To shop for an electric car right now is to encounter an embarrassment of riches. In the United States, almost every major automaker has its own EV model, if not several. You can get a Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf for less than $30,000, or a Porsche Taycan Turbo S for nearly $200,000. You can get an electric pickup truck from Ford, Tesla, or Rivian, a midsize five-seater from Hyundai or Kia or Volkswagen, or even unusual things like the new Cybertruck. There’s a lot, and it’s all pretty exciting.
But you know what EV you can’t easily buy in the U.S.? A Changli Freeman, which at $1,200 is one of the cheapest cars in the world. As a professional car reviewer, I couldn’t travel to test-drive interesting cars during the early pandemic, so I did the next best thing: went to the website Alibaba, and bought a Changli. After I paid $2,000 for shipping and customs, the car arrived at my doorstep months later in a massive cardboard box. It barely looks like a car, and barely is one: It has a top speed of about 25 miles per hour and battery range of about 27 miles, according to my own tests. But it’s not a toy: It has a roof rack, a radio that plays MP3s, and even a backup camera. I use it for far more of my basic transportation needs than you’d guess was possible.
The Changli is at the bottom of a deliriously varied electric-car market in China that should make Americans feel deeply jealous. That 50 kinds of fully electric cars are available in the U.S. may seem like a lot. Though in China, you can find some 235 filling virtually every possible niche for price, luxury, technology, utility, and so much more. “Chinese consumers are the luckiest EV buyers in the world,” says Tycho de Feijter, an expert on the Chinese car market at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands. But if you’re hoping that you might be able to buy these cars like you do so many other Chinese-made gadgets, keep dreaming. Without them, America’s sorely needed transition to cleaner cars may be slower than it otherwise would.
If Tesla tells the story of EVs in the U.S., in China, the carmaker BYD does the same. Initially a maker of cellphone batteries, BYD did not release its first electric car until 2009. When asked about BYD in a Bloomberg interview two years later, Elon Musk flat-out laughed at the company, saying, “I don’t think they have a great product.” And yet in the final quarter of 2023, BYD surpassed Tesla to become the biggest EV seller in the world. BYD has become a massive juggernaut, with reportedly about 90,000 employees in just their R&D division, compared to Tesla’s 128,000 employees total.
A large reason for BYD’s success is that its cars are much more affordable than what we are used to here: Its best-selling model is a stylish sedan that starts for less than $14,000. Cost is one of the most striking aspects of the Chinese EV market generally: The average price for an EV in China is about $35,000, compared with more than $53,000 in the U.S. And that’s just the average. When you get to the bottom end, things get really interesting. Of course, there’s the Changli, which is colloquially known in China as an “old man happy car” because it is used by old men to pick up grandkids or go to the market or whatever else. I happen to live in a college town that is unusually suited to puttering around in a ridiculous little EV, but other cheap Chinese EVs can do a lot more.
Take the Changan Lumin, for example. It is a sleek four-seat hatchback complete with high-tech headlights that look a bit like a pair of friendly eyes staring back at you. It’ll go about 60 mph, just enough to make it highway capable, and costs about $7,500. New. That’s a new-car price. The Wuling Mini EV is a similar car that’s even cheaper, retailing for less than $5,000; for a little more than $12,000, the technology-packed Baojun KiWi EV comes with a feature that allows it to park itself.
In the U.S., the list of not just new EVs, but any new car starting at just over $10,000 is precisely zero cars long. The American car market has never really been kind to cheap cars. It’s harder for automakers to make money on entry-level vehicles, so they tend to get ignored in favor of yet another pickup truck slathered in leather and LCD screens, and named for some breathtaking region in the Southwest. EVs have only amplified this trend, as carmakers sink billions of dollars into electrification: There are lots of very expensive SUVs and pickup trucks, but not a whole lot else.
If you want to know what the post-gas future looks like, the Chinese car market is as close as you can get. Whatever kind of EV you might want, chances are you can find it. There are sleek minivan-like crossovers; premium, high-status vehicles that we don’t really have a category for here in America; and ones like the Xpeng X9 and Zeeker 009, which look like spaceships for the ultra-wealthy villains in a sci-fi movie. There are electric supercars, hardcore off-road vehicles, delivery vehicles, luxury sedans, family cars.
The Chinese EV market is so big that it has room for something sorely lacking in the American EV market: fun. And I don’t just mean “fast,” as fun gets so often reduced to here; I mean actual fun. EVs are bringing more tech into cars than ever before, but the features in Chinese EVs seem downright futuristic. You can find cars with augmented-reality dashboards, massaging seats, in-car projector screens, refrigerators, and customizable emoji headlights.
One Chinese car, the Ora Punk Cat, is indeed a bit punk in the sense that it looks like a retro-futuristic take on an old Volkswagen Beetle, with a ‘70s design and big LCD screens. (As if the Punk Cat wasn’t weird enough, the model has a sibling—the Ballet Cat—that is specifically targeted toward women.)
Perhaps all of these cheap, futuristic EVs are what America is missing. But one of the biggest challenges that EVs face here is not the cars, but the chargers. In America, charging stations are still too hard to find, and they are too unreliable. China’s charging network is much more extensive than America’s, even in rural areas. Ash Sutcliffe, of the massive Chinese carmaker Geely, told me that in the eastern part of the country, you’re generally never more than a kilometer away from a charging station.
China has also been more willing to try things such as battery swapping—where, rather than being charged, the huge depleted EV battery is swapped out and replaced with a new one in just a few minutes. Battery swapping has never been successfully implemented at scale in the U.S., which is a shame, as it has the potential to be a much more sensible approach to EV charging. The Chinese automaker NIO, meanwhile, has already completed 30 million battery swaps.
But none of this really explains why China’s EV are so much more robust and varied than America’s. Part of it is that China’s population is concentrated in dense urban areas, which means that charging access and battery range are less of an issue than they are to Americans, allowing for greater EV adoption. And unlike in the U.S., Chinese buyers are generally more interested in technology and the user experience of a car than in its driving experience, de Feijter said, a plus for EVs, which mostly all drive the same.
China’s cars are also cheaper because of questionable labor standards and generous national subsidies. For EV buyers, “Chinese cities offer additional subsidies and other perks, like shorter waiting lists for license plates and free parking spots,” de Feijter said. He added that the national government has “actively supported the creation of an EV industrial ecosystem, ranging from mining to battery making to software.” Perhaps most important, China dominates the world’s battery supply chain, making more than 80 percent of all EV battery cells.
Although a lot of why China is winning the EV race has to do with the very specific set of circumstances in China, these cars are making their way across the world. Europe now accounts for a third of all Chinese EV exports, as Chinese brands offer EV models at prices that often undercut their competitors. BYD plans to soon launch its luxury Yangwang U8 SUV in Europe, which the company says can float in water for 30 minutes. But the one place you won’t find these EVs is the U.S. No Chinese brand is selling cars under its own name in America, though some carmakers, such as Volvo, have models built in China (and the company is part of the large Chinese carmaker Geely.)
That is the end result of steep tariffs on Chinese cars, and subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act intended to help ramp up America’s EV and battery industries rather than relying on China. The IRA offers up to a $7,500 tax credit on “clean vehicles,” but this incentive isn’t valid for vehicles that use parts made in China and other “foreign entities of concern.” In effect, the goal is to replicate the kind of battery advantages that China now has. Even such protectionary policies may not be enough to keep out China’s EVs, considering how cheap they are. Chinese automakers already sell cars in Mexico, and they have plans for factories in the country that could more easily let them also sell their cars in the U.S. “Frankly, I think, if there are not trade barriers established,” Musk said of Chinese automakers last week, “they will pretty much demolish most other companies in the world.”
For now, America is missing out on some of the best EVs in the world. The IRA may do its job and deliver us more affordable, incredible electric cars made in the States, but the longer we have to wait, the more carbon may get released in the process. If it makes you feel better, you’ll be able to legally import an Ora Punk Cat or Ballet Cat to America as soon as it turns 25 years old, in 2047. If you want, I’ll go halfsies on a shipping container to bring a few over.