Auto review: VinFast VF 8 is an affordable Tesla knock-off

CARLSBAD, California — Henry Ford wasn’t the only one who saw the potential of affordable transportation for the American masses. For the last half-century waves of affordable foreign vehicles have washed up on U.S. shores. Volkswagen Beetles. Toyota Corollas. Honda Civics. Hyundai Elantras. Millions of them, built to last and cheaper than anything we Yanks could hammer together.

These days electric vehicles are all the rage, and — right on cue — here comes a foreign manufacturer with a more affordable idea. Meet the Vietnamese-built VinFast VF 8. It features interior room, mono-screen, frunk and self-driving tech like the Tesla Model X — for half the price.

Just $56K. Wait, what?

It’s a commentary on today’s EV market that 56 grand (lease for $528 a month with $5,200 up front) is considered affordable. But that’s electrics for you. Governments are forcing an EV transition, and automakers have figured out the demand is among the swells. VinFast brand is targeting affordable luxury — as opposed to affordable mainstream like its predecessors.

If you crave a Model X but don’t have $100,000 (lease for $1,300 a month with $7,500 down) lying around, then come take a ride with me in the VF 8.

Open the door, touch the brake and it’s on. Just like a Tesla. To adjust the mirrors, go into the big 15.6-inch screen to the right of the steering wheel, poke the mirror icon, then use the button on the steering wheel to adjust the mirrors. Just like a Tesla. The steering wheel, too? Yup, son of Tesla.

In fact, my VinFast tester had a frunk, moonroof, two-mode regenerative braking, no AM radio and no instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. Just like a Tesla. Over the hills of Carlsbad north of San Diego, the big ute was whisper quiet but for the whine of the twin electric motors when I put my boot in it. The torque was instant, launching the beast into I-5 traffic like a shot despite its 5,700-pound girth.

Just like a Tesla.

Of course, for half the price you wouldn’t expect everything to be strawberries and cream, and it’s not. VinFast’s exterior design was contracted out to Paninfarina — yes, the Italian design house that has made eye-catching wardrobes for Ferrari and Cadillac and Alfa and Citroen. For its VF 8 fee, Paninfarina apparently took, um, a Citroen C5 design off the shelf.

The VF 8 fascia bears Citroen’s “heartbeat” logo — with an inverted V in the middle — giving the Vietnamese wagon a French accent. But the rest of the front is busy, clashing with the simplicity of the interior and elegant flanks that taper to muscular rear fenders. The big screen is waaaay too reflective.

The drivetrain isn’t fully baked. Press the DRIVE button (VinFast is controlled by four raised buttons on the console instead of a Tesla stalk) and VF 8 shudders like you just woke it up from a nap.

Wah-huh? Where we going?

Lift your foot off the throttle after a swift 5.5-second 0-60 mph launch out of a stoplight and the car lurches forward like a six-foot-tall 12-year old on a basketball court whose brain and legs aren’t yet communicating. Hey, it’s VinFast’s first big game, too. They’ll likely get better. Tesla is the world’s undisputed champ at making electric motors (Lucid is pretty good too) while VinFast gets its e-motors from a supplier to save money.

But there are thoughtful touches too that indicate VinFast has done its homework. Talk to Tesla owners and half of them wish their cars came with a head-up display to complement the center screen. VinFast does that and it’s standard on the VF 8.

And then there’s wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Yup, VinFast offers them, unlike Tesla — perhaps the biggest gripe of the Tesla tribe.

My VF 8 City Plus model upgrades over the base $414-a-month City Eco with a moonroof equipped with both a sun shade and glass opener (operated via the touchscreen, of course). Again, two features some Tesla owners crave.

Just as VinFast has maximized its skateboard, engine-less electric chassis to accommodate a frunk up front, so does it offer palatial legroom in back and good cargo space. VinFast has a flood of product coming in the year ahead, including the compact VF 6/7 and the three-row VF 9. But Vietnam’s biggest company clearly saw white space in the midsize segment. Most automakers have offered their first EVs as compacts — Mustang Mach-E, Hyundai Ioniq 5/6, Genesis GV60, Kia EV6 (pause for breath), Jaguar iPace, Audi Q5, Lexus RZ.

The midsize space is uncrowded: the much pricier Model X, Rivian R1S, BMW iX and Cadillac Lyriq.

But despite its value proposition (which includes a $7,500 tax credit when leased, best-in-the-industry, comprehensive, 10-year/125,000 mile warranty and free charger and installation for your home — wow!) the lease-only-for-now VinFast has its work cut out for it. EVs are a luxe buy, and customers with $50K to spend are going to look first at a $55K Tesla Model Y. Heck, they may also prefer a roomy $55K Kia V6, which is also a premium EV at an affordable price.

There’s also the matter of Tesla’s secret sauce — its charging network.

A student of Tesla in its design, operation and retail network, VinFast still couldn’t bring itself — like every other automaker — to invest in its own charging network. VinFast hopes the patchwork of Electrify America, EVGo, ChargePoint fast chargers (subsidized by billions from Uncle Sugar) will be just as good.

Using the VF 8 app, I routed a mock 293-mile journey from Raleigh, North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and the navigation dutifully routed via supercharger (for a 38-minute charge stop) just like my Model 3. Whether the, ahem, EA charger would be functioning, the app didn’t say.

Why did I route from Raleigh, you ask? Because that’s where VinFast is building its manufacturing plant. Like the foreign transplants that came before it, the Vietnamese company is not just banking on affordability, but on being close to its customers. And, of course, to qualify for $7,500 from Uncle Sugar.

Foreign automakers didn’t need subsidies to sell their wares in years past, and the $7,500 is evidence EVs are too expensive. Unless you’re a premium buyer.

For now, VinFast is only selling in California, which might as well be a foreign country compared to EV adoption in the Midwest. But Vietnam’s biggest automaker has its eyes on all 50 states, and it’s moving very VinFast.

2023 VinFast VF 8

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, all-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV

Price: $51,000, including $1,200 destination charge ($56,000 City Plus model as tested)

Powerplant: 82 or 86-kWh lithium-ion battery with twin electric motors

Power: 260 horsepower, 368 pound-feet of torque (City Eco) 300 horsepower, 457 pound-feet of torque (City Plus)

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Plus model, mfr.); towing, 4,000 pounds

Weight: 5,732 pounds (City Plus as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 60 MPGe; range, 191-207 miles (191 miles, City Plus as tested)

Report card

Highs: Tesla Lite; palatial room and head-up display standard

Lows: Rough drivetrain; odd frunk layout

Overall: 3 stars