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First drive: 2023 BYD Dolphin. Image by BYD.

First drive: 2023 BYD Dolphin
Chinese brand BYD is here to mix it in the electric hatchback market, but does the Dolphin have what it takes to beat the MG 4 at its own game?

   



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2023 BYD Dolphin

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5

If you haven't heard of BYD, you soon will. And once you've stopped laughing at the fact the name stands for Build Your Dreams, you'll find that's exactly what the company plans to do. Its presence in the UK is growing, and though the new Dolphin is only the brand's second UK-bound vehicle, BYD is hoping it can topple the MG 4 from its position at the top of the budget electric hatchback market.

That might be a tall order from a Chinese upstart, but BYD is much more than that. It builds batteries for Tesla, and it's already a huge player in the global car market. It's just a nascent proposition in Europe. So can the new Dolphin really beat the brilliant MG and the competent Ora Funky Cat?

Test Car Specifications

Model: 2023 BYD Dolphin 60.4kWh Design 204PS
Price: Dolphin from £25,490, Design from £30,990
Engine: 150kW electric motor
Transmission: single-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Battery: 60.4kWh lithium-ion 'Blade' battery
Power: 204hp
Torque: 290Nm
Emissions: 0g/km
Range: 265 miles
0-62mph: 7.0 seconds
Top speed: 100mph
Boot space: 345 - 1,310 litres

Styling

BYD claims the Dolphin looks contemporary and cool, but we're certain there's something of the late 1990s or early 2000s budget hatchback about the design. Think Hyundai Getz or Daewoo Matiz, if you're brave enough. Maybe it's the bland front end or the narrow body that gives us that impression, but there's something a bit unimaginative about it. Especially from the front. From the back, on the other hand, it feels much more contemporary, with a DS 3-style tailgate with the brand name emblazoned across the back. Apparently, such is the resistance to the Build Your Dreams branding in Europe that BYD is looking at binning that lettering for future model years.

Interior

According to BYD, the Dolphinís dashboard is designed to look like waves Ė another reference to the ocean Ė but whatever the inspiration, itís certainly a more appealing interior than that of the MG 4. However, it isnít without its foibles. The colourful designs will be divisive for many, and the materials are largely nice to look at or to touch, but they donít always manage both feats. Of course, this is a cheap hatchback and some corner-cutting is to be expected, but the Ora Funky Catís interior feels more upmarket.

But the Funky Cat doesnít have the Dolphinís party piece Ė a rotating central infotainment screen. The 12.8-inch display can be twisted at the touch of a button, allowing portrait or landscape orientations, depending on your preference. The software itself isnít bad, but it always feels like a cheap Google knock-off, and itís much better to plug in a phone and use Apple CarPlay instead.

There are other weaknesses, too. The rocker switches on the dash arenít especially intuitive, which wouldnít be so bad were they not incorporating the hazard lights and the gear selector, and the digital instrument display isnít especially clear. You get the speed and battery level easily enough, but other icons are either too small or too confusing alongside the colours of the background.

Practicality

For those in the cabin, the Dolphin is enormously practical, thanks to the high roofline that ensures ample space for those in the front and rear. Rear legroom is more than sufficient, too. But in the boot, space is no more than adequate Ė particularly with the false floor in place. The 345-litre luggage bay is slightly smaller than that of the MG 4, and though itís more generous than the Ora Funky Cat, itís well down on the Cupra Born and VW ID.3. At least the huge rear legroom helps when you fold the back seats down, freeing up 1,310 litres of cargo capacity.

Performance

Although the Dolphin is available with two different battery packs and three different electric motor options, things arenít really that simple. The two cheapest trim levels Ė Active and Boost Ė get the 44.9kWh battery, with the former getting a puny 95hp electric motor. The Boost, meanwhile, ups the ante with 176hp from its electric motor. The Comfort and Design (tested here) versions, on the other hand, both get the same 60.4kWh battery and 204hp electric motor set-up, allowing a range of 265 miles on a single charge.

Unfortunately, our test car had a software glitch that meant just 100hp or so was available, leaving the Dolphin almost beached on steep hills. The lack of performance was almost alarming, and it gave us severe reservations about the basic Active model. The constant mashing of the accelerator to make any sort of progress also eat into the range. When we subsequently tested a Ďfixedí car, it seemed much punchier and much more eager, without ever feeling quite as fast as the seven-second 0-62mph time might suggest. Sadly, we didnít get long enough with the car to test the range claims properly.

Ride & Handling

Although this range-topping Dolphin is punchy enough in a straight line, it doesnít really have a sporty character. Instead, the car is clearly set up for comfort, with soft springs that are under-damped, which means itís very supple right up to the point where the damper runs out of travel. At low speeds and around town, therefore, itís great Ė the forces are rarely enough to fully extend the damper Ė but at higher speeds it canít always react quickly enough. Lumps in the motorway, for example, can over-stretch the suspension, which means the relatively gentle movement stops quite abruptly and unsettles the car.

That issue occurs on back roads, too, where the Dolphinís general lack of body control really causes problems. Not only is the comfort adversely impacted, but the body roll is huge and the car seems to corner on its door handles. There are advantages to that Ė the Dolphin will scare you long before the tyres stop clinging to the asphalt Ė but itís disconcerting. Combine that with overly light steering with next to no feel and youíre left with a car that wonít woo the keen drivers. Worse, it fails to offer the balance of an MG 4.

But few drivers will use it for that, and in its natural habitat, a town centre, the Dolphin is wholly competent. The light steering and the responsive electric motor make it nippy, while the narrow body is easy enough to thread through tight gaps.

Noise, however, is an issue. At low speeds, the Dolphin emits a strange kind of whistle, which sounds like the wind blowing through the door of a ramshackle building. Itís Halloween stuff. And at higher speeds, the road noise is noticeable, although thatís possibly because the powertrain is so smooth and quiet.

And itís worth noting that basic Active versions donít get the same sophisticated multi-link rear suspension options as the more upmarket (and more powerful) versions, which may impact the ride comfort.

Value

Much of the Dolphin's appeal lies in its bargain basement price, with the cheapest Active versions starting at £25,490 in the UK. That's pretty cheap, because you won't get an Ora Funky Cat for that, and it undercuts the MG 4 slightly, too. Admittedly, the range-topping Dolphin seen here is more expensive, at just over £30,000, but it's still cheaper than the equivalent MG and Ora models. Considering you get the 12.8-inch rotating touchscreen, a rear-view camera and electrically adjustable vegan leather upholstery as standard across the range, that isn't bad going at all.

Verdict

Like the Funky Cat, the Dolphin is a contender in this class despite its quirky name, and weíd be tempted to pick one ahead of the more expensive Ora Ė particularly in light of its ride comfort and price. But money isnít everything, and the MG 4 remains a more competent all-rounder than the Dolphin. As a result, the MG still gets our vote when it comes to budget EVs.



James Fossdyke - 21 Jun 2023



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