BYD Dolphin review: trapped in the fishing nets of disappointment

The first thing I thought when I looked at that, was ‘dolphin’.

Admit it, it’s just quite nice to have a car with an actual name rather than a slew of numbers or something made-up. Even if it is a bit daft. And not quite as silly-sounding as the forthcoming BYD Seal.

But the Dolphin is the first of the Chinese manufacturer’s ‘Ocean Series’ models, and the first to adopt what BYD is calling the ‘Ocean Aesthetics’ design concept. And yes, the little C-segment electric hatch you’re staring at really is supposed to be inspired both figuratively and imaginatively by a dolphin. Insert whichever pithy seafaring joke you want here.

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So if it’s not a dolphin, what is it?

The reality is a small, five-seat EV hatch with a decently spacious interior, generous kit and proper range… that looks nothing like a dolphin. In the UK we get the larger 60.4kWh battery first which provides 265 miles of WLTP range, followed next year by the 44.9kWh version with either 211 or 193 miles depending on spec.

Four grades: Active (93bhp), Boost (174bhp), Comfort and Design, the first two with the smaller battery and two power outputs, the latter pair both with the same motor and 201bhp, plus more kit as you walk up the set.

As for headline pricing, the base Active car starts at £25,490, with the range-topping Design hitting the dizzying heights of £30,990. So not quite the affordable car that some of us were hoping for.

Seeing as the Dolphin has been launched in Australia as the country’s cheapest electric car, we may have been hoping for more of the less: in Aus, the Dolphin starts at $38,390 Australian dollars, which is just over twenty grand in sterling. Hmmm. But then the MG4 is cheaper in Australia, so maybe that’s not such a big deal. 

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Let’s talk about two-tone.

On the outside, the Dolphin is actually pretty conservative and inoffensive enough to get away with most things. There are shades of Honda Jazz-esque surfacing in parts, clean-but-bland, livened up by a selection of two-tone paintjobs in seven perky colour-combos.

There are those among us who will no doubt love the interesting pink. That side profile is supposed to resemble a leaping dolphin, by the way, but it doesn’t. It’s also supposed to look ‘safe and welcoming’ while exuding a sense of ‘fun and agility’. TG says it definitely looks safe…

… until you get to the inside. 

Ah yes, as with the bigger-brother Atto 3 SUV, the Dolphin seems to compress all the creativity into the cabin. And largely successfully. It’s a playful interior with a big rotating 12.8-inch touchscreen in the middle (although the software is a bit all over the place), little driver’s display up front and some very interesting shapes and colours, most carried through from the outside.

The pink car has a very pink dash, for instance, which makes it feel largely like driving around inside Barbie’s brain. Even the doorhandles are swoopily-shaped like a dolphin’s flipper, which is kitschy in a weird way. The gear selector is a vertical wheel on the centre console – feels a bit cheap, that – but everything else seems nice enough, and space is good. 

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Actually space is quite impressive, given the footprint of the car. Head, leg, elbow room, as well as plenty of volume for backseat passengers. The boot isn’t massive at 345 litres, but it’s big for this size of car. In general though, it’s got a nice mix of textures and shapes – including ‘vegan leather’ which is, erm… plastic. And the front seats are really very comfy – bonus points for that.

If you want the big panoramic roof though you have to head for the top-spec Design, and it’s worth doing: it really brightens up the interior, unsurprisingly. 

It’s got decent range and a clever battery though!

There’s more good stuff in terms of the hardware, too. BYD is a Big Company back in China, with reams of battery expertise. The Dolphin’s ‘Blade’ battery is an LFP unit, so different chemistry to most (but not all, the standard-range MG4 has an LFP battery), and it’s demonstrably safer, capable of heavier cycles and has better thermal stability (which means more efficiency).

There’s a neat eight-in-one electric powertrain that packages the VCU, battery management, power distribution unit, drive motor and its controller, transmission, DC-to-DC converter and onboard charger into one unit, as well as a heat pump and vehicle-to-load system as standard. There’s also advanced battery conditioning that could see a 15 per cent increase in thermal efficiency in winter, which will make a huge difference when trying to tease a little more real-world range out of the thing in a frigid February. This is all good stuff. 

As far as charging goes, it’s a bit average. With 88kW DC, you’re looking at 29 minutes from 30-80 per cent, which sounds fine, but most competitors manage half an hour-ish from 10-80 per cent. A sleight-of-hand with the stats there from BYD. Still, the better pair of grades also get 11kW AC, so if you find a higher-power three-phase supply, it’ll charge up respectably. TG suspects that most owners will be the stay-at-home charge types though, so that’s not quite the issue that some people would have you believe. 

What’s it like to drive, then?

The Dolphin’s biggest issue comes with the driving. Full disclosure: the cars on the international launch of the Dolphin were all set in some sort of factory transport mode which doped the accelerator and delivery to comatose levels. A full pedal-to-carpet moment brought a full two seconds of nothing, followed by a throttle ramp measured in thousands of metres. On TG’s test, we toiled around Madrid city-centre being out-accelerated by bicycles. Intensely frustrating, and means that we’ll have to re-visit the car at some point. Interestingly, despite loads of cars all apparently suffering the same malaise and multiple people driving from the manufacturer, not a single person noticed or reported it until the UK wave. 

Still, two things stood out about the rest of the dynamic abilities of the Dolphin. First, it’s very obviously set up for ride comfort. It’ll suck up potholes and big bumps like a champ, filtering out the worst of the small stuff without a problem. Which is very nice if you’re urban-based. But the second thing you notice is that the car trades off any handling ability for that suppleness.

Go even slightly faster and it all falls to bits, offering a complete gamut of dynamic FWD weirdness; there’s actually enough grip, but the Dolphin will understeer at times, feel like it’s going to oversteer at others (at mild speed), buck if there’s a mid-corner bump and yes, it’ll porpoise over its own diagonal line (no pun intended) when faced with changing camber.

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The brakes are also almost wilfully inconsistent – which feels like an issue with the pedal sensitivity in relation to the regenerative braking – and the steering completely uninterested in having a relationship with the front wheels.

And this wasn’t at terrifying or ridiculous performance car speed, just brisk driving on a twisty road. In fact, it felt a bit like the kind of unresolved performance delivered by the GWM Ora Funky Cat, suggesting that Chinese manufacturers might be better off employing a few more local engineers to set the cars for specific markets. Given that some of the impressions of the car seem largely satisfied with the handling, TG will drive a car again in the UK to see if the car was quietly broken – and not just hampered by software.

Put simply, the rear-wheel drive MG4 feels set up for UK roads and preferences; the Dolphin feels like a ‘world car’ that suits very few. And we know that the MG4 (owned by another Chinese company, SAIC) took on some UK suspension bods. It paid dividends.

Unfortunately, the Dolphin does also act a bit like it’s natural namesake in the fact that it’s always whistling, tooting and making some sort of noise. The advanced driver assistance systems are incredibly intrusive, maddeningly hard to switch off and not entirely gone when you do. The amount of times you may well find yourself interrogating the screens trying to divine what the faint electronic warning hoot was is actually more dangerous than a lack of interruption.

You love it, don’t you? You really love it.

Bluntly, the BYD Dolphin simply feels unfinished. Or at least like a basic V.1. And that’s judging the car without the software issue that means we’ve not actually tested the performance at all. The dampers and springs need to actually work together to do more than just jellify potholes, the steering needs a slug of optimism that it might actually turn the car when you want it to. The braking at light loads needs consistency through the pedal and someone needs to either dial in the advanced driver-assistance systems or stick in a very obvious button that switches them off.

This is all possible, and would then complement a car that looks fine, has great hardware, a creative and fun interior and impressive space for the footprint. 

But the killer issue is that the Dolphin also weighs in at far more than we’d – secretly – hoped. You might assume that BYD would want to hit the UK/European market hard by giving us all the good stuff with aggressive pricing, attaining a beachhead in a market that knows precious little about the brand. MG showed exactly how to do that. Instead, the Dolphin undercuts the MG4 by a scant few quid, and it’s not a patch on that car. If the Dolphin had appeared for £20-25k, we’d forgive an awful lot. But it isn’t, so we won’t. 

TG will test again when the car is in the UK and update our findings – but for now, this Dolphin isn’t ready to be released into the wild just yet.

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