2024 Zeekr 001 First Drive: More Than Just China's Pontiac

Back in 2010, Geely Automotive mustered up enough cash to buy Volvo, transferring a storied brand from Ford ownership to a Chinese upstart that mostly sold refrigerator parts only 13 years prior. Every Swedish car enthusiast waited with bated breath. Was Geely going to ruin Volvo, forcing it to churn out rebadged low-quality cars based on crappy existing Geely models, which were nothing more than restyled Daihatsus made under license?

But all of our collective fretting was for naught. Under Geely ownership, Volvo soared to new heights, dramatically increasing its sales while producing some of the most stylish and high-tech vehicles it has ever made. It seemed like Geely was content to “let Volvo be Volvo,” a saying familiar to anyone who was working in the automotive industry of the early 2010s.

But that statement was always a bit inaccurate, an acrid take tinged with xenophobia and condescension. Geely is a corporation with vast interests, full of its own engineers, designers, and software experts; of course, the goal would be to synergize and integrate, not just back a truckload of cash to Volvo engineers with the implication being that Geely does not have the ability to create on its own. China is full of expertise, talent, and innovative thinking. Just look at how it has absolutely left behind the rest of the world with electric vehicles. Now, Western brands seek out Chinese OEMs because of what they offer. Toyota and Tesla use BYD batteries in some markets, Stellantis is looking to make an EV with Leapmotor, and GM’s tie-up with SAIC and Wuling is so valuable that it’s actually increased its stake in the two entities. 

Gallery: Zeekr 001

The Zeekr 001 is just a little glimpse of Geely’s expertise and a show of exactly what the hell we’re missing here in the United States. Or, maybe it’s a preview of what’s to come here, since the Zeekr 001 is a platform twin of the forthcoming Polestar 4. Nor can we completely rule out a potential Zeekr entry to the U.S.

So how does the Zeekr 001 drive,  and why should Americans care about it? I went to a recent event the automaker put on in upstate New York to find out. 

A Slick Entry

For starters, Zeekr is another premium brand aimed directly at China’s middle-class citizens. No, not like Lynk & Co, another Geely brand also aimed at China’s middle class; that brand only sells hybrids and PHEVs. And no, not like Volvo or Polestar, which somehow occupy a different market position. Polestar is headed increasingly upmarket and chasing Porsche, whereas Zeekr is content to stay in the premium market, not unlike Acura. 

Confusing market positioning aside, Zeekr’s products are resonating well in China. The brand has sold more than 140,000 units, about 72,000 of them happening just last year. It wants to sell another 160,000 units this year alone. For Q3 of this year, Zeekr in China has outsold Polestar globally at a nearly 3 to 1 ratio. Most of the brand’s sales come from this car, the 001.

“Man, that thing is slick lookin’,” I said to myself, as I walked out to the two Zeekr 001s parked in the pit lane of the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. I’d seen the car in pictures online, but it can be hard to gauge what a vehicle looks like in person via some images on a computer screen.

In a sea of electrified pseudo-crossovers, the 001 is distinctly a car-shaped thing with no SUV pretense whatsoever. Zeekr calls the 001 a “shooting brake;” there’s no unpainted cladding, no elevated ride height, just an old-fashioned wagon, and called a wagon. Interestingly enough, the mechanically related Polestar 4 is marketed as a crossover SUV coupe, but both the Zeekr and Polestar are lower than the Hyundai Ioniq 5, another EV marketed as a crossover despite its hatchback proportions and relatively low-slung nature.

Whatever the case, the 001 is sharp, It wears its lines well. The roughly Kia EV6-sized premium wagon looks long, low, and wide. The detailing and side surfacing are interesting, without being overly fussy. The greenhouse and roofline are satisfyingly squat, and the wheels are big, leading to the appearance of a life-sized Hot Wheels car. The Zeekr’s styling feels distinct, not as if it’s cribbed ideas from some other car. It also manages to look completely different from anything at the Volvo or Polestar stable. 

That look goes beyond just styling. Inside, the 001’s interior was well-finished and reasonably plush, the camel-colored leather surfaces and design aesthetic flair more extravagant than the decisions Volvo and Polestar made. Heck, the 001 had automatic opening and closing doors. That’s a feature reserved for high-dollar cars like the BMW i7 or Genesis G90, and it’s not a feature found on any Volvo or Polestar car.

Similarly, the 001’s infotainment in-car software has nothing to do with the Google-based operating systems found in any given Volvo or Polestar. I can’t read Chinese, but the 001’s infotainment appeared to be a junky mess full of graphics, characters, and menus. Yet Zeekr representative Yilei Sun assured me that the wordy and confusing interface was very usable to Chinese consumers because it is so similar to shopping apps like Taobao, or even Starbucks. It’s a whole different world there, apparently one full of interfaces with a lot of buttons and words, way different from the almost too-simplistic interface of any given Volvo or Polestar product.

Driving The 001

Not counting the hypercar-rivaling Zeekr 001 FR, the 001 comes in three trims: WE, ME, and YOU, in that order. The car can be had with a few different motor and battery options, but the models that Zeekr had on offer were two top-trimmed YOU models, in dual-motor AWD form. This combination was fed by a 100 kWh battery, generates 544 horsepower, and will fling the car to 60 MPH in about 3.5 seconds.

It hasn’t been officially confirmed, but those numbers sound identical to the Polestar 4. Underneath, the Zeekr 001 uses the same SEA (Sustainable Experience Architecture), Zeekr says that it took the lead on development. In fact, the 001 is the very first car on this platform.

See, now, EVs are heavy cars, and at more than 4,500 lbs, the Zeekr 001 is no exception. Oftentimes, EVs absolutely feel their weight in the curves, sure, they accelerate well, but taking a curve might involve slowing way down to cope with the wobble and bounce as the suspension tries to manage two tons of mass. Heck, even the Polestar 2 can feel a little out of its element when pushed hard enough. I was curious, did Zeekr put effort into reigning in all that mass? Or would the 001 just be a pretty face—a fast car with a nice interior that would show its lack of development via a crap ride and lack of handling chops?

My time with the Zeekr 001 wasn’t long, consisting of about two to three laps around Monticello with a professional driver hired by Zeekr sitting shotgun, to make sure I didn’t accidentally fly off course. However, after about a third through my first lap, the co-driver said “Ah, you’ve got a bit more skill here than I thought,” and let me really open the car up more than the investor types who just wanted to do a little lap around the track at school zone speed limit. Some of them didn’t even drive, just rode in the back while a Zeekr representative ferried them around at speeds of maybe 45 mph.

Say less, sir. When we hit the back straight of Monticello, I mashed the throttle to the ground and the car quickly rocketed to 170 k/ph (105 mph). I braked and took a right, and attacked the rest of the track and my next lap with gusto, letting the car sail through corners. It felt good; the car was responsive, and predictable, easily handling quick directional changes of an on-track chicane without unpredictably upsetting the balance of the car. The 001’s steering is fairly direct, it corners remarkably flat, and the car is a delight to push around the track.

We were driving with so much zeal that my co-driver was radioed and told to slow down because I had caught up to the other 001 on track. “Man, with some good pads and a sticky tire, this thing would be 100 percent,” my co-driver said. I’d agree. The 001 was impressive, and showed a level of body control and handling prowess that even established brands would likely find tricky to replicate.

“(Zeekr’s) goal was to prove what SEA platform is capable of, and I think we did that,” said Sun. Yeah, Zeekr definitely did. Sun claimed that in China, the 001 is often compared to the Porsche Panamera. I can see why, it’s stylish and handles great, offering a lot of virtues of the Panamera in a package that’s about half the price. 

Honestly, it might be the most exciting EV I’ve driven all year.

Could It Work In America?

It’s not exactly clear if the 001 will ever come to the USA. Zeekr says officially it has no plans to sell consumer cars here (though their responses to that question have been sometimes mixed), but if it did try, the 001 would be a hell of an entry. I understand why it’s such a compelling offering in its home market, it’s stylish and fun to drive, selling on its own merits despite not being cheap.

At 386,000 yuan or about $55,000 USD, the 001 is about the same price as a top-level Tesla Model Y Performance. But the Zeekr 001 is a way better car. And if nothing else, the 001 bodes pretty well for the Polestar 4.

“The Zeekr brand is doing all kinds of innovative things in the premium EV space, so certainly it’s not hard to imagine it finding an audience here,” said Ed Kim, president of the auto industry marketing and research firm AutoPacific. “However, even aside from the 27.5% tariff on Chinese-built vehicles that makes it very difficult to develop a workable business case for them, the other major factor is that parent company Geely already has two premium brands in the U.S., Volvo and Polestar. By 2030, Volvo will be an all-EV brand like Polestar is today. Does Geely really need a third premium EV brand in the U.S.?”

Maybe. Zeekr’s offerings feel so much different than Volvo’s. I’d argue that Zeekr makes more sense than Polestar, which has yet to convince consumers that it’s not just hawking Volvo products with a weird logo.

But nearly as important, the 001 is proof that Zeekr, and in turn, Geely Group and China, are full of talented people. There’s no need to condescend and assume that its Western subsidiaries are entirely responsible for the brand’s forward progress. Whatever happens next for Zeekr, it’s clear that it’s doing something very right for the Geely Group. Maybe we’ll see that for ourselves someday too.

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