The Hongqi S9 is the start of a new chapter in China’s automotive story

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China’s original state-owned automaker, First Automobile Works (FAW), has revealed the first electric vehicle that’s part of the government’s massive Belt and Road project. The Hongqi S9 is a 1,400-horsepower hybrid hypercar created in partnership with Italian engineering and design startup Silk EV.

The car was first teased in February, but the two companies gave it a proper debut at Auto Shanghai 2021 this week. FAW and Silk EV are only making 99 of them and will start taking orders by the end of this year. They didn’t announce a price tag and also didn’t share many specs for the S9 (besides that the internal combustion engine will be a V8). It was designed by Walter de Silva, known for his past work with Alfa Romeo, Audi, Volkswagen, and Lamborghini.

The S9 is meant to serve as a halo car above future fully electric vehicles that FAW will develop in China and in Italy as part of the joint venture with Silk EV — an effort that is backed by some of China’s biggest banks. It’s being developed under FAW’s Hongqi brand, or “red flag,” which the automaker first started using when it pretty much exclusively made cars for high-ranking Chinese government officials, including Mao Zedong.

FAW has said it wants to make Hongqi into China’s first global car brand. There are a number of electric vehicle startups trying to do the same thing — Xpeng has started shipping small volumes of its EVs to Europe, for instance — though they don’t have access to the same scope of resources that a state-owned automaker can tap. (FAW itself even backed one of these startups, Byton. But after Byton ran into financial trouble, FAW has since reportedly absorbed the startup, and offices in the US and Germany have been closed).

And as part of China’s Belt and Road, which involves infrastructure projects of various sizes all across Asia, Europe, and Africa, the Silk-FAW joint venture has the benefit of becoming part of the Chinese government’s larger narrative for the initiative of creating diplomatic and economic opportunities.

While Italy makes sense as a place to develop such a car, being the home of Ferrari and Lamborghini, it was also the first G7 nation to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative. So what is starting out as a curious, limited-run hypercar just may be the beginning of something much bigger with regards to China’s influence on the global market for electric vehicles.

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