Tesla sales in China more than doubled in 2020, to nearly $6.6 billion, accounting for 21 percent of the company’s booming worldwide total. But Tesla no longer makes China’s most popular electric car: Meet the tiny Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV, whose equally microscopic price helped it find 36,700 buyers in January. That easily kneecapped the 21,500 sales of the Model 3 sedan, even as Tesla ramps up production at a new plant in Shanghai.
The four-passenger Wuling Mini went on sale last July, a joint project between Wuling, General Motors and Chinese state-owned automaker SAIC. The doorstop-shaped city car is just 2.9 meters long, about 0.7 meters shorter than the Chevrolet Spark subcompact that’s the smallest car sold in America.
With a modest 20 kilowatts (27 horsepower), 85 Nm of peak torque, a 100-kph (62 mph) top speed and 170 km (106 miles) of driving range, the Wuling is no match for a Model 3 in space, tech, range or performance. But the Tesla, which starts for around $36,000 in China, can’t touch the Wuling’s price: Just $4,500 (RMB 28,800), or $6,000 (RMB 38,800) with a larger, 13.9-kWh battery.
A price more in line with motorcycles has made the Mini a best-seller in what’s already the world’s biggest market (in total sales) for both cars and electrified vehicles. Among 25.1 million cars sold in China in 2020, 5.4 percent were so-called “New Electric Vehicles,” a category that includes EVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Since its introduction in late July 2020, the Mini found 200,000 buyers in its first 200 days, according to Irene Shen, head of communications for GM China.
The Mini “is tapping into a large consumer base in China, and makes an EV truly affordable for everyone,” Shen said.
Shorter than even Japan’s famous, penny-pinching Kei cars, the Wuling is designed to negotiate tight city streets and tighter parking. Four passengers fit aboard, with room for two 26-inch suitcases or a stroller when rear seats are folded. The Mini can recharge its larger battery in nine hours on China’s standard 220-volt, 50-Hertz outlets.
Compared with some bargain-basement cars of the past—most notoriously, India’s star-crossed Tata Nano—the Wuling seems more engineered to modern standards. GM says 57 percent of the structure is made from high-strength steel. Anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, ISOFIX rear child-safety restraints and ultrasonic rear-parking sensors are standard; but not the electronic stability control that’s been required on new cars in the U.S. and EU for several years, or an automated emergency braking system. While GM cites “16 rigorous safety tests” for the Wuling, it did not confirm whether the car could meet current crash-test standards in Western nations.
Westerners, or Tesla fans, might be tempted to scoff at the Wuling’s speck-sized body, glacial acceleration or limited range. But while the Wuling is too small to crack the size-obsessed American market, its philosophy may be instructive; especially for cities and nations looking to “microtransit” as a potential solution to traffic-clogged streets, emissions and urban quality-of-life issues.
The Wuling weighs just 665 kilograms (1,466 pounds), which helps it squeeze 170 km of range from just 13.9 kWh of battery.
Image: General Motors
Batteries remain by far the most expensive part of an EV, even as costs for lithium-ion cells have fallen toward $100 per kilowatt hour. Analysts say the battery in a typical electric family sedan can cost between $10,000 and $15,000—roughly double the price of the entire Wuling. So the Wuling creates a virtuous cycle: The smaller and lighter the car, the less battery it needs to deliver a given range. And a smaller battery itself weighs less. That keeps a lid on mass and costs, for automakers and consumers.
America, in fact, has an analog for the Wuling: The new electric Mini Cooper SE. In the current EV climate, obsessed with the range race to 300, 400 miles or more, the Mini’s 110-mile (177 km) driving range can make it seem as quaint as the Wuling. In some quarters, short-hop EVs are seen as a dead-end in design and market viability. But look again.
The U.K.-based, BMW-owned Mini is a relative giant compared with Wuling’s “Mini,” including more than twice the curb weight (1,430 kilograms). Accordingly, the Mini Cooper carries more than double the battery to deliver similar official range of 177 kilometers (110 miles), albeit with massively superior power and performance. But in America, the Mini Cooper is the Lilliputian, with attendant advantages: Its 32.6 kWh, 220-kilogram pack is one-third the size of Tesla’s largest packs, and one-sixth the size of the brawny, 200-kWh packs that GM will begin stuffing into its longest-range GMC Hummer EV later this year. Setting aside any Muskian advantages in Gigafactory battery costs, the Mini battery should cost one-third the price of Tesla’s.
It all leads to the Mini being among the slimmest and most affordable EVs in America. The Mini starts from just $30,745, versus $37,495 for the larger-batteried Chevy Bolt, and $39,125 for a Nissan Leaf Plus. Subtract a $7,500 federal tax credit, and the luxurious, sharp-handling Cooper SE falls to $23,245, on par with gasoline econoboxes like the Toyota Corolla. Incentives in California and other states can push the price closer to $20,000, making the Mini a potential electric steal.
Light makes right in another way: In my testing in Miami and New York, the Mini proved it can easily top its official EPA ratings, covering closer to 210 kilometers (130 miles) in real-world drives. Again, that doesn’t sound like much for interstate trips. But for everyday errands or school drop-offs—or in cities that may look to tax or even ban combustion-engine cars—130 miles is more than enough for days of local driving. And EV skeptics consistently fail to acknowledge that owners plug in daily or nightly at work or home. They wake up to a car with maximum range fully restored, and never visit a gas station again.
Mini executives underline that, for 78 percent of owners, the Mini is the second, third or even fourth car in the household.
The point? For Americans whose driveways are littered with gasoline-burning cars, an EV like the Mini Cooper SE—the closest we may ever get to a speck-sized Wuling—can still make a whole lot of sense.
Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning auto writer and former chief auto critic at The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press.