Road tests

New BYD Dolphin UK review

Not a thrilling drive but otherwise the BYD Dolphin a thoroughly well resolved small electric car package that doesn’t feel cheap, but is

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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BYD’s smallest, cheapest offering still manages to score big on space and value. It’s far from the last word in involvement but then, none of its rivals can claim to be much fun either. And away from epic B-roads, customers should find plenty of appeal in the Dolphin’s packaging, bigger-battery range, in-car tech and solid build quality. It’s a really impressive compact EV, at an attractive price.

We’re still waiting for BYD to really make the first big gaffe of its European onslaught. The Atto 3 small SUV got proceedings off to an encouraging start for the battery giant turned car manufacturer, and our recent drive of the Seal shows the firm has a proper Tesla Model 3 rival on the way later this year. But what of the Dolphin? Could BYD’s baby be the one to trip up? It’s time to find out how it fares on UK roads.

To recap, the Dolphin is an offering that tries - and, on paper, succeeds - at breaking a few conventions about the combination of vehicle size, battery capacity, range, standard kit and pricing. Even base versions of the car, priced from £26,195, get a 45kWh battery that’s good for 211 miles of range, a 12.8-inch (rotatable) infotainment screen, vegan-leather upholstery and alloy wheels.

The heartland of the range mixes a larger 60kWh battery and a 201bhp front-mounted motor – so exactly the same combo as that featured in all Atto 3s. BYD claims a WLTP range figure of up to 265 miles and this edition, badged Dolphin Comfort, also gets slightly faster charging, heated front seats and front parking sensors.

Plenty of brands will charge you comfortably north of £30,000 for an electric supermini with a smaller battery and less range than this, but the Dolphin Comfort comes in at £30,195. And even the range-topping Dolphin Design that we’re driving here, complete with two-tone paint, a full-length panoramic roof, rear privacy glass and a wireless smartphone-charging pad, costs just £31,695. For context, the entry point to the Peugeot e-208 range begins where the Dolphin maxes out – and VW’s family-sized EV, the ID.3, is a further £4k beyond that point.

Climb aboard the Dolphin and you’ll find an environment that resists feeling cheap, while simultaneously never coming close to being premium. There’s padding in all of the areas you might interact with, and all of the switches have a solid feel to them. In some ways, in fact, the approach to the Dolphin’s cabin is a more mature evolution of the Atto 3’s, with a slightly more logical layout and, for example, conventional door pockets instead of the larger model’s oddball ‘guitar strings’.

The fascia is dominated, of course, by the central display, which is in effect the smaller of the two items available in the Atto 3. We’re not exactly fans of its ability to rotate between portrait and landscape layouts, but there’s no doubting the processing grunt behind it, because even with a few interface foibles, BYD’s system is snappier and quicker to respond than anything you’ll find in a Vauxhall, Peugeot or VW. The firm doesn’t appear shy of issuing over-the-air updates, either – so the experience is likely to get even better in due course.

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Four grown-ups should be comfortable on board, with leg and headroom befitting of a car that actually does a good job of disguising its size (you could be fooled into thinking it’s a supermini, when in fact it’s slightly longer than the ID.3). As such, the BYD’s boot is perhaps a little on the small side, at 345 litres – a sign of how cabin space has been prioritised over load capacity. But it’s a sensible shape and should still be big enough for a family’s full weekly shopping.

There’s better news on the move, for the Dolphin inherits many of the well-resolved characteristics of the Atto 3. The electric motor has more than enough punch for a car of this size, with 310Nm of instant torque delivering a 0-62mph time (seven seconds) that would have catapulted it into hot-hatch territory only a year or two ago. It can’t back up this pace with driver involvement, but the inert steering still manages to be direct enough to make it easy to position the Dolphin on the road.

The ride is surprisingly accomplished too, thanks in part to standard multi-link rear suspension on all but the entry version (plenty of cars of this size make do with a simple torsion beam that’s more easily caught out by drain covers and potholes). Its worst enemy is a mid-corner change of surface or camber, which can be enough to encourage the unashamedly soft set-up to wallow itself out of phase. 

If you’re vicious with the throttle then you can induce a bit of torque steer, or even a chirp as the front tyres scrabble to cope with the instant torque – but in general the Dolphin will hang on gamely when provoked on all but the bumpiest of back roads. 

BYD’s launch cars have been equipped with humorously titled LingLong Comfort Master tyres – but the firm says all but the first few Dolphins to be delivered to UK customers should feature Hankook rubber instead. Having tried both, we’re satisfied that this is a win for British buyers, since the LingLongs risk making a well-sorted package feel like a budget one.

Model: BYD Dolphin Design
Price: £31,695
Powertrain: 60kWh battery, 1x e-motor
Power/torque: 201bhp/310Nm
Transmission: Single-speed auto, front-wheel drive
0-62mph: 7.0 seconds
Top speed: 100mph
Range: 265 miles
Charging: 88kW (30-80% in 29min)
On sale: Now

John started journalism reporting on motorsport – specifically rallying, which he had followed avidly since he was a boy. After a stint as editor of weekly motorsport bible Autosport, he moved across to testing road cars. He’s now been reviewing cars and writing news stories about them for almost 20 years.

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