Like a parent disarming a meltdown from a second grader who can’t understand Santa Claus can’t give a family of four a month-long vacation to Bikini Bottom, automakers are entering a damage control phase of the EV revolution. GM killed off the reasonably-priced Bolt EV and EUV despite them entering their best sales month ever, while CEO Mary Barra has gone on the record saying that she doesn’t think that $30,000 to $40,000 EVs will be profitable until after the end of the decade. And yet, simply using the internet shows us that a better way exists.
For every complaint from a US-oriented OEM, insisting small and reasonably priced EVs can’t be produced economically unless they’re supersized, superpowered, and super-priced, there exists a foil on the other side of the world. For the better part of a decade, Americans and Canadians have watched as China has churned out dozens of cheap EVs, each one an antithesis to the miles-deep waiting list big EV 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 as much as a high-end laptop and sell in the tens of thousands. Even GM has a fleet of cheap EVs that sit on the top sales charts in China. The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV costs about as much as the new Apple Vision Pro and it’s China’s best-selling EV, moving more than a million units and counting since its introduction in 2019.
But, like a teenager trying to sneak a sip from an older sibling’s wine cooler before they’re of age, I think Americans and Canadians would be disappointed by how their forbidden fruit would really taste. A lot of the smallest EVs that we’ve got a crush on, are really stretching 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 roughly $3,000 for the most basic model. The Mini EV’s cute boxy body looks wider than it is tall, visually, as if it were budget chifferobe cheerfully bought from a weekend IKEA Family sale. It’s got dinky 12-inch wheels that seem to only serve to make the tiny car look as cartoony as possible.
Getting to that price took a lot of work, and I am amazed that GM and SAIC were able to design amonocoque safety cell that at least appears to be about what you’d find on any other modern vehicle. But, the rest of the car appears to be very much built to an extremely low price. The motor on the Mini EV is a tiny hair-dryer-sized unit that feeds directly to a fully dependent solid rear axle. Airbags were once optional on the Mini EV, and it’s missing safety equipment like, say, a rear bumper that can channel crash energy effectively through the frame. These Minicars aren’t always subject to Chinese crash tests, either, and ones done by third parties in China, don’t do all that hot. The Mini EV and its competitors are very basic vehicles in ways that I don’t think Americans can comprehend.
We are unequivocally spoiled here in the United States and Canada. To us, a basic car is one that lacks creature comforts like power windows or infotainment features. The car still very much functions as a reasonably safe method of transportation. In other places, the threshold of what makes a car competent can be lower, and the Mini EV and its competitors don’t really measure up. Some of the features that these cars lack, are safety items mandated to be standard either by the government or simple competitive advantage for at least 25 years. Why would anyone want to go back to that?
China-based Youtuber Wheelsboy has driven the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, and although he praised its price point and ability to dart through city traffic, he was adamant that it was very slow. “Even at a bonkers 660KG, the Wuling Mini EV is not quick…. acceleration over 20 KM/H or so is very, very mild.” In 2021, Chinese automotive outlet Yiche Auto threw 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 walk-in closets on wheels that they are. Those dinky wheels, solid axles, and tall bodies made for slalom and moose test results that skewed far more toward “scary” rather than “funny”.
Even in Chinese media, journalists and citizens have started to ask if the perception of limited safety that those cars offer is worth the low price. In this test by Zhizhu Auto Dismantling Laboratory, the first half of the video is filled with imagery of the Hongguang Mini EV absolutely mangled in crashes with normal-sized cars. Even when two Hongguang Mini EVs were slammed into each other later in the test, the carnage was unreal.
The Wuling Mini EV was facelifted in late 2020 as the “Macaron” edition and gained at least one standard airbag and a backup camera. That can all be sort of automotive hearsay without any standardized testing from a regulatory body to officially see how these minicars fare in a crash. Thing is though, there wasn’t any standard crash testing on these runabouts until very recently.
China’s C-NCAP established standard went into effect in July 2022; EV minicars under four meters in length are now subject to crash testing. The test, however, is admittedly simpler than what a standard car would go through. The test only does basic side impact, rear whiplash, and 100% overlap tests. The minicars aren’t subject to the 50% offset test the larger cars are subject to. If the Wuling Mini EV’s third party results are anything to go by, I can’t imagine any of those cars sailing through that test with flying colors.
Some may argue that simply managing expectations of these mini cars is best. But should the green EV revolution come at the expense of what defines a car? Should we chance our safety, and let folks drive cars that are missing crucial safety equipment that we’ve collectively lobbied for, just to get cheap EV motoring that probably won’t be all that satisfying to drive or own? No, that’s silly. Also, it’s something we’ve tried before – Chinese automaker Kandi tried selling a cloned EV version of a Daihatsu Cast that shared a lot of range, battery, and performance specifications as the mini EVs some have been pining for. Despite its advertised $9,999 price point, 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 removed from sale, no doubt disappointing reservation holders that expected more from the tall promises the brand made.
That isn’t to say that we don’t need cheap EVs. Examining the Chinese market, but doubling the bargain basement price of the Wuling Mini EV, reveals a treasure trove of competent small EVs. The BYD Seagull is making waves in China for good reason; the Chevy Spark-sized EV stickers for about $12,000 USD, and can surpass the 65 MPH top speed that many of its cheaper competitors have. It’s got 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 slot under the mid and full-sized SUVs and EV pickups that American OEMs insist we want. Heck, the GM-backed roughly $10,000 USD Wuling Bingo could be a stellar Chevy Bolt replacement with some minor tweaks to the powertrain.
Following the EV market’s various changes can be disheartening for the EV-curious buyer with a not supersized budget. There’s no secret that we need more regular-shaped, and normally priced EVs on sale here in the United States. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be all that much of a drive to make all that many existing manufacturers. The big three’s EV truck waitlists are years deep, and prices for them can touch the six-figure range. Even the cheaper crossover models released by startups and legacy auto brands alike skew toward the well-to-do, with pricing that somehow nearly always ends up entering the $55,000 and up range. That’s about what you’ll pay for a mid-tier example of a gas-powered crossover from any given premium manufacturer.
We need more cheap EV offerings, very true. Just be careful what you wish for, though. Not everything that glitters is gold.
Kevin Williams is a writer with a heavy focus on the road less than traveled. He focuses on EVs, PHEVs, and electrification’s effect on the future of transit.