Electric seven-seat performance SUV aims to prove the Chinese can build a credible alternative to existing premium fare

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Although Chinese vehicles aren’t widely available in the UK, they’re already plagued by reputation, mostly bad. But where we might expect a cheap sticker price, sketchy build quality and woeful crash test performance, Chinese company Nio’s ES8 is unashamedly targeting the premium segment.

Its weapon of choice for this assault is an SUV: five metres of performance seven-seater, aimed squarely at the Audi E-tron and Tesla Model X.

At first sight, Nio's debut offering is a smart, substantial if conservative-looking SUV that wouldn’t appear out of place in any European car park

While prices for its American rival start at £78,000 in the UK, the ES8 is on sale in its homeland at the equivalent of £51,500. So far, so Chinese. Yet that is where, for the most part, the stereotypes end. At first sight, Nio's debut offering is a smart, substantial if conservative-looking SUV that wouldn’t appear out of place in any European car park.

Performance is competitive, too. Power comes from a 70kWh battery pack, located underneath and within the 3010mm wheelbase. This powers a pair of 322bhp motors, one on each axle for full-time four-wheel drive. The resulting maximum power is a more-than-healthy 641bhp, along with 620lb ft of torque. This manifests itself in a headline 4.4sec 0-62mph dash.

Performance is helped by employing Audi levels of aluminium to make up 96.4% of the vehicle’s structure and bodywork. And Nio anticipates five Euro NCAP stars. In light of that, you probably won’t be surprised to hear the company’s engineering and design base is in Munich, Germany.

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How does the Nio ES8 compare to its European rivals?

The team there has come up with a generic SUV to look at. More stand-out are the tight panel gaps, door handles that fold out of the bodywork and doors that close with a reassuringly solid thunk.

Inside, the ES8’s quality feel continues, with an interior that's cloaked in Nappa leather. The electrically adjustable, heated, ventilated and massaging front seats are comfortable and supportive. The passenger chair has a business class range of movement. Should its occupant wish to catch up on some sleep, there’s an electric footrest that folds out from where the glovebox should be. Alternatively, they can glide back to tend an infant seated in the middle row of three seats.

Look down and Nio's designers have used the electric architecture to replace the traditional transmission tunnel with a plunge pool-deep centre bin. And beneath where you’d normally find the gear selector, there’s a huge storage space to swallow all but the largest of handbags.

On top of the dashboard, with its 10.4in central touchscreen, sits an egg-like object with googly eyes. This is Nomi, the world’s first in-car artificial intelligence personal assistant. Nomi (Know Me, get it?) learns behaviour and does everything from opening the windows to directing you to the nearest charging station, taking selfies and entertaining the kids.

How does the Nio ES8 perform on the road?

In addition to the fluff, the ES8 has eye-opening on-road performance. Plant the throttle and acceleration pins you to the seat. Nio sensibly bypassed Chinese suppliers when it came to performance componentry. Brembo-sourced brakes pull the car up smartly, decelerating from 62mph to a standstill in 33.8 metres, while all ES8s sit on the same Continental air suspension that Audi and Mercedes-Benz use. This can move between Sport, Comfort and Individual modes and provides a sound base.

Less impressive is the steering. Numb and over-assisted, it has been calibrated for the Chinese market, say Nio's engineers, where drivers clearly don’t like to feel any link between the front tyres and steering wheel.

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The Chinese influence is also apparent in other areas. Should you prefer to use a controller rather than touch to operate the infotainment screen, you’ll find a fiddly little knob. And plastics around the lower portions of the doors and particularly the boot lining feel cheap and scratchy.

In the greater scheme of thing, that’s small beans, because as a first effort, this is the most refined Chinese car we’ve yet seen.

Nio has plans to come to Europe within the next five years, and the ES8 goes a long way to putting to bed the notion that China can’t build quality cars.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Nio ES8 First drives