Road tests

New Nio EL7 review

It may never make it to the UK, but our drive in the Nio EL7 suggests buyers should sit up and take notice when its manufacturer does

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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Verdict

Nio is a car brand that’s doing things differently, but don’t assume it’s relying on gimmicks to mask any lack of underlying substance. At this stage, the Nio EL7 doesn’t look like being a priority for the brand’s mooted 2025 UK launch but it serves as a useful guide to Nio’s competitiveness nonetheless. This is a solid, if slightly quirky, premium SUV that easily matches rivals on quality and performance. Factor-in battery swapping, a super-generous equipment list, advanced driver assistance tech and that odd little robot on the dash and Nio is definitely going to get itself noticed.

Nio will soon be selling cars in the UK. So we’d better get ready for an alternative vision of how the transition to electric cars will play out. The big thing with Nio is battery swapping and it’s built a network of around 900 battery swap stations around China that serve as proof of its commitment.

With Nio, you can charge your car’s battery as normal but if you’re really in a hurry you can drive into a metal box, that looks a little like a car wash, and have your empty battery automatically swapped for a full one in around five minutes.

The Nio EL7 (known as the ES7 in China, but Audi complained that was too close to its S-badged cars for Europe) is a family-size premium SUV with battery swapping tech built-in. It’s already on sale in European markets like Germany and Holland where the brand has launched, and is busy establishing its Power Swap battery swap stations - 14 in Europe so far with plans for another 70 by the end of 2023. This car may come to the UK in time, but our conversations with Nio suggest we’re more likely to be treated to the Nio ET5 saloon and possibly the new EL6 (ES6 in China) - a slightly smaller SUV model launched at the 2023 Shanghai Motor Show - when Nio does arrive here around 2025.

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Priced at just under 74,000 euros in Germany (about £65,500) the EL7 then requires a monthly payment to lease the battery from Nio. It’s about £150 for the 75kWh unit or £255 for a 100kWh version. The major advantage of leasing is that you can use the battery swap technology and get unlimited battery swaps at no extra charge (until the end of 2023). If you choose to buy your EL7 with the battery included, the list price jumps to 85,900 euros (about £76,000) for the 75kWh car or 94,900 euros (about £84,000) for the 100kWh version and there’ll be no battery swapping available - you just charge like a normal EV.

At that kind of price point, the Nio EL7 is a rival for other large premium electric SUVs like the Audi Q8 e-tron and the Mercedes EQE SUV. Nio really does give you a lot of equipment as standard compared to cars like this, too. The unusual lumps in the roof line hide just some of the sensors around the car that power a suite of advanced driver assistance systems, there’s a full length panoramic sunroof that opens extremely wide and the car feels generally packed with technology, from the ambient lighting to the 23-speaker hi-fi system.

The official WLTP combined cycle range is 243 miles with the smaller battery and 361 miles with the 100kWh option, though the 75kWh can charge at up to 140kW where the 100kWh only offers 125kW charging. You’ll be able to go from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in around 30 minutes with the smaller battery connected to a fast charger.

When you get inside the EL7, you may well notice Nomi before anything else. Nomi is Nio’s ‘artificial intelligence digital assistant’ and it takes the form of a black sphere, a little smaller than a tennis ball that sits on top of the dash in a little mount. It rotates from side to side, a pair of digitally animated oval eyes blinking out at you and occasionally putting on headphones, blowing bubbles or getting up to other kinds of cute shenanigans. It’s basically a physical manifestation of the Nio EL7’s voice control system and once that little novelty has warn off you’ll start to realise why you and Nomi are going to get well acquainted.

Nio has gone down the minimalist path with the EL7’s interior so, in true Tesla style, there are very few buttons. One slim letter-box-shaped screen sits ahead of the driver displaying basic info, then there’s a large touchscreen in the centre that does pretty much everything else. The only buttons are on the steering wheel and next to the drive mode selector. You can, of course, ask Nomi but the alternative is ploughing through the touchscreen menus in search of the function you’re after.

This is fine when you’re parked. The screen is crisp and very fast to respond, but it doesn’t feel like much thought has been given to making it easy to use at a glance when you’re driving and attention needs to be on the road. The important icons have larger areas to press but there’s still a lot on the screen at the same time in some views with small text and icons that are likely to distract attention. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, either.

Elsewhere around the cabin, quality is impressive, the Nio EL7 can certainly live with premium brand German alternatives in terms of materials and build quality. Just as the minimal design takes a different approach to the norm, however, so do the material choices. Our test car had some highly funky wood-effect white plastic on the centre console and doors that you would not find in a Mercedes. Family buyers might worry about how this is going to cope with hard use, and the same goes for the suede-effect covering for the dash - tactile though it is.

There’s no glovebox and the cup holders in the centre console, next to the cut-out charging area for your phone, are on the small side. Bigger bottles will have to go elsewhere and that means either the deep bin under the centre arm rest or in the door pockets - there isn’t anywhere else to put larger items. The passenger seat is something special though, with a foot rest and an extension to the seat base that fold out electronically for a business class-style experience.

The rear seats offer a lot of legroom and even with the panoramic glass roof eating into space, headroom is fine for adults of six feet tall or more. Only very tall, or very well coiffed, occupants are going to be rubbing the headlining. The outer seats are a good size for adults while the middle one is narrow and better suited to kids or just for the armrest to fold out over. There’s a touchscreen for those in the rear to tweak the temperature controls but, again, not a lot of storage. There’s some in that centre arm rest, where you’ll also find a single USB charge point, and small door pockets - but there are no pockets in the seat backs.

In the boot area, you’ve got a powered tailgate that opens to reveal a large flat floor - great for sliding items inside - with 570 litres of space. You can either leave the floor at that level and store your cables in the compartment below (there isn’t a frunk) or lower the floor, creating a load lip and extra carrying capacity for the main boot. The back seats split 60/40 and fold down almost flat, enlarging the boot to 1,545 litres.

The typical SUV shape of the EL7 is perfect for Nio to implement its battery swapping technology with the high floor creating space for the removable battery beneath. It also yields a fairly typical SUV driving position, high up for a good view out but not too upright. The exterior design isn’t really anything to write home about and you could mistake the classic SUV lines for those of a Porsche Cayenne from the rear. At the front, only the trademark super-slim headlights do much to add some originality. 

The EL7’s driver is confronted by a small-ish, thick rimmed steering wheel that feels good in the hands. Once you get moving you’re treated to a simulated driving noise at low speed, it sounds like a cat’s standing on the keys of your harpsichord and refusing to move. At higher speeds this disappears and there’s basically only the wind noise to disrupt the hush in the cabin. The sound of small stones flying up and hitting the wheel arches or the underside of the car is unusually prominent in the EL7, perhaps an absence of soundproofing to facilitate the battery swap tech, but it’s only really noticeable on loose surfaces.

The steering has a pleasant amount of weight and provokes reasonably lively responses in this hefty (2,346kg with the 75kWh battery) SUV. In the corners, you wouldn’t call it nimble but it hangs on well and doesn’t get too unsettled by quick weight transfers. The brakes are easy to modulate and the same goes for the throttle, it’s simple to drive smoothly without jerkiness - something that some EVs have tended to struggle with. The ride is also good, although bigger bumps do send a slight shudder through the EL7’s body.

And as for the performance, the Nio EL7 is extremely rapid. It has 644bhp and 850Nm of torque distributed by a dual-motor 4x4 system, enough for a 3.9-second 0-62mph time. There are Sport and Sport + modes above the basic comfort setting, but these really just give you access to progressively more of the EL7’s thrust. It’s properly fast in a straight line with Sport + selected and will give plenty of more performance-focused SUVs a run for their money in a drag race. It could challenge a lot of them in the basic desirability stakes too, if Nio did ever bring it to the UK at the right price point.

Model:Nio EL7
Price:74,000 euros plus battery lease payments
Motors/battery:2 electric motors/75kWh
Power/torque:644bhp/850Nm
Transmission:Single-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
0-62mph:3.9 seconds
Top speed:124mph
Range:243 miles
Charging:140kW (10-80% 30mins)
On sale:N/A
Group website editor

Steve looks after the Auto Express website; planning new content, growing online traffic and managing the web team. He’s been a motoring journalist, road tester and editor for over 20 years, contributing to titles including MSN Cars, Auto Trader, The Scotsman and The Wall Street Journal.