Up-and-coming Vietnamese automaker, VinFast, is ready to take on the legacy OEMs and other start-ups, says its Canadian chief growth officer, by offering models and peace of mind that aren’t available in this market — but no reveal on pricing until early next year
In 2009, Hans Ulsrud was Tesla’s first employee in Canada, hired to set up its Canadian operations and open the then little-known electric vehicle maker’s first Canadian retail store.
Twelve years later, Ulsrud is back in a familiar role. Hired earlier this year as chief growth officer for VinFast Canada Inc. — another little-known EV maker — he’s working, under CEO Andy Huỳnh, to open its first Canadian showrooms and launch the sale of its first EVs in 2022.
However, that’s where the parallels end.
True, like Tesla in 2009, VinFast is a newcomer. The four-year-old company just unveiled its first global market EVs — a pair of mid- and large-size SUVs, the VF e35 and VF e36 — at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It also announced it would reveal their pricing and start taking reservations for the cars in Canada next spring, with a goal of seeing first deliveries of the e35 before the end of 2022.
But rather than a raw start-up, VinFast has been making and selling combustion-engine cars and e-scooters in Vietnam since 2019. It’s also part of Vingroup JSC, a fast-growing Vietnamese technology-industrial-property conglomerate founded in the early 2000s.
The other difference: at the end of 2021, electric vehicles are approaching a 10 per cent share of passenger vehicle sales globally, and companies, governments and private investors are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars a year into their future development.
“It’s amazing how this whole industry has grown,” says Ulsrud, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “It feels like we’re at an inflection point where gas and ICE [internal combustion engines] are finally going to take a back seat to EVs.”
It’s his job to help make VinFast a significant player in that market transition.
One thing seems clear: if VinFast falters, it won’t be a victim of half-measures.
According to Ulsrud, by the end of 2023 VinFast intends to open 38 locations in Canada — a combination of retail showrooms, combined sales and service facilities, and service-only locations.
VinFast is taking the same ambitious approach to its launch next year in the United States and Europe. In California alone, for example, it intends to open 60 showrooms and service centres.
“The numbers that we’re talking about are very ambitious, but we feel that we need to really cover ground quickly,” says Ulsrud, adding that those Canadian locations will be “primarily in the three provinces that make up 75 per cent of auto sales…which is B.C., Ontario and Quebec.”
VinFast’s phased Canadian approach
Within those markets, Ulsrud says VinFast will opt for “a phased approach.” That means starting in the three biggest cities for phase one, then moving to smaller cities in phase two. If successful, the company will start looking at other provinces and smaller locations.
“We’re really looking to hone in on those major markets and then expand. That’s where we feel we’ll get the greatest amount of growth and traction.”
In all locations, VinFast will be using a direct-to-consumer sales model, rather than selling through franchise dealers.
The sales process will be “very digitally rich,” Ulsrud says, yet at the same time, VinFast will have “a strong bricks and mortar side” to its business.
“We’re a new brand from a country that a lot of people don’t know too much about, even though we’re one of the fastest emerging markets in the world. And we’re building cars from there, so people need to kind of get over a few of those hurdles,” says Ulsrud.
“The best way to do that is with a solid bricks and mortar strategy so that customers can come in and touch, see and feel the car and experience the level of craftsmanship that we’re offering.”
Large SUV “unique”
As for the vehicles themselves, VinFast enlisted the support of noted Italian automotive design company Pininfarina to give its cars some style. Ulsrud highlights the “interesting details,” “powerful stance,” and “amazing-looking wheels.”
The e35 is a mid-size SUV that Ulsrud says is similar in size and functionality to an Acura MDX. The larger e36 has three rows of seating, designed for six or seven passengers. Ulsrud says that puts it in a similar category to an Audi Q7 or Genesis GV80.
“The e36 is in a very unique space,” adds Ulsrud. “There’s really nothing in an EV that’s in that large-size SUV.”
Both models will feature two sizes of battery. Estimated range in the e35 is from about 460 kilometres to 510 kilometres. In the e36, it runs from about 485 kms to 680 kms.
Features aside, Ulsrud says the first question many people ask is whether one or both will be priced low enough (under $45,000 in a base model) to qualify for federal and provincial rebates?
His answer, for now, is TBD.
“It’s definitely top of mind for us right now, the EV incentive, it’s something that we’re definitely paying attention to. But I don’t have all the details.”
Peace of mind
What he can say is that the cars and their batteries will come with a lengthy, comprehensive 10-year warranty.
“If you’re a new brand coming to the market, it’s about building consumer trust and confidence. I think having a longer warranty is something that [provides] peace of mind for new consumers,” says Ulsrud.
VinFast is also touting its plan to offer buyers the option of renting the battery pack separately from buying the vehicle. It’s a scheme that the company says will allow it to offer a lower purchase price and, along with the long warranty, help reassure potential buyers who might otherwise be worried about battery longevity.
Between now and the spring, when the first showrooms open, Ulsrud says VinFast will be spreading the word with a “heavy presence” on social media and splashy appearances at the annual winter auto shows in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Ulsrud says VinFast drew a lot of interest when it debuted its e35 and e36 at the L.A. show and it hopes to give Canadian attendees “a small taste” of that here.