An Electric Microcar Is a Hit in China But the US Is Still Focusing on Large Cars

Is it time for the US to take a cue from China's electric vehicle market?

Wuling Hongguang Mini electric vehicle
Wuling Hongguang Mini electric vehicle.

Zhe Ji/Getty Images

Chances are you have never heard of the world’s best-selling electric car: the Hong Guang Mini.

This tiny four-seater is manufactured by SGMW, a joint venture between General Motors and two Chinese state-owned companies, SAIC Motor and Liuzhou Wuling Motors.

For now, it is only available in China. Around 260,000 Hong Guang Minis have been sold since the car debuted last July and SGMW expects to sell approximately 400,000 this year and 1.2 million in 2022.

That huge leap will come thanks to the rapid growth of the Chinese electric vehicle market. Approximately 185,000 electric cars were sold there in May, up 177% from a year earlier, helping major cities reduce emissions from the transportation sector, as well as deadly air pollution.

Before the Hong Guang Mini started to gain traction among Chinese drivers, the best-selling electric car in the country was the Tesla Model 3. Although Tesla sales are increasing in China, its vehicles are too expensive for most Chinese drivers—the Model 3, for instance, costs about nine times as much as the Hong Guang Mini, which starts at around $4,500.

With top speeds of 62 mph and an estimated battery range of up to 105 miles, the Hong Guang Mini has all the makings of a mass-market car. It’s affordable, easy to park and maneuver thanks to its small size, practical because it can be charged at home, and, like the VW Beetle in the 1960s, it has become trendy.

The Hong Guang Mini is a hit among young women who customize their cars by painting them in bright colors and often add custom wheels, spoilers, and roof racks. 

"We don't sell them like cars, but more like designer clothes," Zhou Xing, an SGMW senior executive, told China Daily in March.

SGMW recently launched the Hong Guang Mini in three new colors as part of a collaboration with Pantone and reportedly plans to introduce co-branded versions with Disney and Nike, as well as a convertible.

In addition to the Hong Guang Mini, three other small EVs (the Baojun E200, the ORA R1, and the Chery eQ) were among the top 10 best-selling plug-in cars in China last year. These four cars accounted for about 20% of all EV sales in the country.

China versus U.S.

In contrast, the list of best-selling EVs in the U.S. includes mainly sedans and crossovers but no affordable small passenger cars, let alone microcars. So far G.M., Ford, Tesla, and Rivian seem to be focussing their EV efforts on SUVs and pickup trucks, as well as more sedans.

That’s because American drivers prefer large cars, even though around 60% of all the trips they take are under five miles and despite research showing that SUVs and pickups are a menace for pedestrians. But also because carmakers make more money when they sell bigger cars, which are obviously more expensive.

Light-duty vehicles currently account for around 17% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so how quickly U.S. drivers adopt electric cars will have a huge effect on efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector. 

And what kind of electric vehicles they buy will be an important factor.

The production of EVs is more carbon-intensive than the manufacturing of combustion-engine cars primarily because they are powered by rechargeable batteries that feature a variety of metals and minerals, including cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements, and because battery production is an energy-intensive process.

As well as much bigger batteries, larger EVs feature more steel, aluminum, and plastic. 

The epitome of large cars is the Hummer, which is made by G.M. The forthcoming EV version of the Hummer will reportedly weigh 9,046 pounds, six times as much as the Hong Guang Mini.

After the Hummer EV was announced last year, Tony Dutzik, the associate director of the Frontier Group, which advocates for clean forms of transportation, noted that prioritizing large electric vehicles will undermine efforts to decarbonize U.S. roads.

“While electric vehicles are far cleaner than conventional ones over their entire lifetimes (virtually regardless of where in America you live), the energy and materials demand of a Hummer is certain to be greater than that of a smaller vehicle — causing corresponding environmental impacts up and down the line.”

View Article Sources
  1. Monfort, Samuel S., and Becky C. Mueller. "Pedestrian Injuries from Cars and SUVs: Updated Crash Outcomes from the Vulnerable Road User Injury Prevention Alliance (VIPA)." Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2020.

  2. "Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Environmental Protection Agency.