Driven! 2021 Byton M-Byte

can be reached at michael.harley@coxautoinc.com
can be reached at michael.harley@coxautoinc.com
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Byton debuted its first electric concept car at the 2018 Consumer Electronic Show. Now, nearly two years later, we’ve been offered a chance to drive its first production vehicle – a family-oriented four-door named the Byton M-Byte – at a test facility near its North America headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley.

  • 2021 Byton M-Byte is an all-electric crossover vehicle.
  • Byton is a Chinese startup with ambition to distribute its vehicles globally.
  • M-Byte will be offered in single-motor and dual-motor configurations.

A disguised version of the all-new 2021 Byton M-Byte (Photo: Kelley Blue Book)

A new Chinese EV automaker with a global footprint

Byton is one of dozens of new automakers jumping into the rapidly expanding electric vehicle sector. Founded in 2016, the Chinese-rooted company has manufacturing and R&D offices in Nanjing, China, and a concept and design center in Munich, Germany. Most recently, Byton opened a technology and innovation lab in Santa Clara, California. The company’s experienced management team comes from Google, Apple, BMW, Nissan, and Tesla.

The interior of the 2021 Byton M-Byte features a wide primary digital screen (Photo: Byton)

Traditional exterior with innovative interior

The exterior of the M-Byte isn’t as radical as the concept. In fact, visually peeling back the camouflage hints at an exterior that looks much like any one of today’s new four-door crossovers – tall beltline, expansive greenhouse, and blacked-out D-pillars. Released (leaked?) images without the disguise reveal heavy styling influence from Land Rover, Nissan, Audi and BMW.

The interior is where Byton takes a drastic departure from tradition. While the five seating positions are conventional, the M-Byte boasts a game-changing 48-inch primary display that stretches across the entire dashboard and nearly touches the base of each A-pillar. The steering wheel contains a large tablet in its hub – and get this – the touch-screen display remains level while the rim turns.

While those in the rear seats will have to remain content with large touchscreens on the seatbacks in front of them, the two occupants up front will need to reacclimate themselves to the massive illuminated display sitting a few feet in front of their eyes – the amount of data and information that may be simultaneously presented borders on overwhelming. The tablet on the steering wheel hub is far less distracting and easier to use than a traditional center stack-mounted infotainment display. Quite frankly, it’s convenient having the touchscreen inches from the driver’s fingertips.

A side view of the 2021 Byton M-Byte concept (Photo: Kelley Blue Book)

Two motor options and a chassis tuned for ride quality

Byton will offer the M-Byte with a single 268-hp motor driving the rear wheels in the standard model. Premium models will boast a robust two-motor setup with a total system output of 470 hp that drives all four wheels. Those basic specifications would appear to appeal to horsepower-hungry driving enthusiasts, but that’s not this vehicle’s mission – despite two strong powertrain configurations, the M-byte is not being marketed as a performance crossover.

Instead of offering an innovative adaptive suspension, low-profile tires, and oversized brakes – keywords for sporty driving dynamics – the crossover boasts a traditional, and fairly conventional, damping and braking system. Simple, proven, and less expensive, the company intends to tune it to the nth degree to deliver a class-leading premium ride quality.

Expect the production 2021 Byton M-Byte to have a panoramic glass roof (Photo: Kelley Blue Book)

Zippy acceleration and predictable brake regeneration

Our test drive was limited to designated zone on an expansive airport tarmac. While Byton had set up a small obstacle course and a simulated slalom for us to put the concept through the paces, the test area was no bigger than an eighth mile in any direction. Despite the confines, the EV automaker did offer us more-or-less free rein to do whatever we wished – keeping in mind that a company engineer was always sitting in the right seat.

As expected from a powerful pure-EV, acceleration is brisk. It’s not neck-snapping, like a Model S or Taycan, but the E-byte will zip off the line quicker than any of its combustion-only peers. Decelerating was equally as predictable, with energy regeneration complementing the traditional caliper-on-rotors hydraulic system. Brake feel was very good on the prototype, and Byton said that owners will be able to dial-in their preferred level of regenerative drag from low to high (allowing one-pedal driving, if desired).

Concept image of the 2021 Byton M-Byte (Photo: Byton)

Praiseworthy driving dynamics

As assured, the M-Byte’s proficiency is ride – it delivers as promised. We tossed the two-plus ton crossover through the slalom cones at “I’m-late-for-my-carpool-pick-up,” velocities and it stuck to the pavement with tenacity (some of the credit goes to the EV’s low center of gravity). Body roll is minimal, and steering response was very good.

Driving over the upswept asphalt, which had coarse aggregate, the ride was buttery smooth. To push a bit harder, we took it one step further and drove right off the tarmac, onto the hard-packed dirt. The M-Byte didn’t flinch in this brief off-road excursion. We also made an attempt to unsettle it by increasing our speed while running over a few mounds of dirt and gopher holes. Again, the crossover absorbed everything – nothing made it into the cabin. If ride quality is a mission objective, they are on track to hit their planned target. We were impressed.

Concept image of the 2021 Byton M-Byte (Photo: Byton)

Byton faces a challenging future

We realize that testing a prototype in a closed environment is anything but an accurate vehicle evaluation. Yet the opportunity to physically drive an M-Byte when it is still about a year out – at the prototype level – was a confident move on Byton’s part. It is rare that we are able to drive pre-production vehicles from even established automakers.

There are literally dozens of start-up automakers touting EVs that will be on the market in less than five years, so the segment is going to get very crowded. Aside from financial, engineering, and production woes, the biggest challenge to these newcomers will be differentiation. The need to define what makes their EV more appealing than any other.

Byton thinks it knows the answer – ride quality, comfort, and amenities. And despite the grueling rough road ahead, the company has already proven that it apparently knows how to smooth out some of the sizeable bumps.

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can be reached at michael.harley@coxautoinc.com
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