Test Drive | Small but Mighty: Nio ET5 Stuns with Top-Notch Performance

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The Nio ET5 might be the smallest and cheapest Nio to date but don’t call it the baby Nio. From a driver’s perspective, this is the best Nio yet, and given that it is currently Nio’s best-selling model the car buying public like what it has to offer.

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We’ve already seen with Nio’s ET7 and ES7 (EL7) just how good the new second generation Nio cars are and why the Germans should be afraid. It might be easy to dismiss the ET5 as nothing more than a Tesla Model 3 fighter, but it is far more than that and with the brand steadily rolling out in Europe this is going to be Nio’s valuable volume model.

Exterior

Visually the ET5 looks akin to a smaller version of the ET7 although the stubbier tail is to the detriment of aerodynamics. At 4790mm in length, it is considerably longer than a Model 3 and slightly longer than the standard Audi A4. Overhangs at both the front and rear are minimal.

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As with all cars on the NT2.0 platform, the ET5 has the distinctive watchtower of sensors at the top of the windshield consisting of the central Lidar unit flanked on either side by 8 megapixel high resolution cameras.

Unlike the ET7 and ES7, there is no Premier Edition and so prices start at RMB 328,000 (USD 47,600) and you can then choose from various options to configure the car. If you check every option this brings the model up to a much heftier RMB 462,300 (USD 67,120). With many Chinese brands, probably spurred on by Tesla, you can have any color you like so long as you pay extra for it and most offer only one or two standard non-cost options. Luckily Nio is bucking that trend by offering four colors, including the stratosphere blue of our test car, as standard and an additional five hues as cost options. Although our car came with the standard 19-inch wheels it did get the RMB3,500 extra air glow orange brake calipers.

Interior & Infotainment

The interior layout is very much in tune with other second generation Nio models. While not as minimalistic as the interior of the Tesla Model 3/Y I believe the ET5 has far less functionality trade off. Not only do you have a dedicated 10.2-inch instrument panel but you also have a shortcut button on the central console to select drive mode and another to unlock the doors. 

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One thing I was less happy about was the loss of the head up display from the car. Another noticeable omission is the Karuun material. Made from sustainable rattan wood we had thought this was a Nio signature but it seems reserved for the more expensive models. Furthermore, the SOS button is unmarked and looks as if it controls something to do with the roof – which led to an awkward call!

The standard ET5 gets Haptex synthetic leather upholstery but our car had the RMB 22,500 (USD 3 270) Nappa leather pack which also adds microfiber headlining. If you want ventilation and massage function to add to front seat heating that will set you back an additional RMB9,500 and it will additionally add a fragrance dispenser and heating for the steering wheel and rear seats.

Speaking of those rear seats headroom is pretty tight – at 1.75m my head was resting against the roof. Hopefully, when the wagon version of the ET5 launches it won’t suffer from such a problem as legroom is actually respectable, the wheelbase of the ET5 being 2,888mm.

As pioneered by Tesla with its Giga Press Nio is now also using single-piece castings for the rear underbody. Along with reducing weight and increasing rigidity Nio says this creates an additional seven liters of trunk space giving a total of 381 which can be expanded thanks to the 60/40 folding rear seat. The tailgate is electric and uses more premium gas-strut hinges rather than space hungry goose-neck ones.

Most car functions are controlled via the central 12.8-inch AMOLED display. Last year Nio introduced English to Chinese market vehicles but as our tests of the ET7 and ES7 were of pre-production vehicles we had yet to experience the system. Nio seems to have done a good job with the translation of the menu items into English but where things fall apart is with Nomi, the AI voice control assistant. Nomi struggles to understand or speak any English and most of the time we had to resort to Chinese for voice control of functions such as the massage seats.

Performance and Driving Feel

This is an area where the ET5 differs considerably from previous Nio models. No longer is there the front wheel drive bias, the ET5 gets a 210kW motor on the rear axle delivering 420Nm of torque. When needed this is supplemented by a front mounted 150kW motor with 280Nm torque. Not only is there this rear bias to the drivetrain but there is also 50:50 weight distribution making the car at least on paper very much the best Nio for keen drivers so far.

Thanks to less powerful motors and also a drag coefficient which at 0.24 is significantly up on the ET7’s 0.208 it is not as fast accelerating as other second generation models but taking just four seconds to 100km/h (62mph) it is still no slouch. This kind of performance as with other second generation Nios is only available in Sport+ with acceleration stepping down with each switch to Sport, Comfort, and Eco and if you really want to par things down in Custom you can drop acceleration to 12.9s. That actually may not be as crazy as it sounds in a heavy traffic urban environment and when selected initially builds the speed very gently.

Along with the rear wheel bias what really sets the ET5 apart from other second generation models is the steering. On the ET7 and ES7 only in Sport+ is the steering stiff enough. On the ET5 you have a choice of Comfort, Standard, and Steady for the steering feel. These adjust through the drive modes but even driving in Comfort mode the steering didn’t feel unduly vague.

With no air suspension, the car is reliant on a multi-link setup both front and rear. Obviously, it doesn’t give the car the flexibility of other Nio models but overall thanks to this setup the ET5 seems sportier and that bit less geared toward comfort.

As Chinese EVs go Nio cars have some of the best braking regeneration and the ET5 is no exception. The three options are marked as Very low, Low, and Standard. Again the drive modes influence which mode is used but in Custom you can build your own optimized mode. Unlike in a Tesla, it is impossible to get the kinetic energy recovery to bring the car to a stop, instead, at about 8km/h it begins coasting.

Our test model didn’t have the NOP+ Beta driving assistance system activated and so we were restricted to using the lane keeping assistance system. This can undertake automated lane changes when you use the indicators and generally worked quite well, certainly enough to be of real assistance on long highway drives.

Sum up

From a driver’s perspective this is probably the best Nio to date and seeing as the forthcoming EC7 seems to be a largely jacked up version this bodes well for that model as well. Where the package is less enticing is with the cut down approach to features and fittings with no head up display, Karuun or air suspension. While the lack of air suspension is livable with, the others seem to drive a wedge between the ET5 and other second generation Nio models. Then there is the issue of the rear seat headroom which means you don’t really want to be transporting taller adults in those back seats so limiting the appeal.

Verdict

Power & Drive feeling9
Passenger space6
Tech & UX7
Price quality ratio8
The best thingMuch better drive than previous Nio models
The worst thingRear headspace limits the appeal

Overall: It might be the baby when it comes to price and size in the Nio range but it’s the boss when it comes to drive. I just wish the interior was done to the same standards as the other models as there is a lot to like about this model. Even offering features like the head up display and Karuun as cost options would go a long way to making this car feel more convincingly part of the range.

Based in Shanghai, Mark Andrews is one of the leading English language authorities in the Chinese auto industry. You can follow him on Twitter.

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