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The Vinfast VF8 has strong points but seems hurriedly and incompletely developed. (Vinfast)

Vinfast needs to stop digging

The Vietnamese company’s first U.S.-spec VF8 models displayed a host of inconsistent problems.

Startups are famous for moving quickly. Vinfast may want to slow things down.

It was only 2019 when the Vietnamese company built its first cars, rebodied versions of gasoline BMWs that became hits in its home market. Vinfast speedily developed four electric SUVs, including the inaugural VF8 that SAE Media drove in southern California. At the same time, a cargo ship docked near San Francisco, carrying nearly 2,000 VF8s for customers in California and Canada. The next day, Vinfast announced plans to go public via a SPAC merger. And Vinfast recently broke ground on a $4 billion factory in North Carolina, targeting 150,000 units of annual capacity and more than 7,000 jobs.

The ambition is laudable, the pace breathless. There’s only one problem: The VF8 is not ready for prime time. Especially in a cutthroat U.S. market where choices include the Ford Mustang Mach-e, Kia EV6 and a Tesla Model Y (with recent dramatic price cuts), all of which make it harder for even the best-designed, best-engineered EVs to compete. It doesn’t help that Vinfast is a complete unknown.

The VF8’s specs, spacious five-passenger cabin and Pininfarina styling — which borrows cupfuls of design cues from its SUV neighbors — don’t raise undue alarms. With a traction motor at each axle for standard AWD, the VF8 pumps out a reasonable 349 hp and 369 lb-ft (500 Nm) in Eco trim, and a robust 402 hp and 457 lb-ft (620 Nm) in the Plus model. The latter helped the Vinfast zip through green-cloaked hills east of San Diego, including a sub-5.5-sec. sprint to 60 mph (97 km/h). Among technical hat tips to Tesla, there’s a 15.6-in. (396-mm) center touch screen, and an energy-saving heat pump.

With its 82 kWh Samsung lithium-ion battery, this VF8 City Edition, which has sold out of its initial 999, posts an EPA-rated 207-mile (333-km) range in Eco guise, or 191 miles (307 km) for the Plus. From here on, VF8 Standard editions adopt a larger 87.7-kWh battery from China’s CATL, boosting range to a respective, class-competitive 264 miles (425 km) and 243 miles (391 km). Our tested VF8 City Edition Plus was on pace to top its 207-mile rating by a good 20 miles, a welcome sign of real-world efficiency.

A nominal 400-volt vehicle electrical architecture delivers a claimed charging rate of up to 160 kW, allowing a 10%-to-70% charge in about 24 minutes. That’s slower than the 800-volt competition from Hyundai and Kia, but again, fully competitive.

The Vinfast eschews traditional driver’s gauges, and many physical controls, in favor of that front-and-center touchscreen. After a brief learning curve to adjust the steering wheel and mirrors — good luck finding the sunroof controls — the UX worked well, with reasonably intuitive menus and solid control over standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Troubling quality, electronics
Things went downhill from there. The generic-looking cabin carries serious whiffs of cost-cutting, especially in an EV pitched as a “premium” offering: Hard plastics, dreary “vegan” leather (read: vinyl) over shapeless and unsupportive seats, vague-feeling switches. Once underway, a surfeit of road and tire noise brought an automotive soundtrack worthy of the grunge era. Windshield wipers were loud enough to make passengers pray for drought. But the most maddening Vinfast noise was the constant chirps and buzzes from its lane-keeping and other ADAS systems, a tragic Greek chorus of audible and visual warnings.

Get in the same zip code as a lane marker or curb, and the Vinfast loudly declared an “emergency steering” situation, even when there was no emergency. The blind-spot monitor worked fitfully, diminishing confidence in its abilities. Shut off any system you like: Everything defaults to “on” when you restart, including a speed-limit monitor that also nags whenever the prevailing limit changes. The Vinfast’s hapless voice “assistant” should be reported to HR, taking its sweet time responding to commands or failing to properly execute them. Company executives proudly touted the VF8’s digital apps and services, yet there’s not much beyond Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: No available XM satellite radio and no Spotify, only offerings like iHeart Radio.

The Vinfast also trails would-be rivals in performance. An underdamped suspension produces a woozy, unsettled ride in an electric SUV that can top 5,700 lb. (2585 kg). A “sport” mode boosts acceleration but brings with it a hair-trigger throttle.

Not all is lost. The brake pedal blends mechanical and regenerative operation in pleasingly transparent fashion, though Vinfast should add the one-pedal driving mode by which many EV drivers swear. The steering — while lifeless even by EV standards — combines with the skateboard platform’s low center-of-gravity to allow confident control through corners, on energy-saving Goodyear tires and optional 19-inch alloy wheels. The head-up display flashes crisp, informative readouts. The VF8’s paint jobs looked striking and professional, though panels gaps weren’t great, inside or out.

And for all its aural ADAS annoyances, the Vinfast’s adaptive cruise control and highway assist systems worked quite well, pacing traffic and steering the VF8 with aplomb even on winding suburban roads (a Volvo or GM might blanch at how Vinfast allows you to select a self-steering mode in virtually any situation.)

Even the most esteemed brands can suffer bugs and problems when launching an all-new model. But here, the most ominous bit was the utter lack of consistency among roughly a dozen VF8s that weren’t prototypes, but ostensibly production-spec, customer-ready cars. Some journalists reported one set of issues with their test vehicle, while others reported completely different issues. And all had overlapping glitches, including the infernal beeping and chirping, and an evident lack of polish and quality control. The clear takeaway was of a rushed, underbaked model that had skipped crucial steps in development.

Software not the culprit for all
The glass-half-full takeaway suggests many of these bugaboos are software-related and could be swiftly addressed via OTA updates even after owners take possession — the way Tesla addresses many issues. But other problems, including the underdamped suspension and rackety interior, demand going back to the drawing board for retuning and added sound deadening – essentially hardware matters.

The VF8 isn’t a screaming bargain, either, despite a come-hither monthly lease price of $414 for the Eco model and $528 for the more-powerful Plus. Those monthly payments are aided by a $7,500 credit on leased EVs under the federal Inflation Reduction Act, a credit that’s no longer available to buyers of any imported EV.

Consumers determined to buy a VF8 – currently in California stores only – will see a heady $50,200 base price for the VF 8 Eco and $57,200 for the Plus. A Tesla Model Y, so superior that it might come from another, Musk-settled planet, starts from $47,490. To allay worries over quality and reliability, Vinfast offers a comprehensive 10-year, 125,000-mile warranty. The company intends to launch a larger, three-rows-of-seating VF9 in coming months, followed shortly by the compact VF6 and VF7.

There’s more riding on this than the fate of another starry-eyed EV startup. Vinfast is part of the Vingroup conglomerate owned by Pham Nhat Vuong, Vietnam’s first billionaire, a former instant-noodle king whose $23-billion empire encompasses everything from real estate and theme parks to convenience stores, hospitals, health care and education under names such as Vinhomes, Vincommerce, VinAI and VinBigData.

But Vuong’s deep pockets aren’t the only backer. The North Carolina factory plan is cushioned by $1.2 billion in subsidies, making it the largest publicly backed project in state history. Since the IRA was announced, companies from Hyundai and Vinfast to General Motors have announced more than $45 billion in American EV and battery plants.

If all goes according to plan, Vinfast might follow the path of Hyundai, an underdog that overcame early quality debacles, repaired a tattered reputation and now is (including its Kia and Genesis brands) hogging industry awards and setting one sales record after another. But the path from laughingstock to formidable player took Hyundai two decades. If Vinfast can’t defy increasingly long odds for an EV startup — as Tesla dominates the market and legacy automakers go all-in on EVs — it won’t just fail, but will leave North Carolina and U.S. taxpayers holding the bag.

For Vinfast, any chance of success begins with delivering capable, high-value, fully competitive models to market. As constituted, the VF8 is not that vehicle. For Vinfast, it’s time to roll up sleeves, open eyes to the brutal competition on these shores and convince American consumers that it’s for real.

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