Chinese electric car companies target expansion in Europe while competition heats up at home

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NIOXPEVNio plans to begin deliveries of its ET7 electric sedan in 2022.Evelyn Cheng | CNBC

SHANGHAI — After the last year of growth in the world’s largest auto market, China’s electric car start-ups are stepping up plans to take on Europe.

Chinese authorities only began peeling back restrictions on full foreign ownership of local automobile production in the last few years. But more than a decade ago, Beijing began spending the equivalent of billions of dollars on developing its own electric vehicles.

That’s helped local players gain an edge in producing battery-powered cars, which they’re now aiming to sell overseas. Goldman Sachs analysts predict that in four years, new government policies mean electric cars will account for a greater share of auto sales in Europe and the U.S., versus China, although it is the largest market.

U.S.-listed Nio has said it would enter Europe in the second half of this year. And on Monday, co-founder and president Lihong Qin said the company expects to make an official announcement about such an expansion within a month.

He did not name a specific country, while stating that after Europe, Nio still intends to enter the U.S. market.

Amid tensions with the U.S. and attempts to seal an investment deal with Europe, China exported 63,500 pure battery-powered electric vehicles during the first eleven months of last year, according to a January report from the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Machinery and Electronic Products. While Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the top destinations for Chinese cars overall last year, the report noted significant growth in vehicle exports to the U.K., Belgium and Germany.

U.S.-listed Xpeng is already testing the waters in Norway, where the start-up delivered 100 units of its G3 electric SUV in December.

Later this year, Xpeng hopes to see how customers in northern Europe respond to its P7 electric sedan, said He Xiaopeng, chairman and CEO. He is recruiting new staff and plans to set up a company in the region, before looking at western and eastern Europe.

Another Chinese electric car start-up, Aiways, said it exported more than 1,000 vehicles to Israel and