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VinFast VF 8.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

I am, apparently, the first journalist in the world to drive a VinFast VF 8. It’s an all-electric SUV built by the young Vietnamese automaker, and it’s coming to Canada by the end of this year.

There’s a trade-off for being first, though: My test drive, for which I flew 16,000 kilometres to the other side of the world, lasted seven minutes.

The car was a prototype, which means it’s not quite the finished product that will be sold from the company-owned stores. My tester had a large, yellow accessory key socket in the front dash that won’t exist in the production vehicle, and several later test drivers reported issues with the car’s motor dying in the middle of the drive. “Put it in neutral and open the window,” one driver was told, and the motor regained its power. This will all be fixed by November when the car arrives in Canada, says the chief engineer.

Other established carmakers would consider this too soon to show off a new product, but VinFast is a company in a hurry. It prides itself on the speed of its development and it has a track record to prove it. It’s a short track record, though: The company didn’t exist five years ago.

It’s a new division of VinGroup, which is a US$39-billion conglomerate, and was launched in late 2017 when shovels went into the ground – actually, the water of Haiphong Harbour, next to rice paddies and agricultural wasteland – to build a 335-hectare, state-of-the-art assembly plant. It took less than two years to produce its first cars, based on BMW X5 SUVs and 5 Series sedans, and they soon became the best-selling vehicles in their segments in Vietnam.

Around that time, however, the company recognized that the future lay with electric vehicles and it set to developing a lineup of EVs, retooling the plant to create electric cars from scratch. It even assembles its own battery packs using Samsung batteries, and plans to have a five gigawatt-hour battery plant operating by the end of this year. By that time, it expects to cease production of gas-powered vehicles, and has hired executives from around the world to get the job done properly, and quickly.

Inside 335-hectare, state-of-the-art VinFast assembly plant in Vietnam.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“In my previous life, there were multiple levels of approvals,” says Shaun Calvert, an Australian who came to VinFast from General Motors four years ago to be deputy chief executive officer of manufacturing. “The engineer would have to submit something to the plant manager, the plant manager would then go to the country lead, the country lead would go to the regional lead, the regional lead would go to the head office in Detroit, and every cycle you had to sit and wait, let’s say four weeks or six weeks, for the board to accept it. So [approval] for a large investment could take you maybe eight months. Here, that decision can be made in one week. We’re not skipping any process – we’re just getting rid of waste.”

The electric SUV I drove, built here at that huge assembly plant, may not quite be ready, but it’s a work in rapid progress, and glitches can often be fixed on the fly with over-the-air updates. For example, I could find no way to adjust the regenerative braking on the vehicle, to create the stronger “engine braking” when I took my foot off the throttle that most EVs provide, but that’s still in development.

Inside the VinFast VF 8.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“It will be phased in – we’re doing the software to do the regen braking. It will be set on the screen, the multimedia display unit,” said chief engineer Huy Chieu, a Vietnam-born Canadian from Windsor, Ont., who came from General Motors in Detroit and Shanghai.

The benchmark for the performance of the VF 8 was the Hyundai Ioniq5, he says, and he was recently in Spain for chassis tuning that, again, can be easily adjusted for individual markets.

The price, however, is much more costly than the Ioniq5. In Canada, the VF 8 will start at $51,250. That’s too expensive to qualify for the federal government rebate of $5,000, but VinFast will discount the price by $3,500 for early customers, and will also provide a mobile charger, a service package, and even a seven-day vacation in a Vietnamese resort villa for four people (though air travel to get there is not included). That offer to “VinFirst” customers was originally open until April 5, but has been extended until the end of May; the company says more than 1,000 Canadians have placed $250 deposits.

The price, however, does not include the battery, which for the first three model years at least, can be leased at a price still to be announced. In the U.S., there will be a choice of two different leasing plans: a “flexible” plan of US$35 per month for the first 310 miles (500 kilometres), with an additional 11 US cents each mile after that, or a “fixed” plan of US$110 per month, with unlimited mileage. Canadian pricing will be announced “in the coming weeks,” says the company.

This is what sets the vehicle apart from its competition: not the Pininfarina styling, or the benchmarked suspension, or even the Tesla-esque lack of gauges behind the steering wheel. It’s supposed to be battery peace of mind, and the guarantee of no-hassle replacement if and when the battery declines to 70 per cent of its original strength. The price of battery leasing and charging is supposed to be no more than the equivalent cost of gasoline for a traditional-powered vehicle, VinFast says.

There will be two models available with different battery options, though pricing is still under wraps for the more powerful “Plus” model I drove so briefly – in the U.S., it will cost an additional US$7,000. Both are all-wheel drive and will be powered by a 150-kilowatt two-motor system. The basic Eco model will be capable of 348 horsepower and 368 lb-ft of torque, while the Plus will produce a hefty 402 horsepower and 457 lb-ft.

The first model sold will feature a standard-range battery capable of up to 420 kilometres, while a longer range of up to 471 kilometres will be available a few months later. An even larger battery is expected to be available by the end of 2023, with a range of up to 550 kilometres.

VinFast says it will also sell its larger VF 9 SUV before the end of the year in North America, again with Eco and Plus versions, which will start at about US$15,000 more than the VF 8. There were, however, no VF 9s to be seen during my visit to the assembly plant.

The specification sheet is long for both models of the VF 8. Frankly, if the competition offers it, so does VinFast. It has seen what’s possible and how it can be done, just as it’s seen how others make their vehicles and has recognized how to do it more efficiently.

It’s even building a new American plant in Raleigh, N.C., to produce VF 8 and the larger VF 9 models for the North American market. Down the road, there may be a smaller, less expensive model, similar to the all-electric VF e34 that was just released in Vietnam.

“I’ve mentioned the fact that we need a more affordable EV,” says Chieu, “so you never know – we’re VinFast, and we go pretty quick.”

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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