China's Zeekr Brand Has Big Plans. Maybe For America, Too

If the American automakers announced a premature victory lap on electric vehicles—one that has maybe turned into a death spiral, depending on who you ask—it’s important to remember China has already lapped us twice over. That country is full of EVs at all sorts of price points that sell at exponentially higher numbers. But just how good are those Chinese EVs, really? That’s hard to say, considering we’re talking about one of the world’s most closed-off countries.

I have long wanted to know for myself. To do that, I needed more time with Chinese cars, more conversations with Chinese manufacturers and analysts, and heck, even Chinese EV buyers. You can probably imagine how hard that is with global politics being what they are these days. I’d probably have an easier time finding authentic Mexican food in the middle of Wales.

Yet on Oct. 24, I was lying awake in my bed pretending like it wasn’t well past 3 a.m. and the sunrise wasn’t just around the corner. I flipped back between the endless addicting scroll of TikTok, snippets of YouTube videos, and an ever-expanding backlog of stalled drafts—adding to my sleep debt with promises that the insomnia was worth it because I’d soon stumble on a compelling angle that no one else had written about. Before my body conked out from pure exhaustion, my phone rumbled as I saw a new LinkedIn message. The person had no profile picture, fewer than a hundred connections, and a work history that had everything to do with finance, and nothing to do with cars.

“On behalf of Zeekr, we would like to invite you to the Zeekr Test Drive, taking place on 10/31 in New York,” the message said. That was less than a week away, an incredibly tight timeline considering most vehicle press events take months of planning and invitations are sent out weeks in advance.

Gallery: Zeekr Track Drive

Why was Chinese automaker Zeekr in New York? Why was I contacted via LinkedIn, by someone in the Investor Relations department? Why were there zero rumblings on the internet about Zeekr’s presence in the U.S.? The program had little to no itinerary; what was Zeekr planning? Oh man, I was on high alert – the universe had presented me with an opportunity to have my desire for knowledge and clarity met, but I still had reservations. The last time I trifled with a foreign market EV startup, I ended up on a private island while a Vietnamese real estate conglomerate used its oodles of start-up cash to throw a damn near Beyonce-grade concert in hopes of distracting attendees from realizing that its cars were poorly made, underdeveloped shitboxes.

There was only one way of finding out where Zeekr was on the spectrum; I was going to have to go to New York. And what I found is a car and a brand that’s more crucial to the Geely Group’s electric future than most people realize.

What is a Zeekr, Anyway?

I don’t think China learned the same lessons that American manufacturers did the hard way in the late 2000s. All of the big Chinese car brands insist on splitting their model lines into a multitude of sub-brands and full-on sister brands in pursuit of volume and scale. GAC has three, Chery has four, and hell, even Volkswagen decided to spin its budget cars off in a subbrand called “Jetta.” 

Gallery: Zeekr 001

However, Geely Holding Group is the king of brands in China. It has nine, including Zeekr, Geely, Geometry, Radar, Lynk & Co, LEVC (London Cab Company), Farizon, and of course, Volvo and Polestar. It’s also now the majority owner of Lotus. This doesn’t even count its joint venture tie-ups via Proton, Smart, Kandi, Jidu (Baidu), and Livan (Lifan), or its recently deceased Gleagle, Englon, Shanghai Maple (which died in 2012 but came back in 2020 for exactly two model years before becoming Livian), Zhidou, and Emgrand brands.

And then, there’s Zeekr. Although it’s definitely a part of the Geely family, and technically a sister brand to the rest of the brands, it kind of sits away from the rest of the brands, specifically Volvo and Polestar. 

Zeekr was created in 2020 as a premium EV manufacturer, meant to go against NIO, Tesla, and the growing number of more upscale “new energy” brands in China. It sounds confusing, especially since we’ve all been told that Polestar and Volvo should occupy that same spot, but the folks at Zeekr claim that the brand is aimed squarely at China’s middle-class citizens.

To make matters even more confusing, the Zeekr 001 was originally a Lynk & Co concept, and thus that bi-level Dodge Charger crossed with Nissan Juke front fascia might look pretty familiar to other folks familiar with the Geely brands. I could understand how someone would think that Zeekr is simply a Chinese equivalent to Pontiac, a dumping ground selling pointless rebadges of cars sold elsewhere in the brand. 

Gallery: Zeekr 001 FR

No, Zeekr is way more important than that. As verified both in person and in e-mail, Zeekr is actually responsible for much of Geely Group’s platform and software development. “Many technologies developed by Zeekr will be shared with other brands in Geely Group,” wrote Yilei Sun, a representative of Zeekr.

Namely, Zeekr took the lead on the development of the SEA (Sustainable Experience Architecture), the ground-up EV platform that will underpin nearly every future Geely, Volvo, and Polestar EV, either straight on or revised and modified by their respective brands. For example, the Lotus Emeya and Eletre use an upgraded version of SEA called EPA. Likewise, it’s speculated that the six-figure 250,000 Polestar 5 will use a heavily modified version of the SEA platform. 

Interestingly, Zeekr is one of Geely’s stronger brands. Since the introduction of its first model, the Zeekr 001 in late 2021, the division has delivered more than 100,000 cars. Growth has only continued to increase as the brand has introduced more models, the 009 luxury MPV and the Zeekr X crossover, which shares a lot in common with the Volvo EX30. In Q3 of this year, Zeekr is outselling Polestar at a roughly 3 to 1 ratio, some 36,395 vehicles compared to Polestar’s 13,900 units. That’s impressive considering that Zeekr really only exists in China, whereas Polestar is sold in North America, China, and continental Europe. 

Gallery: Zeekr 009

Most relevant to us here in North America is the fact that Zeekr is responsible for the M-Vision concept and prototype, an EV developed explicitly for self-driving and developed in collaboration with Waymo. Like GM’s Cruise Origin, the Zeekr M-Vision is a B-pillarless, open-concept concept rolling self-driving living room. A non-functioning show car showed its face at the 2021 LA Auto Show, but Zeekr says that functional prototypes have been in Waymo’s hands for testing for a short while now.

Basically, this ain’t the first time Zeekr’s been in the United States. But why was it here again?

So, Why The Heck Are We Here?

I cleared my schedule, and eventually, I made it to NYC despite not being able to confirm any accommodations until the 11th hour, about a day and a half before the event started. After spending an evening in Times Square, of all places, my Midwest self woke up at 7 a.m. stumbled past the Margaritaville, figured out the subway, and took a train to Hudson Yards. From there, I was put in a van with a small handful of other media folks and whisked away well outside of the city to Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. Zeekr had rented the private country club-turned-racetrack just for us to look at its cars. 

Of course, any sort of automotive media event is rife with company representatives, engineers, logistics, and support staff that vastly outnumber the media attendees. Still, the delta between the two felt unusually large, as if we were swimming in a sea of Zeeker employees who smiling, earnestly waiting to see what any of the media or investors in the room were going to say about its operations. There were only eight or so guests of Zeekr, but the room was full of Zeekr employees from China and Gothenburg, all clad in the same white and red ZEEKR jacket. It’s almost as if there were at least ten Zeekr representatives per attendee, a little overwhelming considering I still didn’t have much of a clue as to why anyone was here in the first place. All these folks? For moi

Gallery: Zeekr X

Zeekr showed up with three cars: the same non-functional show car prototype of the Vision-M, and two of the four models it now has on sale: the 001 luxury wagon, and the 009 Luxury MPV. The 001 and 009 were directly from China, complete with Chinese characters on the buttons, infotainment screens, badges, and gauge clusters. Unlike Polestar, which has yet to beat the “just a Volvo” allegations, Zeekr vehicles feel and look so much different than anything you can get at a Volvo dealer or Polestar Store. I can understand why the brand is so damn popular in China, and why Zeekr is expanding into Europe and beyond. These products feel fresh, new, and most of all, compelling. 

But this was clearly more than just a “Taste of China”-style sampling of Zeekr’s product line. We clearly didn’t all get flown in or trucked in to listen to a PowerPoint about sales goals and expectations or chat about Zeekr’s tangle with Mobileye or CATL. The brand could have easily added the handful of media folks to one of the press events drives of the 001 and X in Europe. It certainly would have been cheaper and easier to do that, rather than rent out a private race track and fly in more than two dozen staff from China to support the event, no? 

But Not America… Right? 

After thrashing the 001 and 009 around Monticello for a few laps, I returned to the paddock of the racetrack, back to the smiling Zeekr staff, keen to know how the laps went and what I thought of the cars. In most contexts, this would be a perfectly normal thing for a company’s representative to ask a journalist to sample their vehicles. But the questions Zeekr chose to ask felt more as if the brand was genuinely asking for its own reconnaissance purposes. It didn’t feel like the Zeekr representatives were explicitly trying to head off a journalist’s whims, setting them straight to ensure they got a proper impression of their product. The tone of the questions was less of a “Did you like this?” and more of a” Do you see yourself here?” Maybe I’m misreading, but my conversation with a Zeekr representative only furthered my hunch. 

“Hey, I appreciate the opportunity to sample some cars we don’t get here in the US, without having to leave the country, but I have to ask, why are you here?” I asked Yilei Sun, a Zeekr representative. 

He leveled with me. Zeekr’s event was partially because the brand is planning a U.S. IPO. A few days after the press trip, Zeekr did in fact announce its intention to go public.

It was refreshing how candid and earnest the Zeekr staff was with me. Unlike other press events, where every journalist is playing tongue-twisters with PR staff, hoping they give us a morsel of information that isn’t just a press release with more words, Zeekr’s staff was all too willing to answer questions. Maybe, a little too willing. Because a few days after returning home things got a little murky.

“So, since the brand is angling for a U.S. public offering, and expanding into other markets outside of China, does that mean that Zeekr is bound for the United States outside of the M-Vision self-driving car?” I asked Sun. But the answers I got in person and the answers I got via email weren’t the same at all.

In person, the answer was a definite maybe. Sun and I chatted about Zeekr’s expansion intentions and the roadblocks that would come with an entry into the U.S. market. If it were to enter the market, it would likely do so with the 001. However, there are homologation, and software alterations that would need to happen before it comes here.

Then there are the obvious geopolitical tensions that make exporting and manufacturing any Zeekr cars in China hard. Yet, that was all spoken in a way that felt as if those issues were very much surmountable. 

A few days later, I sent an email just to confirm a few things, and a different Zeekr representative said this: “We currently have no plan to sell consumer vehicles in the United States.”

Hmm. Was someone on the Zeekr team a little too imaginative, creating a story about Zeekr entering the US when no one else has? Or, did I get a loose-lipped PR representative who accidentally said a little too much? I would be more inclined to believe that Zeekr had no US plans if it hadn’t released a fleet of curated spy shots on Chinese social media of the pre-reveal Zeekr 007 rolling around San Fransisco, mere days after its U.S. press event. Regardless of whether or not the pictures are computer renderings or real spy shots, it feels like Zeekr wants something to do with the U.S. outside of its agreement with Waymo.

I could be wrong. NIO, Xpeng, and BYD all have offices here in the U.S., and it’s not uncommon to see a stray Chinese market car rolling around with manufacturer plates in some places. Just the other day, I saw a BYD Song Plus driving around about a quarter mile from BYD’s Pasadena office out in California.

It’s an open secret that they’re all keeping a close watch on our tariffs and on often-difficult U.S.-China relations, all in hopes of pouncing on one of the world’s most important and lucrative markets when the time is right. However, unlike NIO and Xpeng, Geely and Zeekr have an agreement with a U.S. tech company, Waymo, to supply it with a vehicle. Could this be a back door to selling cars here in the US?

We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? It certainly won’t be easy. But I doubt any of us have heard the last of Zeekr in America.

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