I’m in a hurry. I’m due to check in at Amsterdam airport in less than an hour, it is more than 60 miles away and my battery-powered NIO ET5 Touring is down to less than 15 per cent range – not enough to get there.
I pull into the recharge station, there’s a queue, this is going to be painful… Or is it?
I park alongside the NIO battery-swap station and Nomi, the digital assistant, springs into action, deftly reversing this large, heavy estate into a box 20 metres by 10 and informing me I might experience some unexpected bangs and thumps.
This is the first time I’ve ever done this and I’m thinking of all the ways it could go wrong.
Whirrs, thumps and whizzing sounds follow as the car is lifted off the ground. More noise, the car shakes a little and the dashboard screens go dark as the systems shut down. Repeat this process in reverse and the screens light up again. Then Nomi is back, encouraging me to get on with my journey.The entire process of swapping the 100kWh battery takes less than five minutes
The entire process of swapping the 100kWh battery has taken four minutes 37 seconds and the 90 per cent full replacement battery pack is displaying a range of 256 miles; I hustle the NIO out of the car park past the queue of EVs waiting to charge; I might make my flight after all.
Alternative to queuing
For those more used to the mostly depressing and time-consuming process of recharging an EV during a journey, this battery swapping malarkey could be a big selling point for the NIO ET5 Touring.
Mind you, it’s a hefty €63,900 (£54,500) to €72,900 (£62,250) to join this exclusive club if you buy the car, or €51,900 (£44,300) outright for the battery-swap model. It’s €169 to €289 (£144-£246) a month for the battery hire depending on its size, with two free battery swaps a month and €10 (£8.54) for each additional swap.
Note the prices are in euros, that’s because despite the marque launched in European London in 2016 with the NIO EP9 supercar, regular NIO cars are still not available in the UK.
What is NIO?
It has already built almost 450,000 EVs and there are more than 2,000 battery swap stations in China and 35 in Europe. It already sells its five-strong range in Norway, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden, with plans to expand into the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Austria in the unspecified future – think 2025.
This journey hasn’t been an easy one. The technology is expensive and costs involved in running pilot schemes and holding banks of high-capacity car batteries all over the country has made huge demands on capital. It was these sorts of pressures that forced a former exercise in battery swapping by Shai Agassi’s Better Place into bankruptcy in May 2013 and the idea of selling a car that doesn’t actually have a battery to its title put paid to Renault’s plans for the same.
NIO has not been without its issues either; it was almost bankrupt in 2020 and bailed out by a host of Chinese investors including the government of Hefei, which owns a 25 per cent stake.The taxi-style lights sticking out of the roof are far from handsome and make the car look like a London cab
There is a fair bit of jam tomorrow in NIO’s plans, with forthcoming agreements with car manufacturers Changan Automobile, Geely, JAC and Chery Automobile to share its battery swap stations. Then there are the plans for a small car, the Firefly, to compete with Volkswagen’s ID.2 and even another marque altogether, which will be known as Alps, to compete with Tesla’s Model 3. It is difficult to judge how real these are.
NIO doesn’t actually build its own cars, factoring out production to Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group (JAC). NIO Design is carried out in California and Munich, the European headquarters is in Holland, while European research and development takes place in Frankfurt and Oxford.
First impressions are of a large estate, gently rounded and well proportioned (4,790mm in length on a 2,888mm wheelbase and 1,960mm wide), but rather generic, with curious horns and a taxi-style light sticking out of the roof at the top of the windscreen. Billed as “crafted watchtowers” in the blurb, these are the Lidar “cameras” and other sensors, which facilitate the auto-pilot self-driving systems. They are far from handsome and make the car look like a London taxi, but we’re going to have to get used to them. Volvo’s forthcoming EX90 giant SUV will also have these protuberances for its advanced driver assist, for example.
Inside the ET5 looks and feels very grown up but very grey. It is well lit though, with light pouring into the dimmable 1.35m2 sunroof. It also seems nicely put together, even if the quality of the materials declines the lower and farther back you go. It has been cleverly designed so that interior surface changes are overlapping, which eases the strain of the need for tight production tolerances, but leaves a lot of places to catch dust.Inside the ET5 looks and feels very grown up ... but very grey
Nomi the digital assistant (a €700 option) sits in an auto-rotating pod in the middle of the fascia like the add-on rev counter on a Sixties American muscle car. Nomi’s English is far from great, but her algorithm is learning fast: when it comes to the UK, estuary English, North Welsh, Cornish and Yorkshire accents will eventually be understood. Here we might observe that Google can do most of this already.
There’s a big square touchscreen in the centre of the dash, but before it gets too Tesla-minimalist, there’s also an oblong screen acting as the instrument binnacle in front of the driver giving speed, range directions and so on. There are also steering column stalks for indicators and wipers.
There are large, comfy electrically adjustable seats, but they’re mounted too high, which amplifies the chassis movements so you feel like the ship’s boy in the crow’s nest. This also makes the windscreen top feel very low, while views to the rear through the tiny back window are pretty useless.The boot has a capacity of 450 litres with an additional 42 litres under the floor
There is all the equipment you might expect of this class of £50 to £70-plus grand car, but not quite the panache of some of the opposition. It is a question of taste, and there are those who will love the stripped-back feel of the NIO, but younger owners – particularly those from the Far East – tend to prefer a bit more drama in their car interiors.
In the back, there is enough room for one six-footer to sit behind the other with leg and headroom to spare and while the boot is only 450 litres, the rear seats fold 40/20/40 per cent to provide up to 1,300 litres, with an additional 42 litres under the boot floor.
Under the skin
With four-wheel drive, the total power output is 483bhp and 516lbft, which gives a top speed limited to 124mph and 0-62mph in four seconds. The front motor is a 201bhp induction motor, magnet-free but not as efficient as the 282bhp permanent-magnet motor in the rear.
There is a choice of two batteries. The smaller 75kWh unit (with a 270-mile range) has a combination of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) and lithium-ion nickel, manganese, cobalt (Li-ion NMC) cells. The larger 100kWh unit (with a 348-mile range) is pure Li-ion NMC.
On the way is a 150kWh unit, which will be swappable for those planning longer journeys. The trouble is, during testing in China, drivers didn’t like returning these super-long range units, so NIO has to coerce them with points for the NIO shopping store, which is a bit like a whizz-bang version of the old Green Shield Stamps.
On the road
Despite its blistering 4sec 0-62mph time, the 483bhp ET5 feels brisk rather than super-fast, but the progression of the accelerator pedal makes it easy to modulate the speed. There’s no sense of a runaway train as there can be with some powerful rivals, though the rear squats quite markedly under hard acceleration.
On Holland’s heavily policed motorway network (so think a steady 60mph) the ride is generally good, though concrete road surfaces are felt as well as heard inside.
At 2,285kg, this is a heavy machine and it feels it at the wheel with a slight heaving sensation over long bumps and ponderous turn into corners, not helped by a vague off-centre response to the steering.English: 'At 2,285kg, this is a heavy machine and it feels it'
The grip is pretty good, though the body rolls through corners which makes the process feel quite dramatic. The brakes are good and the combination of friction linings and regeneration is well mixed, though our test car had a grinding noise when the brakes were applied, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
The pilot system and cruise control might have a load more sensors than anyone else, but they don’t feel particularly advanced. The system doesn’t allow a seamless overtake on the motorway, braking and shunting its way past that truck in the inside lane even if you are indicating. Nor is the steering wheel sensor very sensitive, so you have to periodically waggle the wheel to inform the car you are still there.
On a relatively gentle half day with the car, I saw efficiency of 3.2 miles per kilowatt hour against an official WLTP figure of 3.5. That meant I had a real range of 320 miles against the published 348 miles. It’s not staggeringly efficient then, while using the UK Government’s latest figures, the well-to-wheels CO2 emissions are 36.9g/km.
Swappable batteries are interesting technology and seemingly combine the virtues of charging at home or during a journey (at up to 100kW) and also swapping on the move, but they aren’t a panacea.
The battery itself needs a strong and heavy frame. Cell-to-body technologies such as being planned by BMW for next year’s Neue Klasse model will save a lot of weight and in theory will charge more quickly. 
But a battery swap system eliminates range anxiety and as one German journalist put it: “Now I can drive with the Porsches and Mercedes in the fast lane without worrying about range, I just get to the next swap station and I’m out as fast as them.”
The ET5 is a bit dull, comfortable, but flawed in places and it seems like a car for wealthy people who need to drive long distances, but don’t like cars very much.
All the same, like BYD with its innovative “blade” batteries, NIO has picked a technology and is committed to introducing it to the world. Mark this company down as one to watch.
On test: NIO ET5 Touring 100kWh battery swap.
Body style: Battery-electric estate car.
On sale: Estimated 2025 in the UK.
How much? From £54,500 to £72,900 including battery, £44,300 for the battery swap model with £144 to £246 for battery hire.
How fast? Top speed 124mph, 0-60mph in 4.0sec.
Maximum power/torque: 483bhp/516lb ft.
How economical? 3.5m/kWh (WLTP combined), 3.2m/kWh on test.
Electric powertrain: 75kWh LFP and Li-ion NMC cell, or 100kWh li-ion NMC (as tested), twin electric motors with stepdown transmissions, four-wheel drive.
Electric range: 348 miles (WLTP combined), 320 miles on test.
Battery swap time: 4min 37sec.
CO2 emissions: Zero at tailpipe, 36.9g/km (well-to-wheels)
Warranty: 10 years/unlimited mileage.