China’s Top EV Maker SAIC-GM-Wuling Is Beating Tesla

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    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 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, a joint venture between SAIC Motor and Guangxi Automobile Group, two state-backed automakers, and U.S. giant General Motors.

    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.

    “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.”

    To that end, Zhang has staffed his team with employees who understand the Hongguang Mini’s customer base, which is now around two-thirds female. At 35, he jokes he’s the elder statesman of the group whose age averages around 27. Slogans like ‘Young and Eager’ are splashed across the walls of Wuling’s headquarters in Liuzhou, a city that’s embraced EVs alongside the company with 30% of all car sales electric last year, the highest rate in China, according to WAYS Information Technology.

    Wuling’s success with the Hongguang Mini was driven by a targeted marketing campaign conducted almost entirely online, according to Zhang. His team often communicate with consumers directly via various social media platforms, and it was a customer’s request for more hues that saw the company come up with Hongguang Mini’s latest iteration — the Macaron. It comes in avocado green, lemon yellow and white peach pink, with an optional solid-color roof for contrast, to mimic the vanilla butter cream that sandwiches the French meringue confections of the same name.

    It’s also how they landed on one of the car’s key selling points — besides its rock-bottom price point: Hongguang Mini drivers are able to customize their vehicles in a way that’s not possible elsewhere.

    Using “stickers,” the car’s panels and body can be transformed. Some sport the Nike swoosh, some have galaxy-like outer space scenes and others cartoon characters from Hello Kitty and Doraemon. The original Hongguang Mini comes in around 20 different base colors, which can be switched up, and buyers can customize the interior as well.

    Zorah Zhang (no relation) is a typical client. The 23-year-old is a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who directed My Neighbor Totoro, a fantasy film featuring a character called The Catbus, a grinning feline whose seats are covered in fur.

    She’s pimped her Hongguang Mini to resemble it, spending around 15,000 yuan ($2,300) to cover the car’s interior with brown velveteen and studding the roof with lights that sparkle at night.

    “A lot of my friends have the Mini, you see them everywhere in Liuzhou,” said Zhang, who lives with her parents (they drive a BMW sedan). “I love things that reflect my character. I may change the look of the car again if there’s other stuff I fancy.”

    As frivolous as turning a set of wheels into a fashion accessory may seem, there’s a very real market up for grabs.

    The global shortage of semiconductors is also weighing on Wuling, with the Hongguang Mini, despite being a basic EV, still requiring over 100 chips. Hongguang Mini production has been impacted by the shortfall, with output of the Macaron expected to be down around 15% in May, according to Zhang.

    The hefty sales target for 2022 is the cornerstone of Wuling’s plan to maintain its market-leading momentum. After debuting a convertible Hongguang Mini at the Shanghai Auto Show in April, it’s aiming to release a mid-cycle enhancement of the vehicle later this year and is working on a two-seater EV targeted at younger men, Zhang said.

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    In This Story: China

    China is the third largest country in the world by area and the largest country in the world by population. Properly known as the People’s Republic of China, the political territory of the country includes the former nations of Tibet and Hong Kong. The capital is Beijing.

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