Pandas, Jaguars and Earth's Cheapest Electric Car

Introducing The Fast Charge Newsletter

Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Fast Charge. My name is Tom Riley and I’ll be your host.

I guess I should begin this newsletter by answering two questions.

  1. What is The Fast Charge?

  2. Why should you sign up?

And to be quite honest, I’ve not worked either of those out yet completely. In simple terms, The Fast Charge is a twice-weekly bulletin (every Tuesday and Friday). Each edition will include a rundown of the latest news in electric motoring plus a more in-depth look at a story.

For example, in this first edition, I’ve decided to highlight the news that Elon Musk sold near half a million cars last year. Impressive. But also that MG, the British car company beloved by retired men in overalls, is launching an electric coupé which could give Viagra a run for its money.

And for my more in-depth story, I’ve done some digging into China and its shift to electric cars.

Why should you sign up? Well, I hope that The Fast Charge will be interesting and informative. I hope that it will be quite light and informal - I really hate serious writing - but also that you can join me in getting excited about this new future of motoring we’re entering.

If you ever have any comments, questions, tips or story ideas, do drop me an email: tomrileylondon@gmail.com. Likewise, please do share The Fast Charge with your friends if you like it.

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In the news…

TESLA ON TARGET: Elon Musk, or Zeus as he was known in his previous life, has achieved something most pundits thought unachievable during a pandemic. Tesla sold just short of 500,000 vehicles in 2020 (a total of 499,550). Originally, Musk had said they would comfortably exceed 500,000 deliveries, however, the closure of his plant in California during the pandemic is thought to have hindered efforts. In any case, Tesla shares went up over 5%.

BREXIT BATTERIES: Following the end of the Transition Period, UK carmakers now have just three years to source electric car batteries locally or from the EU to avoid tariffs on exports following the Brexit free trade deal. Basically, what has been agreed to is that car batteries will at first be allowed to contain up to 70% of materials from countries outside the EU or the UK. However, from January 2024, that requirement will tighten to 50%. So British manufacturers will need to source their car batteries from within the UK or EU in order to avoid EU tariffs from 2024 onwards. Right now, most batteries used in electric cars are sourced from east Asian companies. However, the EU and the UK are putting hopes on developing their own huge battery plants (gigafactories) in order to compete.

OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS: MG, the old-school British automaker, has unveiled plans to produce an electric sport coupé. And when I read that, I thought, what good chaps. They’re giving the 21st century a try. However, I didn’t quite expect my trouser department to be so excited after seeing an image of their proposed electric supercar. It looks as if an Aston Martin mated with a Jaguar F-Type. Or maybe with a real jaguar, one can’t be sure yet. It looks gorgeous and it’ll be interesting to see if the car entices young people to MG. Because I certainly can’t see where the handrail would go for their current fans. Read more on AutoCar.

PANDA PLUG: Fiat has announced they are giving the Panda an electric makeover. More details should be out about it soon but the company hopes for it to be released into the wild in 2022. Apparently, Fiat wants the new Panda to “democratise” electric mobility. They also want it to rival the 500 as being "affordable and cool.” This sounds like a great ambition, so it’s strange that they’ve decided to add expanding foam around the car - designed to make bumps comfortable. That doesn’t sound very cool. Carbuyer has obtained some exclusive pictures if you want to check it out here.

China is leading, should we follow?

Back in 2012, then TopGear presenters, Jeremy Clarkson and James May visited China to explore it’s growing car industry. And what they found was a bunch of rip-offs.

From lookalike Land Rovers to fake Audi saloons. It seemed the Chinese car industry was about as legit as the Rolex watches bought on European beaches.

China is a very proud and independent nation. But despite selling the Western world everything from Durex condoms to Tik Tok, they have never quite liked it when we’ve tried to return the favour. And this is why most cars people in China drive are brands you’ve never even heard of.

For example, one of the most popular cars in China is the Wuling Hongguang. There were over 400,000 sold last year. The Haval H6, produced by the brilliantly named company Great Wall Motors, is also popular in China. A quarter of a million of those were sold last year. I haven’t heard of either.

Only in recent years have mainstream (Western) brands grown in China. Such as the Japanese Nissan Sylphy which is nearly as widespread as its namesake (Editor: no Tom its sylphy, not syphilis).

But, now that motoring across the globe is beginning to shift to electric, how is China getting along?

Well. Very well.

It’s thought that around 1.2 million EVs were sold in China last year. That’s more than half of all electric car sales on Earth. And Bejing authorities have ambitions for 25% of all car sales in China to be electrics by 2025. That’s 5% more than it is now.

A great winner from this surge is Tesla. It’s Model 3 is highly popular and they reportedly sold 120,000 vehicles in the country last year. They’ve also recently started selling the Model Y there, showing their commitment to the communist state.

But despite being world leaders, the most popular electric vehicle in China is actually one you perhaps would not expect…

Taking the first prize for popularity is the Wuling Hong Guang Mini. It’s a cute looking small box-shaped hatchback. It took less than a year to design, build and start manufacturing from scratch. And you can tell. It looks like a right-angled triangle with wheels

However, it costs only a mere $4,200 (about £3,000) - acres below the price of any equivalent electric car on Earth. But, though that’s fantastic, there are some drawbacks with this thrift.

The Mini EV doesn’t pack much of a punch. A measly 17 horsepower is all you’ll have - giving out a top speed of 62mph. And the battery size is minuscule at around 14kwh. The good news is it won’t take long to charge up, which you’ll be doing a lot because it only produces a range of around 106 miles.

Despite this, in its first three months on sale, the Mini EV sold over 55,000 units in China. Apparently, the factory can’t fill the orders fast enough. Surely they’re doing something right?

It’s unknown whether the rest of the world will be graced by the Mini EV. But it would not be surprising if it was. Whereas in the past, China’s cars stayed in China, it increasingly looks like that won’t always be the case. In just one example, Chinese automaker BYD has started selling their electric crossovers to business customers internationally. In terms of size, they currently sell more cars than Tesla.

Perhaps once Chinese manufacturers exhaust their private markets they will turn to the global economy more. In the interim, there is something Western producers can learn from their success. Namely:

  • Make an EV that looks like a car. The popular Mini EV does look like a little like an adult-sized Peel P-50. Weird and clunky to us but, in China, it is familiar - it’s just a small Wuling Hongguang, their favourite petrol car. And there isn’t any strange wheels or space-age lighting, it just looks like a car. I like that.

  • Small works. The Mini EV is obviously a car built as a runabout. It’s not speedy - you probably don’t want to break the speed limit in China tbh - and the range is short. Not ideal but perhaps that’s all people need, especially as a first electric car to get used to. And while driving around in something with the power of three harnessed children may be a bit embarrassing for customers, they’ll be delighted to save tens of thousands of pounds.

China obviously has some serious issues around its manufacturing practices, politics and human rights. But the producers of the Mini EV show you can make a very cheap economical electric car. And if that inspires other car companies to cut prices, that’s good news.

By Tom Riley