China EV Maker Betting on Cult Status to Sell a Million Cars

by 9SIX

Since last July, a little-known automaker in China’s southwest has dominated the world’s largest electric car market, outselling bigger players and even Tesla Inc. almost every month with a tiny, bare-bones EV that starts at just $4,500. The Hongguang Mini is the brainchild of SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co., a joint venture between SAIC Motor Corp. and Guangxi Automobile Group Co., two state-backed automakers, and U.S. giant General Motors Co.

Based in the city of Liuzhou, known for its limestone mountains and river-snail soup, the company — which has sold some 270,000 of the cars within nine months, making it the best-selling EV in China — has even bigger ambitions for the future. It’s aiming for annual sales of 1.2 million vehicles next year, almost equal to the number of EVs churned out by China’s carmakers in 2020 combined.

It’s an eyebrow-raising target, but even before the Hongguang Mini, Wuling had a track record for producing winners in a market that’s defining the new era of driving. Set up in 2002, the Chinese-American JV built its business selling microvans: dependable sliding-door workhorses that earned the nickname ‘the bread box car’ in Mandarin, and were China’s top-selling passenger vehicle in 2017. Millions of them ply the country’s roads, used by contractors and delivery drivers alike.

The buyers of those gas-guzzling gray vans are almost exclusively male, which makes Wuling’s pivot to the Hongguang Mini — which has a top speed of 100 kilometers (62 miles) an hour and 12-inch wheels — all the more extraordinary. Shortly after its debut last July, the automaker realized the vehicle was gaining a following among young women, a phenomenon it leaned into with an approach that bends conventional wisdom about how cars are sold.

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Zhang YiqinPhotographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
“Our company’s mentality is to produce whatever people need,” Wuling’s head of branding and marketing, Zhang Yiqin, said in an interview. “We keep close tabs on our users. The hurdles to electric car adoption can only be cleared when consumers find using them a comfortable thing.”

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