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Sunday, April 14, 2024

This Chinese EV Sells At Just Over $5,000. So We Tried It

The mini EV costs around $5,000 new. It would cost more to spec the cigar humidor glove box option on a Rolls-Royce or add Apple CarPlay to a Ferrari than to buy the Mini EV outright. 

So successful is Wuling’s Mini EV that not only are Chinese producers rapidly coming up with copycat cars, Wuling itself is busy making different versions of the vehicle, including a forthcoming cabriolet and a “long-range” version.

This EV is not available outside China, but we got behind the wheel of the “luxury” Macaron version in China to see if this super-cheap electric car was any good, and what US and European manufacturers could learn about how to make more affordable electric cars. 

Luxury is relative, especially when you are dealing with a car as bare-bones as the original Mini EV. At the end of last year, professor Masayoshi Yamamoto at Nagoya University took apart a car shipped to Japan to see how it was possible to produce the vehicle so cheaply. 

Yamamoto discovered that the parts were largely off-the-shelf and consumer-grade, rather than automotive grade. The Mini EV is therefore likely to have issues more frequently, but it will also be cheaper to repair. 

The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV is the result of a three-way joint venture. SAIC Motor is the largest partner, with 50.1 percent ownership. One of China’s biggest automotive companies—in 2021 it was second by volume—SAIC is perhaps best known in Europe as the new owner of MG. 

Casual observers of the auto industry may be more surprised to learn that the second-largest Wuling owner, with 44 percent, is General Motors (the small remainder of the joint venture belongs to Wuling itself). But GM and SAIC have been working together for 24 years. In 2003, China became, for a time, the second-largest single market for GM, selling Chinese-only versions of Buicks and launching Chevrolet in the jurisdiction in 2005.

Colors by Pantone

Externally, the Macaron version distinguishes itself from the standard Mini EV with a choice of funky pastel colors. WIRED’s is in avocado green, but the model is also available in lemon yellow and white peach pink. That the colors are a collaboration with Pantone speaks volumes; the Mini EV has managed a cult following, and the Macaron is clearly aimed at the young and cool. “Macaron” is written on the driver’s side rear pillar black insert, and the car features color-coordinated white wheels and roof. 

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Inside, the Macaron gets exterior color-matching inserts for the door pulls and highlights around what pass for controls. These are very limited, with three dials for climate control and a very small LCD screen for the radio. 

There are also two USB type A ports that allow you to play music or charge a device. In a design choice that perhaps speaks to the affordability of display parts, the instrument panel is a full-color digital screen. This screen offers basic information such as speed, range, and electricity consumption, along with a natty 3D rendering of the Mini EV. The Macaron version gains a reversing camera, which the screen also shows.

Room for Four? Yes, Technically 

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Mini EV can seat four. After all, the car is less than 3 meters long, 2,920 mm to be precise. That said, stuffing adults into those rear seats is not exactly comfortable. But thanks to the 1,621 mm height, the Mini EV is actually taller than it is wide, so head room is reasonable. There are also Isofix child-seat attachments, and the seats are indeed best for children—the lack of real headrests for adults makes any extended trip a strain. 

While there is a hatch at the back, there is no real trunk to speak of. The space might be able to fit something very thin, but the bottom is taken up with charging cables. However, the rear seats do individually push down and pull up with a strap, which is essential if you want to transport anything other than people. In this configuration, the EV offers up 741 liters of space. 

Given the rudimentary nature of the cabin, it’s no surprise that materials are utilitarian. Hard plastics are everywhere, and you can see the screw that attaches the door handle insert to the door. Among the Macaron's many improvements over the basic Mini EV is a key safety feature—the driver now gets an airbag standard. 

Driving: Mini Magic or Mario Kart?

China has had a thriving industry in low-speed electric vehicles (LSEVs), which in four-wheel form are more akin to golf carts. The Mini EV is a step up from this level—closer to a Japanese kei micro car. It can be used on normal roads without restriction, although its wheels are only 12 inches and its speed tops out at just 62 mph (100 km/h). 

But the Mini EV’s diminutive size also makes darting in and out of traffic quite satisfying. The same cannot be said for the steering, which is generally imprecise. Above 30 mph, you end up fighting the car’s desire to go in a straight line. And with such small wheels, you feel every pothole, all the more so given the poorly padded seats. 

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A distinct whine from the electric motor accompanies you as you drive along. Priced this low, there is not much insulating the car from road noise. Luckily as you’re unlikely to ever get the Mini EV much above 50 mph this never becomes too much of a problem. 

Surprisingly, the EV has a selector button hidden behind the steering wheel that lets you choose between Eco and Sport modes. Powering the rear wheels is an electric motor delivering 20 kW (27 hp) and 85 Nm of torque. Sport seems to be the better of the two modes, providing not only slightly smarter acceleration but also more noticeable braking regeneration. 

One-pedal driving is not really possible, as the car simply takes too long to slow down—probably because it only weighs 700 kg (1,543 lbs). Wuling is coy regarding acceleration figures, but since the vehicle is electric and has instantaneous torque, it isn’t unduly slow in town traffic. 

There’s a choice between 9.3- and 13.8-kWh battery packs, which are good for ranges of 75 miles (120 km) and 106 miles (170 km), respectively, under the already generous NEDC standard. Charging on a 220V supply takes 6.5 hours for the smaller battery and a full 9 hours for the 13.8 kWh pack.

With no fast-charging capability, you really are stuck using the Mini EV as a city car. Given all the other foibles detailed here, that is probably not a bad thing. But as a cheap introduction to electric family motoring, the car is infinitely safer and better than a scooter or motorbike. 

Even though you cannot buy this car outside of China, if we had to rate it on WIRED's scoring system, we'd charitably give it a 5 out of 10 (Wired: Bargain basement price for an EV. Safer than a scooter. Can seat four. Trendy…sort of. Tired: Limited to being a city car. Uncomfortable. Little safety equipment. Wayward steering.) The score not being a “4” is mainly down to the considerable value on offer here, but we'd find it hard to ignore that lack of safety kit.

Speaking of value, prices for the Mini EV originally started at RMB28,800 ($4,389), while the 13.8-kWh luxury Macaron version we tested retailed for RMB43,600 ($6,645) until recently. But increased battery costs have seen prices rise by around $1,000. Astonishingly, the company is reportedly making less than $14 profit on each car.

A Mini EV for Europe and US

The poor profit margin hasn’t stopped Wuling and its sibling brand Baojun from creating more cars in the same vein. Wuling had always produced microvans aimed at rural farmers and commercial buyers, so producing the Mini EV was a surprising move. 

Baojun, on the other hand, is a Wuling sub-brand aimed at the car market and was earlier to micro EVs than its parent company, with both the Smart-like E100 and E200. Both of these only seat two people, and the E200 is also sold in a slightly restyled manner as the Wuling Nano, with a more powerful motor and longer ranges. Being two-seaters, they’ve never really sold well, but the E300 (aka Kiwi EV) in many ways replicates the Mini EV formula, except it costs around twice as much and features a chunky robot-like appearance and desirable features such as fast charging. 

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Wuling itself may be hoping to replicate the Mini EV’s success with its forthcoming Air EV, which appears to be a move into pricier models and could conceivably signal a desire to go after overseas markets.

Dartz, a Latvian company known for bulletproof SUVs, was planning to sell the Mini EV as the Freze Nikrob in Europe, but those plans appear to have changed. “Nikrob was a temporary inter-step,” says company founder Leonard Yankelovich. “We will keep our own label, Freze [formerly Frese], and this car will be not just be a rebadged Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, like it was under the Nikrob label, but it will be a [new body] car.”

Dartz's decision to redesign the car's body highlights one of the obvious problems with selling the Chinese car in Western markets: safety. Under Euro NCAP regulations, for example, electronic stability control (ESC) is mandatory, but the Mini EV lacks that feature. 

Could General Motors at least apply lessons learned from producing this super-cheap EV to other markets? According to Tu Le, founder and managing director of Sino Auto Insights, there are two possibilities. The Mini EV has appealed to younger buyers in China, and he feels GM could target a similar demographic in the US, or in an emerging market, where a small city car would appeal. Or it could take a very different route. “If we aren’t limited by business model, the data could be used to develop a shared car, or a ride-hailing city car, that could be used in city centers where passenger cars are banned—a growing and likely permanent trend,” he says. 

With fossil fuel prices soaring, it’s hardly surprising that most markets are crying out for cheaper EVs. An electrified version of Tata’s Nano—which is dubbed the “world's cheapest car,” costs just over $2,000, and is getting surprisingly decent reviews—has been rumored for some time now. 

In December, GM announced that Mahmoud Samara, a VP for Cadillac North America, had been made president of GM Europe. Samara said that one of his key goals for GM would be to “transform operations in Europe into an agile mobility startup.” “Globally, GM is investing $35 billion dollars in electric and autonomous vehicles by 2025,” he said at the time, “and we will focus closely on what customers need market by market, and where we will leverage our global investments in the areas of EVs and AVs to compete and win.”

We may not legally be able to get ahold of the Mini EV as it sells in China, but there is an outside chance GM will be using the know-how gained from producing this budget electric car to release a US or European EV that retails below the $10,000 mark. Nissan's Leaf remains the cheapest electric car in the US market, with the entry-level model priced at $20,875 (after the $7,500 federal tax credit). So such a car, even devoid of bells or whistles, could make electric motoring affordable for a much broader market.

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