Electric Cars

2020 Byton M-Byte prototype first drive review: Avoiding the 'fake sports car trap'

We take a spin in Byton's electric M-Byte prototype to see how the company's modest performance claims hold up in a world of Ludicrous Speeds and Track Modes.

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Look for the production M-Byte to debut at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

After a surprise debut at CES in 2018, Byton's M-Byte electric SUV continues to speed toward a production debut. On the road to launching the M-Byte, the automaker has made pit stops to share details about its electric powertrain, the heavy emphasis on connectivity and autonomy and the electric crossover's insane array of dashboard and steering wheel displays. Byton's M-Byte inches ever closer to production. But now, I finally find myself behind the wheel.

At the close of Monterey Car Week, I was invited to an airport runway in Salinas, California, to drive a prototype of the upcoming 2020 M-Byte. The automaker has built about 100 prototypes so far at its plant in Nanjing, China, for performance, crash, durability and corrosion tests. The particular car I was to put through its paces on a closed course is what the automaker calls "the ride and handling golden car," the prototype closest to production intent for measuring chassis setup. 

Of course, close doesn't mean complete. Byton's engineers are still fine-tuning and tweaking the M-Byte's hardware and software, presumably right up to its expected 2020 launch.

The 'fake sports car' trap

In a world where Elon's EVs boast Ludicrous speed and Track Mode, the M-Byte's goals are much more modest. Byton CTO and Chief Vehicle Engineer David Twohig explained the automaker's more "realistic" approach to performance while stressing that driving fundamentals are not an afterthought for brand.

"Delivering lap times around race circuits doesn't matter," said Twohig, "but excellent ride quality really does matter. You still need a fundamentally good car. You still need to know how to engineer a powertrain. You still need excellent chassis engineers."

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The camo-wrapped "ride and handling golden car" is the M-Byte prototype closest to production intent for measuring chassis setup.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

We learned previously that the M-Byte would be available in two configurations: a rear-wheel drive model with a single, 268-horsepower electric motor, and an all-wheel-drive setup with dual e-motors totaling 470 horsepower. You might think that nearly 500 ponies is anything but modest, but Twohig explains how Byton is trying to avoid what he calls the "fake sports car trap."

"We've got a car with a lot of power and a lot of torque, so it can accelerate like hell," said Twohig. "And so the next temptation for engineers is to say, 'Well, it accelerates, so we're going to put in stiff springs, antiroll bars, stiff dampers and pretend that it's a sports car.'"

"Except, it's not a sports car," Twohig continues, explaining that the M-Byte is a heavy, midsize SUV with a big battery that will mostly be driven in high-traffic urban environments where most customers will expect a smooth and comfortable ride. Falling into that "fake sports car trap" means Byton would have to then add a costly adaptive suspension and a comfort mode to meet (or potentially compromise) the needs of its real world buyers. "At-the-limit handling, sub-3-second 0-to-60 times, it's a little bit academic. Yeah, it's kind of cool, but the actual day-to-day customer does not use that stuff," Twohig said.

Switching gears, Twohig states that, "On the other hand, if you decide from day one that what you want to do is make the right car -- not a race car, not a sports car, but the right car -- setup well with passive components, it'll work well everywhere. A good suspension setup is always a good suspension setup. A bad suspension setup needs switches, adaptive drive modes, etcetera. Our decision was to make a great riding car -- a comfortable and quiet car. It's not going to set lap records on Laguna Seca, it's not built for that."

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The M-Byte is a heavy SUV thanks to its big battery pack, but Byton's engineers tried to use its low center of mass to optimize handling.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Which is why, according to Byton, the M-Byte rides on a fairly soft, traditional, passive suspension rather than a complex active damper or air-ride setup. It's also why the M-Byte won't offer lateral torque vectoring at launch. Byton reckons that its customers aren't going to be cornering hard enough to make it worth the expense and that the regular fore-to-aft torque shifting is good enough for slippery weather grip.

Balancing ride with handling

It might seem like all of that is Byton trying to set a low bar for performance expectations -- that's what I thought -- but the M-Byte is still a fairly potent performer. Of course, a limited test drive with an unfinished prototype on a small runway is no substitute for a true road test, but my hope is that this will give us a peak at what we can expect next year.

The gobs of electric torque helps to mask the M-Byte's weight somewhat with good off-the-line thrust and a very responsive accelerator pedal feel. Tossing the electric SUV around a cone course with Byton's Director of Chassis and Vehicle Dynamics Damian Harty riding shotgun, I noticed that the M-Byte's heavy battery pack keeps the center of gravity low, helping to keep the SUV feeling flat and planted through slaloms and around corners, despite the soft suspension tune. The M-Byte's weight is also fairly well-balanced between its axles, which helps with predictable steering feel and evenly distributed grip when settling into sweeping bends and quick simulated lane changes. 

But if you push the SUV hard enough, the soft suspension and weight eventually reassert themselves in the form of light body roll and slight understeer near the limit. Thankfully, the transition is progressive and predictable, making the M-Byte stable even when driven slightly ham-fistedly.

The steering is responsive enough. It's a tad light for my taste, but I think that's on brand for this class of vehicle. Plus, the light feel combined with the M-Byte's fairly tight 19.5-foot turning radius made the SUV easy to maneuver at low speeds, feeling quite light on its toes for a vehicle of its size.

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According to Twohig, "[The M-Byte] is not going to set lap records on Laguna Seca, it's not built for that."

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

For the demonstration drive, Byton set the prototype M-Byte's regenerative braking to a moderate level -- noticeable upon lifting, but not the one-pedal driving style that I've come to love when driving EVs. The production car will allow the driver to customize their level of regen via an on-screen menu and vary its level of energy recapture depending on a variety of factors ranging from the battery's current charge state to how quickly the accelerator pedal was released. 

However, the brake pedal is tied directly to the traditional hydraulic friction brake system. Harty, explained that, "Whatever you do with the pedal adds to whatever the regen system is doing. We want the brake pedal to always feel consistent. Performance confusion on the brakes is not something I want to engineer into a car." I have to agree based on how, well, normal the brakes felt during my test.

Unconventional cockpit displays

I was primarily invited to check out the the M-Byte's handling and performance, but I have to talk about its mega-wide, 48-inch dashboard display and wacky 7-inch multitouch display floating just in front of the steering wheel.

The prototype's interior was incomplete and so I wasn't allowed to photograph the dashboard. It wouldn't have mattered much as the screens were mostly blank during my testing, displaying only basic information like speed, time and, presumably, diagnostic information. I found it very easy to focus on the road ahead -- whether that will be the case once that screen fills up with a huge map and other information remains to be seen.

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I wasn't able to photograph the prototype interior, but it should look like this when the production model debuts later this year.

Byton

I can say that, once I started rolling, it was fairly easy to see over the screen -- which is situated lower in the dashboard than I initially imagined -- to see right down the SUV's hood to the road ahead.

Turning the steering wheel, however, I noticed that my thumb would occasionally brush against the corner of the floating center display. Harty explained that the automaker was still experimenting with the wheel size balancing clearance with ease of reaching for buttons flanking the display. However, he agreed that the prototype's wheel was a bit small and assured me that the production M-Byte would roll with a slightly larger steering hoop. 

Debuting (again) in Frankfurt

Byton has come further than many EV startups in the last few years, but there are still many questions that need to be answered before anyone can call the M-Byte a success: How will that bizarre cockpit hold up during daily driving? Will the EV meet its 250-to-325-mile range expectations? Can Byton deliver on its autonomy and connectivity promises?

However it shakes out, it's heartening to see that Byton is making realistic performance claims for the M-Byte. And delivering on those claims in a gratifying way -- even just at this prototype stage -- feels like a small victory for the brand. With the electric SUV space rapidly filling up with models like the Audi E-Tron and the Mercedes-Benz EQC, Byton will need every win it can get.

We'll be seeing more of the Byton M-Byte soon. The automaker will be holding a press conference during the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show next week where we expect to get a look at the production-ready vehicle. 

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