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Would you rather drive a Build Your Dreams or a Funky Cat? Some of the latest entrants to the European car market are certainly making a mark with memorable names. The latest is the BYD Atto 3 electric crossover.

There is (some) sense to the name. An attosecond is one-quintillionth of a second – so short it can’t yet be measured. The idea is that BYD is pushing the limits of what’s possible. It’s called 3 because it’s based on BYD’s own e-Platform 3.0. But if ‘Atto 3’ is still a bit too safe for you, you’ll love what BYD has in store, because very soon you’ll be able to go into a BYD dealership and drive away in a Dolphin or a Seal.

The thin headlights and closed-off suggestion of a grille are allegedly inspired by dragons and also feature on other BYD models such as the Seal and the Han. A family look should help with brand recognition

BYD’s future EVs – and the brand is only bothering with EVs in Europe – will fall into two categories. The ‘Dynasty Series’ cars will be named after Chinese dynasties (Han, Tang) and will be more expensive, more ‘premium’ models. However, none of those is coming to the UK for the time being. We will get the ‘Ocean Series’ – slightly cheaper cars named after friendly ocean creatures such as the dolphin and the seal. For some markets there will also be a BYD Seagull.

There is clearly a fully fledged model line-up from BYD heading our way, so we will follow its serious plans for Europe with interest, starting with a thorough examination of the Atto 3.

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Range at a glance

The Atto 3 model line-up is as simple as it gets. There is one battery size, one motor and three trim levels, and there are no separate options apart from five no-cost colours.

DESIGN & STYLING

02 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 front cornering

BYD as a company has existed since 1995, but not always as a car maker. It started as a battery manufacturer, and supplying batteries for consumer electronics and electric vehicles is still one of its core businesses. Some Teslas use BYD batteries, and the company is in talks with a number of European car makers for similar deals.

Somewhere along its journey, BYD diversified into cars (including its fair share of ‘copycat’ designs) and buses, and it’s with those people movers that it has already become a big player in Europe. You might not give buses a second look, but a lot of them say BYD on them because that’s where the drivetrain technology is sourced from.

The embossed trapezoidal trim piece on the C-pillar lends the car’s profile view some interest. The trouble is that it’s quite reminiscent of what’s on the Cupra Born. The rear lights look somewhat similar too.

With a lot of the electric bus market sewn up, BYD is now going all-in on cars. After a toe in the water with the overpriced and unsophisticated BYD E6 in 2014, the Atto 3 is serious.

It uses the new, BYD-developed e-Platform 3.0, which is more of a box of tools than a platform, being capable of hosting 800V technology, front-, rear- and four-wheel drive and various sizes of battery, though the Atto 3 sticks with 400V and front-wheel drive.

Owing to its origins as a battery manufacturer, the unit in the Atto 3 is an in-house development that BYD calls the Blade battery. Most modern EVs use nickel-manganese-cobalt or nickel-cobalt-aluminium batteries, but the Blade is a lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) item.

The benefits are that it does not need the contentious cobalt, and LFP batteries don’t mind being charged to maximum capacity, so they need less of a safety buffer (hence why the total and usable capacities are so close). They also don’t degrade as quickly as other lithium ion batteries. The downsides are that they are less energy dense (and therefore heavier for the same capacity) and there is a limit to how much power they can deliver and accept.

Cars in this segment don’t need big power outputs, and the 201bhp that seems to be the class standard is well within the battery’s capability. The 88kW rapid-charging peak that BYD quotes is down on most rivals, however.

Power comes from what BYD calls the 8-in-1 Electric Powertrain System, which integrates the motor, battery management system, inverter, on-board charger and various control modules in one unit.

The Atto 3 is a crossover SUV, but not an especially big one. At 4455mm in length, it is almost exactly the same size as the Kia Niro EV and slightly bigger than the Volkswagen ID 3, Cupra Born and Peugeot e-2008. The Smart #1 and MG 4 EV are a bit smaller still, but are equally valid rivals.

The exterior design of the Atto 3 is possibly the least remarkable aspect of the whole car. It was styled by former Alfa Romeo and Audi designer Wolfgang Egger “with the European customer in mind”, but it was first launched as the Yuan Plus in China last year, and it’s safe to say it borrows the odd styling cue from other cars. Those front bumper ‘air vents’ echo Mercedes, and the embossed silver D-pillar is rather similar to the Cupra Born.

INTERIOR

09 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 dash screen landscape

If the exterior design of the Atto 3 is slightly bland but inoffensive, it’s clear that all the design creativity went into the interior. The tumble of blue and cream leatherette, the wavy, textured microfibre and the CD-rack air vents can be quite overwhelming. And that’s before you get to the party tricks of the huge rotating screen and banjo-string door pockets.

For some, it could be too bold; for others, it will be a relief from the unending blackness of some cars. On first inspection, everything you touch feels very solid and with a soft finish, though the leatherette unnaturally so. Even on our 3000-mile example, there were a number of marks on the lighter materials – and that’s on a press car, which gets detailed to within an inch of its life between loans.

The ‘banjo’ strings on the front door cards have different notes, so you can (almost) play Smoke on the Water. You will probably tire of this before your kids do.

There are two serious problems with this interior, however. The first is that some of the materials give off a very strong chemical smell, which seems to intensify with heat and as you drive. Like some other Chinese cars, the Atto 3 touts air filtering properties in its menus, but that’s no use if the air outside is already more pleasant than inside.

The other issue is that none of the secondary controls are user-friendly. The driving position is fine, there’s a decently sized lever for the drive selection and there are no capacitive ‘buttons’. So far so good, but the cluster of buttons in the centre console control lesser-used functions, while all the climate controls and important settings are in the touchscreen.

Plenty of cars make that sort of arrangement work just fine, but despite the huge screen, the BYD requires multiple taps to change the temperature and hides the heated seats in a submenu. When using phone mirroring, pulling up the climate menu requires an additional swipe up from the bottom and going deeper into the menus often breaks the Apple CarPlay connection or freezes the whole interface.

The latter issue could potentially be solved with a software update. In fact, on the last day of our loan, the screen said it had updated overnight, which did solve some but not all of the stability issues.

On a more positive note, the Atto 3 makes excellent use of its footprint. It has the same amount of leg room as the Kia Niro EV, and while its boot is marginally smaller, it is a more practical space, with a flat dual-height floor and a much sturdier parcel shelf.

Multimedia system

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There’s nothing wrong with a party trick, and most will agree a 15.6in screen that rotates on command is an eye-catching one. Whether it’s useful is more debatable. The corners of the screen are very far away, and while BYD says that the vertical mode is ideal for navigation, it sticks out over the dash and impedes forward visibility. Apple CarPlay will also not rotate along with it and will be displayed at a 90deg angle in vertical mode.

Smartphone integration is generally very poor. Apple users need a cable, and Android Auto will be added in a future update. CarPlay takes over the whole screen, making the climate controls and car settings hard to get to, but switching away from CarPlay often crashed or froze the system during testing.

Media played via CarPlay is also not shown in the native interface. The screen generally responds quickly and the built-in navigation is fairly clear and easy to use. However, we found the voice control to be completely hopeless.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

18 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 performance

With the customary 201bhp going to the front wheels, there are no great surprises in the outright performance of the BYD Atto 3. It’s very marginally slower than the identically powerful Kia Niro EV and Cupra Born to 60mph, and the Kia pulls out a bit of a lead at motorway speeds.

The Atto 3 also missed its quoted 0-62mph time of 7.3sec by 0.1sec, but even so, these numbers would have been fit for a warm hatch not so long ago. The BYD’s shortest stopping distance was slightly shorter than the Kia’s.

I love that you can turn off both the heating and air-con but retain fresh-air ventilation. Sadly, it’s hidden in a menu, and the fan tends to run very fast in auto mode. The car also randomly steamed up sometimes on test.

The raw numbers here are less interesting than the way the BYD’s powertrain behaves in everyday driving, where it lacks some of the sophistication of its rivals.

The traction control is similar to what we found in the Ora Funky Cat and MG 5 EV. On a greasy surface, it will let the front wheels slip for a few rotations, cut power almost completely, let the wheels slip again, cut power again – up to three times when going uphill. Outright traction is fine and you can avoid this behaviour by simply going lighter on the accelerator, but the fact remains that other EVs will carefully release power and mostly maintain traction.

Then there is the regenerative braking. A toggle on the centre console lets you switch between standard and strong regen, but the difference between the two is hard to detect as the retardation remains very slight at all times. This will suit some drivers, while others will want for a one-pedal experience. BYD has gone to the trouble of installing a physical switch, so why not make it more useful?

The light brake pedal is progressive enough for smooth stops. When doing repeated hard stops for the performance figures, we did notice a strong smell of brakes and slightly lengthening stopping distances. By the fourth, the 70-0mph distance had increased to 48.2m, which is still a perfectly acceptable result, it must be said.

RIDE & HANDLING

19 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 front cornering

With manufacturers such as BMW, Jaguar or even a more recent player like Cupra, there is a weight of expectation here. With BYD being a new-to-Europe car maker, we had no idea what to expect.

When you sit down in the Atto 3’s surprisingly well-bolstered seats and grab its small three-spoke steering wheel, you might assume it will deliver a sporty drive, but instead it’s geared towards comfort.

The Atto 3 uses BYD’s own e-Platform 3.0 with a single motor driving the front wheels. The battery under the floor is also BYD’s own: a lithium-iron-phosphate ‘Blade’ unit. On our scales, the car’s weight was distributed 53% front, 47% rear.

The soft suspension allows generous body roll and the steering response isn’t the most incisive. Even in Sport mode, it’s fairly light and uncommunicative. However, the roll builds gradually and you’re never left second-guessing your positioning on the road. The 18in alloy wheels are shod in surprisingly wide 235-section Continental EcoContact 6Q tyres, so in mild temperatures at least, it has ample reserves of grip.

In other words, while the Atto 3 is certainly not the minor revelation that the MG 4 EV was, it behaves itself reasonably well as long as you don’t ask too much of it.

When you do drive the car a bit harder, you will discover its composure starts to fray at the edges. Mid-corner surface imperfections can elicit strong kickback in the steering, and even in a straight line you will feel potholes through the steering more vividly than in other cars. You get a different kind of steering corruption under acceleration, as the Atto 3 exhibits some torque steer as well.

20 Byd atto 3 rt 2023 rear cornering 0

Comfort and isolation

The flipside of the soft suspension is that the ride is pliant in a way that most Citroëns struggle to match. It’s absorptive without being floaty or having excessive pitch and dive under acceleration and braking. It’s easily the most pleasing aspect of the Atto 3. The very slight bit of lumpiness around town is still better than most.

With the exception of the odd thunk over potholes, noise isolation is good, though not quite on the level of the exceptional Cupra Born. The one curious element of the refinement equation is the amount of vibration that is transmitted through the brake pedal. Though not overly intrusive, it is quite odd in an otherwise refined modern car.

We were also surprised by the absence of adjustable lumbar support on our generously equipped test car and some testers complained of soreness after a long drive. An extendable thigh bolster would also increase comfort for taller drivers.

Assisted driving notes

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All Atto 3s get adaptive cruise control with active lane following as standard. Blindspot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are standard-fit too.

The adaptive cruise control is quite an average system. It doesn’t anticipate very well, and maintains its speed too long and then brakes hard for stationary traffic. When cars cut in, it will brake too harshly. Conversely, when approaching a slower car, it starts slowing down too early.

The system also slows down when changing lanes. However, we have experienced worse, and it is quite smooth in slow traffic. The lane following is reasonably good as well. The blindspot monitoring does not have any acoustic warning when you are about to change lanes into another vehicle.

We found the emergency lane keeping assist unintrusive because it did not seem to do anything. We experienced no false activations from the collision avoidance system.

 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 lead front driving

The Atto 3 starts at £36,490 for the entry-level Active model, rising to £36,990 for the Comfort and £38,990 for the Design, like our test car. On the surface, that seems like a straightforward trim line-up.

Look more closely, and you will note that the higher trims are not much of an upgrade. Comfort adds an 11kW three-phase charger. Few homes in the UK have three-phase power, so for most the advantages of that will be limited. Design adds an electric tailgate, the air purification system and the 15.6in touchscreen. Other trims are hardly under-endowed with their 12.8in item. And yes, both versions rotate.

Spec advice? Don’t bother with the more expensive trims. The only meaningful upgrades are an even bigger screen and an electric tailgate. All Atto 3s have the same wheel spec, and there are five exterior colours, none of which costs extra. The blue-and-cream interior pictured is the only style available.

Everything else, from alloy wheels to interior trim (blue and cream leatherette is the only choice in the UK) to equipment, is exactly the same, so if you are considering an Atto 3, we would recommend you stick to the cheapest version. Every Atto 3 also gets a heat pump as standard. A similarly specified Kia Niro EV and Cupra Born cost over £40,000, though the Smart #1 Pro+ and MG ZS EV Trophy are cheaper.

Weaker residual values mean the BYD isn’t quite as much of a bargain on finance. Based on a quote from dealer network Stratstone, our test car would be only £20 per month cheaper than the range-topping Renault Mégane Iconic.

Measuring the Atto 3’s economy was somewhat fraught, as its own efficiency readout was hopelessly unreliable, at one point claiming to do 12mpkWh during performance testing. The average figure of 3.4mpkWh was calculated using the kWh charged for the mileage driven. It is slightly worse than what we got from the Born and Niro EV, but still works out to a range of 201 miles. When fully charged, the car would always predict 260 miles, its WLTP figure, which is clearly unrealistic.

The Atto 3’s peak rapid-charging figure of 88kW is also rather disappointing, but in our testing it managed a weighted average speed that was slightly better than that of the Citroën ë-C4 X, which is rated for 100kW. An MG 4 EV Long Range will charge a lot quicker, however.

BYD has only four dealerships at the time of publication, but it plans to grow its network to 30 by the end of 2023, and to 100 by 2025. That is reassuring, and BYD’s warranty is competitive enough. There’s a four-year/120,000km (74,500-mile) general warranty, and it guarantees the battery to retain 70% of its capacity for eight years or 200,000km (124,000 miles).

VERDICT

22 BYD Atto 3 RT 2023 verdict cornering

The BYD Atto 3 is similar to the Ora Funky Cat in the sense that it draws you in with its appealingly quirky if not wholly original style as well as with its road manners, which are, to a point, easy-going and inoffensive.

However, drive the Atto 3 for longer and prod a bit deeper, and the chassis can get discombobulated, and some of the ill-considered design choices in the interior and the fatal flaws in the software start to irritate. The soft interior materials turn out not to be quite of the same grade as we’d expect in this class.

The Atto 3 gets a fair few fundamental things right: it is competitive for interior space and practicality, as well as the all-important electric range. It’s good value, but then so are the MG 4 EV and Smart #1, and they are much more complete cars.

BYD has the battery tech pretty much sorted, and has come on leaps and bounds since its last shot at the European market 10 years ago. But the Atto 3 still lacks the dynamic fine-tuning and fully finished drivability that we’re used to.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.