General Motors CEO Mary Barra likes to talk about the automaker’s “path to an all-electric future,” especially when the topic turns to products like the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq SUV and GMC Hummer pickup. Both will target premium buyers, but the automaker’s EV line-up also is taking aim at the other end of the market – at least in China.
This summer, GM and its Chinese partners launched a new electric microcar, the Wuling Mini, that starts at just 28,800 yuan, or $4,200. That’s a fraction of the 323,800 yuan, or $45,754, that Tesla is getting for a base Model 3, the sedan that had been dominating the countries fast-growing electric vehicle market.
Demand for the Wuling Mini – a joint venture of GM and Chinese partners Wuling and SAIC – has turned the market upside-down, last month knocking Tesla off its perch as the country’s best-selling battery-electric vehicle, or BEV.
The Wuling brand has traditionally targeted China’s most budget-limited buyers with products like the Dragon cabover microvan. For many customers, these serve as work vehicles by day and personal transport at night and during the weekend. The Mini, however, is being targeted at office workers who need an affordable runabout.
“We positioned this model as a ‘people’s commuting tool,’” Zhou Xing, the branding and marketing director for joint venture SGMW, told Reuters ahead of the Beijing Motor Show opening this weekend. “Customers can drive their cars to work every day.”
In its most basic form, the Wuling Mini wouldn’t be able to be sold in most major markets, including Japan, Europe and the U.S. The entry-level microcar doesn’t even come with airbags, never mind features like air conditioning. Some options are available, however, a well-equipped version of the BEV pushing into the $6,000 range.
Range, meanwhile, is limited to around 200 kilometers, or 125 miles. But Chinese motorists generally clock far fewer miles than Western drivers, so that is expected to be more than enough for those who want a zero-emissions vehicle for commuting or running daily errands.
With its endemic smog problems, China has embraced electrification in a big way, not only setting up increasingly aggressive sales targets but also laying out incentives for buyers that not only can include cash but the ability to circumvent the monthly limits on new vehicle registrations put in place in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
The Mini’s limited range does have its downside. The numbers aren’t big enough to trigger government incentives – for buyers, at least, though GM and its partners wind up with credits that can be used to offset the gas-powered vehicles they sell through brands like Buick and Cadillac. And that is a big plus that more than makes up for the Mini’s minimal profit margin.
All in all, Chinese motorists have begun to embrace electrification at a pace not seen anywhere else but a few, select markets like Norway with their own hefty incentives. This year, Chinese buyers are expected to purchase about 1.1 million “New Energy Vehicles,” a category that includes hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and plug-in hybrids, as well as BEVs. In the U.S., by comparison, such vehicles will account for about 2% of the overall market this year, according to forecasts by IHS Markit and others.
The surge in EV sales has fueled a flood of new entrants into the Chinese market, according to Michael Dunne, founder of the Asian auto consultancy ZoZo Go, with dozens more seeking government approval to go into production.
He expects to see a shakeout in the next several years, but with startups and more established players all looking for niches to conquer in the emerging EV market, Chinese motorists already have a broader range of product options to choose from than anywhere else on the planet.