Like a parent disarming a meltdown of a second-grader who can’t understand that Santa can’t give a family of four a month-long vacation to Swimsuit Bottom, automakers are entering a damage reduction phase of the EV revolution. GM killed the reasonably priced Bolt EV and EUV despite entering their best sales month ever, while CEO Mary Barra has officially said she doesn’t think $30,000 to $40,000 EVs will be profitable until after the end of the decade. And yet the use of the Internet shows us that there is a better way.
For every complaint from a US-oriented OEM who insists that small and reasonably priced EVs cannot be produced economically unless they are super-large, super-powerful and super-priced, there is a foil on the other side of the world. For the better part of a decade, Americans and Canadians have watched China launch dozens of low-cost electric cars, all antitheses to the mile-deep waiting list for big electric trucks like the GMC Hummer EV. These Chinese cars are cute, cheap and cheerful; box-shaped cars like the Chery QQ Ice Cream or the Geely Panda Mini cost about the same as a high-end laptop and sell in the tens of thousands. Even GM has a fleet of low-cost electric cars that top sales charts in China. Costing about the same as the new Apple Vision Pro, the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV is China’s best-selling EV, with more than a million units sold since its launch in 2019.
But like a teenager trying to take a sip from an older sibling’s wine cooler before they’re of age, I think Americans and Canadians will be disappointed with how their forbidden fruit would really taste. Many of the smallest EVs we’re in love with really stretch the definition of the word “car.”
For example, consider the fan favorite Wuling Hogguang Mini EV again. Yes, it’s a very cheap EV costing around $3,000 for the most basic model. The Mini EV’s cute, square body visually looks wider than it is tall, as if it were a cheap chifferobe gleefully bought at an IKEA Family sale over the weekend. It has small 12-inch wheels that seem to serve only to make the little car look as cartoonish as possible.
It took a lot of work to get to that price point, and I’m amazed that GM and SAIC were able to design a monocoque safety cage that at least resembles what you’d find on any other modern vehicle. But the rest of the car seems to be very built for an extremely low price. The motor on the Mini EV is a small hairdryer-sized unit fed directly to a fully dependent, solid rear axle. Airbags were once optional on the Mini EV, and safety features such as a rear bumper that can effectively channel impact energy through the frame are missing. These minicars aren’t always subjected to Chinese crash tests either, and the ones done by third parties in China don’t fare as well. The Mini EV and its competitors are very basic vehicles in a way that I don’t think Americans can comprehend.
We are unequivocally spoiled here in the United States and Canada. To us, a base car is one that lacks creature comforts such as power windows or infotainment features. The car still functions very well as a reasonably safe means of transport. In other places, the threshold of what makes a car proficient may be lower, and the Mini EV and its competitors can’t quite measure up. Some of the features these cars lack are safety items mandated by the government to be standard, or simply a competitive advantage for at least 25 years. Why would anyone want to go back there?
China-based Youtuber Wheelsboy has driven the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, and while he praised its price and ability to blast through city traffic, he was adamant that it was very slow. “Even at an insane 660 kg, the Wuling Mini EV is not fast…. acceleration above 20 KM/H or so is very, very mild.” In 2021, Chinese auto outlet Yiche Auto threw out a fleet of cars in its class through a series of tests, and the Hongguang and its direct boxy competitors handled and performed like the wheeled walk-in closets they are. Those small wheels, stout axles and tall bodies made for slalom and moose test results that leaned much more toward “scary” than “funny.”
Even in Chinese media, journalists and citizens are beginning to question whether the perception of limited
safety offered by these cars is worth the low price. In this test by Zhizhu Auto Dismanling Laboratory, the first half of the video is filled with footage of the Hongguang Mini EV absolutely maimed in crashes involving normal sized cars. Even when two Hongguang Mini EVs were slammed together later in the test, the carnage was unreal.
The Wuling Mini EV was facelifted in late 2020 as the “Macaron” edition and received at least one standard airbag and a rear view camera. That could all just be some kind of car rumor without standardized testing from a regulatory body to officially see how these minicars fare in a crash. The thing is, however, that until recently there were no standard crash tests on these runabouts.
The C-NCAP standard adopted by China came into effect in July 2022; EV minicars under four meters in length are now subject to crash tests. However, the test is admittedly easier than what a standard car would pass. The test only does standard side impact, rear whiplash and 100% overlap tests. The minicars are not subject to the 50% offset test that the larger cars are subject to. Judging by the third-party results of the Wuling Mini EV, I can’t imagine any of those cars passing that test with flying colors.
Some might argue that it’s simply best to manage expectations on these mini cars. But should the green EV revolution come at the expense of what defines a car? Should we risk our safety and let people drive cars that lack crucial safety equipment that we’ve collectively lobbied for just to get cheap electric cars that probably aren’t as satisfying to drive or own? No, that’s silly. It’s also something we’ve tried before – Chinese automaker Kandi tried to sell a cloned EV version of a Daihatsu Cast that shared many range, battery and performance specs, like the mini EVs some are pining for. Despite its advertised price of $9,999, it never passed full certification to become a real car. Kandi turned the K23 and K27 into 25 MPH limited neighborhood electric vehicles at the 11th hour after promising reservation holders that it would be at least capable of 60 MPH. They’ve both been quietly withdrawn from sale, no doubt disappointing reservation holders who expected more from the brand’s big promises.
That’s not to say we don’t need cheap EVs. Examining the Chinese market but doubling the bargain price of the Wuling Mini EV reveals a wealth of competent small EVs. The BYD Seagull is causing a stir in China for a reason; the Chevy Spark-sized EV stickers for about $12,000 USD, and can top the 65 MPH top speed many of its lower-priced competitors boast. It has six airbags and a high-tech LFP battery, as well as suspension that resembles the average hatchback, rather than a 1980s light truck. There are plenty of offerings from BYD, Changan, Geely and more that could fit among the midsize and full-sized SUVs and EV pickups that US OEMs insist we want. Heck, the GM-backed roughly $10,000 USD Wuling Bingo could be a great Chevy Bolt replacement with some minor powertrain tweaks.
Keeping up with the various changes in the EV market can be daunting for the EV-curious buyer with a small budget. It’s no secret that we need more mainstream and moderately priced EVs on sale here in the United States. Still, there doesn’t seem to be much of a drive to make so many existing manufacturers. The big three electric truck waiting lists are years deep, and prices for them can be in the six-figure range. Even the lower-priced crossover models released by startups and older car brands tend towards the well-heeled, with prices somehow almost always ending up in the $55,000 and above range. That’s about what you’ll pay for a mid-sized gas-powered crossover from a given premium manufacturer.
We need more cheap EV offers, absolutely. However, be careful what you wish for. Not all that glitters is gold.
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