China's best selling electric costs only $4,200
And how the country is shifting to EV dominance
Back in 2012, then TopGear presenters, Jeremy Clarkson and James May visited China to explore it’s growing car industry. And what they found was a bunch of rip-offs.
From lookalike Land Rovers to fake Audi saloons, it seemed the Chinese car industry was about as legit as the Rolex watches bought on European beaches.
China is a very proud and independent nation. But despite selling the Western world everything from Durex condoms to Tik Tok, they have never quite liked it when we’ve tried to return the favour. And this is why most cars people in China drive are brands you’ve never even heard of.
For example, one of the most popular cars in China is the Wuling Hongguang. There were over 400,000 sold last year. The Haval H6, produced by the brilliantly named company Great Wall Motors, is also popular in China. A quarter of a million of those were sold last year. I haven’t heard of either.
Only in recent years have mainstream (Western) brands grown in China. Such as the Japanese Nissan Sylphy which is nearly as widespread as its namesake (Editor: no Tom its sylphy, not syphilis).
But, now that motoring across the globe is beginning to shift to electric, how is China getting along?
China is leading the way
It’s thought that around 1.2 million EVs were sold in China last year. That’s more than half of all electric car sales on Earth. And Bejing authorities have ambitions for 25% of all car sales in China to be electrics by 2025. That’s 5% more than it is now.
A great winner from this surge is Tesla. It’s Model 3 is highly popular and they reportedly sold 120,000 vehicles in the country last year. They’ve also recently started selling the Model Y there, showing their commitment to the communist state.
But despite being world leaders, the most popular electric vehicle in China is actually one you perhaps would not expect…
The cheapest EV... in the world
Taking the first prize for popularity is the Wuling Hong Guang Mini. It’s a cute looking small box-shaped hatchback. It took less than a year to design, build and start manufacturing from scratch. And you can tell. It looks like a right-angled triangle with tiny wheels
However, it costs only a mere $4,200 (about £3,000) - acres below the price of any equivalent electric car on Earth. But, though that’s fantastic, there are some drawbacks with this thrift.
Image from Wuling Motors
The Mini EV doesn’t pack much of a punch. A measly 17 horsepower is all you’ll have - giving out a top speed of 62mph. And the battery size is minuscule at around 14kwh. The good news is it won’t take long to charge up, which you’ll be doing a lot because it only produces a range of around 106 miles.
Despite this, in its first three months on sale, the Mini EV sold over 55,000 units in China. Apparently, the factory can’t fill the orders fast enough. Surely they’re doing something right?
It’s unknown whether the rest of the world will be graced by the Mini EV. But it would not be surprising if it was. Whereas in the past, China’s cars stayed in China, it increasingly looks like that won’t always be the case. In just one example, Chinese automaker BYD has started selling their electric crossovers to business customers internationally. In terms of size, they currently sell more cars than Tesla.
Perhaps once Chinese manufacturers exhaust their private markets they will turn to the global economy more. In the interim, there is something Western producers can learn from their success. Namely:
> Make an EV that looks like a car. The popular Mini EV does look like a little like an adult-sized Peel P-50. Weird and clunky to us but, in China, it is familiar - it’s just a small Wuling Hongguang, their favourite petrol car. And there isn’t any strange wheels or space-age lighting, it just looks like a car. I like that.
> Small works. The Mini EV is obviously a car built as a runabout. It’s not speedy - you probably don’t want to break the speed limit in China tbh - and the range is short. Not ideal but perhaps that’s all people need, especially as a first electric car to get used to. And while driving around in something with the power of three harnessed children may be a bit embarrassing for customers, they’ll be delighted to save tens of thousands of pounds.
China obviously has some serious issues around its manufacturing practices, politics and human rights. But the producers of the Mini EV show you can make a very cheap economical electric car. And if that inspires other car companies to cut prices, that’s good news.