil the smaller, less-expensive ES6. The company hopes the new crossover sport-utility vehicle will help further establish its place as a leading electric-car maker in the largest auto market in the world.

NIO ES6NIO ES6NIO

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The atmosphere inside the venue would be familiar to anyone who has been to an arena concert. There are colorful flashing lights, and bass-heavy music pulses through massive speakers; the decibels rattle your bones.

Tesla's big product reveals, which themselves evoke a breathless anticipation among fans who wait for CEO Elon Musk to utter the name of his next new wonder-product, don't quite compare to what happened here, but the formula is eerily similar.

Li stands alone on an enormous stage. Oversized screens are situated behind him. With the voice of a sports announcer, he spends the next few minutes listing his company's accomplishments and what he declares is the success of the ES8, NIO's first production vehicle.

Speaking only in Mandarin, Li trumpets one applause line after another; the crowd erupts in a euphoric rapture of cheers each time. This reporter received an English translation of Li's remarks via an in-ear monitor. Li's delivery is both energetic and declarative. He believes in the product, and NIO's overarching mission.

NIO ES6NIO ES6Bryan Logan/Business Insider

"We are committed to redefining the user experience and creating a community centered around our users, enjoying life and growing together," Li said.

He added: "The ES6 launch and the NIO Day have set another NIO community milestone."

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The electric ES6 pulls in one level below its big brother, the ES8. Where that SUV was designed to compete with the likes of the Tesla Model X, the smaller ES6 lines up with the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and the Mercedes GLC. Its starting price lands at roughly $52,000 US.

NIO says the ES6 sprints from zero to 62 mph in 4.7 seconds and will be available with the option of a 70-kWh or 84-kWh battery.

According to the automaker, the top model will have a roughly 317-mile range on a full charge. That estimate is based on the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) standard, which, it should be noted, typically produces range estimates that are more optimistic than what can actually be achieved in real-world driving.

The ES6 hits the road in a familiar powertrain configuration - with electric motors in the front and back, powering all four wheels. Deliveries are expected to begin in March 2019.

NIO ES8A NIO ES8 sits inside the Chinese automaker's NIO House showroom in Hefei, China, December 14, 2018.Bryan Logan/Business Insider

China's growing appetite for EVs

The first deliveries of the ES8 began in June and ramped up quickly, NIO said in an October press release. At the time, it claimed that it grew its monthly ES8 deliveries "from 381 in July to 1,766 in September." The company said it delivered 9,726 ES8 SUVs as of December 2018. Despite that apparent success, shares of NIO in recent months have fallen from their post-IPO high of $13.80.

But the voracious appetite for electric vehicles in China signals that there are plenty of opportunities for companies like NIO to grab a bigger share of the market. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, more than 770,000 electric vehicles were sold in the country in 2017.

In terms of sales, NIO falls far behind the top-five electric carmakers in China. An October roundup of these vehicles from China Daily shows the best sellers for the year are decidedly smaller and less flashy. However, NIO's rapid sales growth indicates there is some opportunity for domestic luxury EV brands to carve out their own niche.

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