Vietnamese electric vehicle newcomer VinFast began a new chapter in the U.S. this week, opening its first six stores in California as it pushes forward on plans to deliver two newly developed crossovers by the end of the year and carve out a slice of the growing EV market now dominated by Tesla, Ford, Hyundai and Kia.
The half-dozen showrooms by the direct-to-consumer brand are a down payment on 30 physical locations this year in California, which is leading EV sales with nearly 40 percent of the national market, according to registration data from Experian through May of this year. VinFast established its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles last year.
VinFast's first showrooms are located in shopping malls to promote a relaxed exploration of the mostly unknown brand, a U.S. executive told Automotive News, and will expand to other EV-friendly states next. The first locations are in Santa Monica, San Diego, San Mateo, Corte Madera, Commerce and Berkeley.
"We have to establish ourselves as a brand and we have to do that quickly — in a nonaggressive or pushy way — but we want to be assertive. We want people to know who we are," said Craig Westbrook, chief customer officer at VinFast US and a former BMW of North America executive.
VinFast is taking reservations on the two-row VF 8 and three-row VF 9 crossovers. For a $200 refundable deposit, early adopters can be first to configure and order the vehicles this year, according to the automaker.
But currently there are no test drives of the two crossovers — or media reviews. VinFast said on its website that it expects to complete U.S. regulatory approval in the second half of the year. Until then, specifications such as range and acceleration are preliminary, and features on preproduction models may vary from final versions, the company said.
The California stores "are sort of opening the door to the public in multiple locations to get a first glimpse at the hardware firsthand and not just via the website," Westbrook said.
"We want to present our future customers with a sort of experience center," he added. The on-site "client advisers" can also answer questions about the VinFast brand.
"Who we are, where we come from, our fairly rich history of Vingroup from Vietnam and how we got here and what we're trying to do," Westbrook said. "It's our job to present VinFast as a brand in it for the long haul."
In a press release, VinFast said it will have three different types of stores in the future. In addition to showrooms in high-traffic shopping centers, the automaker will have larger stores with parts and service centers.
The young automaker said in March that it would invest $2 billion in the first phase of a vehicle and battery assembly plant in North Carolina, scheduled to begin production in July 2024.
So far, VinFast said it has accumulated 65,000 reservations for the VF 8 and VF 9 globally. The automaker did not break out reservations by region as it expands into the U.S., Canada and Europe from a modest sales base in Vietnam.
VinFast was founded in 2017 and began producing combustion-engine vehicles for the local market in 2019, the company said. It delivered its first EV in Vietnam late last year, but that is a smaller model than the first two coming to the U.S. and Canada. VinFast has announced that it will phase out gasoline engines by the end of the year in favor of EVs.
Logical competitors for the VF 8 include the bestselling Tesla Model Y, along with the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Hyundai Ioniq 5, Kia EV6, Volkswagen ID4, Toyota bZ4X and Subaru Solterra. Nissan, Chevrolet, Honda and other automakers are working on similar vehicles.
Although VinFast categorizes the VF 8 as midsize, it's similar in dimensions to the compact Model Y and its rivals.
The VF 9 is larger than most EV crossovers now on the market but could face the Kia EV9 next year, which also has three rows of seating. Tesla's Model Y has a seven-seat option but the third-row seats are cramped. And Tesla's three-row Model X starts at more than $120,000.
VinFast is also targeting some luxury brands, promising a premium experience at a lower price point.
The VF 8 starts at $40,700, not including shipping, but also requires a separate lease of the battery pack. The monthly lease options include a "flexible" plan at $35 with 310 miles included plus 11 cents per mile over the limit. The "fixed" plan at $110 per month includes unlimited miles. Advanced driver-assistance features also require a subscription.
The VF 9 starts at $55,500 plus a battery lease of $44 per month on the flexible plan and $160 on the fixed plan. VinFast is promising industry-competitive range and acceleration, subject to certification in the second half of 2022.
Westbrook said progress on U.S. reservations "is such that we feel we are gaining traction." But, he added, "that alone won't do it. We have to present VinFast as a vehicle that is safe to drive and a brand that is safe to own."