Home » How My Changli Inspired A Man To Start Selling Cheap, Low-Speed, Street-Legal EVs In The U.S.

How My Changli Inspired A Man To Start Selling Cheap, Low-Speed, Street-Legal EVs In The U.S.

Wimk Top

I speak from experience when I say that a tiny, slow-ass, ridiculous-looking electric car is actually a really useful thing. My time with the cheapest EV in the world, the Changli, has taught me this lesson, because I’ve found that a surprisingly large percentage of my day-to-day transportation needs can be easily met with a tiny, slow-ass, ridiculous-looking electric car. I do love my Changli, but even keeping in mind that this Alibaba-sourced car has far more amenities than I’d ever have guessed (backup camera, MP3 player, metric tons of sex appeal) it’s still pretty marginal for most people who, unlike myself, feel like its below their station to, say, drink out of a plastic cup. That’s where a company like Wink comes in. It’s importing low-speed EVs from China, but it’s using models multiple notches above the Changli in terms of amenities and quality, and the company taking care of all the importation and federalization stuff. The crazy part is that it’s started doing this because of my original video. What?

Yep, that’s right. I just got off the phone with Wink CEO Mark Dweck, and he told me that he had the idea to import little useful cars like these after watching my first Changli video two years ago. “You don’t know this, but you’re the one who woke me up to this. I saw your YouTube video!” he said. I’m as shocked as you are, especially when I learned that Mark is a genuine, no-joke car guy — the sort of person that has owned multiple Aston Martins and Cords and Duesenbergs and all manner of remarkable cars. His thinking was that the market could use a car like the Changli, just, you know, better — something that he himself would own and drive.

[Ed Note: This is a real conversation I got to listen to. I called up what I thought was the press number for Wink after they emailed us and, rather than get a PR person, I got the CEO! When I told him I worked with Jason he was excited because that’s where he got the idea. Some other things he said during the conversation: “I’m a very experienced car collector and I restored an MG when I was 14 in my parent’s hallway in Brooklyn.” He also had these words of wisdom: “It’s easy to make cheap products in China, it’s harder to make good cheap products. And bad cheap products are just shit, pardon my English.” Finally, he invited us down to drive the car and told us he’d even take us to a fancy dinner at some place called Gray’s Papaya, which I assume has at least three Michelin stars. – MH]

You know what? Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the Changli, here’s a little video recap I did after a year of ownership for The Old Site so we’re all on the same page regarding the general category of these kinds of vehicles:

Okay, so essentially Wink is importing somewhat higher spec vehicles and selling them as street-legal, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) for prices that go from $8,995 to $11,995. That’s a good bit more than the $3,300 or so I paid to buy and import my Changli, but avoiding the decidedly non-trivial hassles of importation and registration is unquestionably worth at least some amount of money.

In fact, making one of these street-legal isn’t exactly easy. Maybe mine isn’t exactly right. I’m not saying, and what are you, a lawyer? But Wink does seem to be doing the work to make these DOT-approved and a bit more comfortable for the American market. From them:

“Wink’s vehicles are fully street-legal, DOT-compliant LSVs that are legally allowed to operate on roads posted up to 35 mph. They’re ideal for commuting in crowded urban cities, suburban grocery runs, beach and island towns, retirement communities and anywhere else that large or expensive cars are a disadvantage.

All of Wink’s vehicles are fully enclosed and can seat four adults. Far from golf carts, these micro electric cars feature air conditioning, heating, power windows and door locks, key fob for wireless lock/unlocking, a backup camera, dual circuit hydraulic disc brakes, folding rear seats for extra storage capacity, and more.

As a separate class of vehicles, LSVs aren’t technically cars but rather fall into their own legal category. They must adhere to certain production standards, include specific safety equipment, and have VINs on file with the NHTSA. Wink’s vehicles are produced to exceed these safety and production requirements, and our factory is fully registered with the NHTSA.”

Mark also explained just how much is added to the cars to make them acceptable for Wink. There’s DOT-compliant lights and mirrors, DOT compliant special windshield, a unique dashboard and instruments, dual-circuit brakes with an electronic e-brake, DOT-compliant seat belts, and more. These aren’t the same as what’s sold for the Chinese domestic market.

There’s two main models of Wink, it seems, the Sprout and the Mark 1, and each of those is available with solar-panel-equipped variant. The Mark 2 appears to be a four-door variant of the Mark 1:

Winklineup

Wink seems to be pushing the very Mini-inspired Mark 1 currently, so let’s dig into that a bit. Also, they emailed me a bunch of pictures of the Mark 1, so that doesn’t hurt, either.

Mk1s

Wink isn’t trying to pretend that these cars are being hand-made in their own workshop by specially-trained Swiss craftsman who have been passing down the art of making small EV city cars from generation to generation since 1541, but they don’t exactly come out and say what Chinese EV they’re importing, either. I was curious, though, and a bit of digging on Alibaba soon revealed something that looks like it may be similar to this one:

Fastdragon

The Wink Mark 1s seem to be just about identical to the Shenzen Fast Dragon Technology (hell of a name) cars that sell for $3,000. I asked CEO Mark about this, and he said he did not deal with Shenzen Fast Dragon, as they are not the original manufacturer, and that he surveyed dozens factories,  and sent in inspection teams to find the actual source. They eventually settled on a modest-sized factory/carmaker, because that allowed them more flexibility to undertake the customizations they wanted.

Also interesting: those big fans on the dash:

Winkint1

The interior has some elements and materials I recognize from the Changli, but it’s very clearly much more refined. The headliner material looks familiar, which is fine, because, despite it being the color of a fuzzy band aid, has proven to be durable. The seat vinyl looks similar to the Changli also, which makes me wonder about how well the stitching will hold up, but at the same time my experience has found it to be quite adequate.

Winkint2

The basic range for the Mark 1 and 2 is 60 miles from its 60V/80 amp-hour lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, which is certainly good enough for the sorts of use this car will get. The top speed has been limited to 25 mph, and based on these specs that tell me the Winks have a motor that makes 3kw/4 horsepower (peak power 7kw/ 9.,3 hp!), I’d bet this accelerates a good bit better than my 1.1 hp Changli.

The specs for the solar-equipped version also say “up to 175 miles per week” but, like anything solar, there’s so many variables that can affect these results, I wouldn’t feel comfortable trusting any numbers for how much extra range could be expected.

Winkred

My biggest question about these Winks is why they decided on a model that looks so much like a car that already has a presence in the US market, the BMW-owned Mini? I feel like by picking this design, they’re just asking for trouble. Remember the whole shitshow that Indian carmaker Mahindra went through with their Roxor off-road vehicle because it looked like a Jeep? And Mahindra even had a long history with official Jeep licenses, something that Wink definitely does not have with Mini.

There are so many other options they could have picked, too. And, sure, a number of these are knockoff-type designs as well, but they could have picked something that has no American presence, like a Citroën Ami or Honda e, both of which have similar Chinese knockoff EVs:

Amihonda

I did ask Wink’s CEO Mark about this, and he told me that he has had years and years of experience in copyright and trademark law, and he’s certain that there are enough significant differences between this and Mini’s designs that he’s not concerned.

Winkrear

Overall, though, I think the American market needs more cars like these, because they can absolutely fill a transportation role while being environmentally friendly, cheap as pickled dirt to own and maintain, and even fun. Because they are! Parking becomes a non-issue with these things, and the process of driving a couple miles to grab groceries or takeout just feels easier and more fun in some little thing like this than a whole 4,000-pound SUV. Save your big car for the longer, faster trips, and use one of these guys for the close work.

It works, and I know because I’ve done it. If a company like Wink can take away the hassle of registration and importation, they may be worth a look, even at $9,000 or so. Plus, after talking to the CEO, I really do think these have been significantly upgraded for safety and DOT compliance. The CEO claims that they are the only company that sells cars like this that are absolutely legal and compliant. I can’t prove that at this moment, but they do seem to have done the hard work.

I’m going to try and get Wink to let me drive one of these so I can really see what they’re like. If I can pull that off, you’ll be first to hear about it!

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54 Responses

  1. Hey Jason…
    This isn’t the only company doing this in the U.S.. “Kandi America” is headquartered not far from my home in north Dallas (inside a converted Academy Sports building). They are NOT retailing the vehicles. They are selling to independent dealers. BUT, if you go to the building, there are pallets stacked high with various big and small Chinese EVs, and some are just down on the lot. Two-seat pickups the size of a Mini. Big, 4-door pickups that look like 4Runners. Other various small four-seaters. All dirt cheap. All with a top speed around 30MPH and a battery rated for roughly 30 miles of charge. Fascinating, but wish we could get a street legal version with a top speed of 50mph for the streets in Dallas (a lot of 45mph speed limits on major streets).

    https://www.kandiamerica.com/

    Using Google Maps street view gives you the headquarters building https://goo.gl/maps/oD4BkrzQFb71XppR7

    1. Having done essentially that (though I got an ICE 500 with a 5 speed and not the 500e) I can confirm that the 500 is a MUCH better car than it has any right to be.
      Unfortunately I doubt anyone outside of CA or OR could find a 500e since they were only sold in those states…

      1. I bought a 2018 500e from Utah (I live in Colorado). There were plenty available in the Colorado used market, but only the boring black, grey and white ones. I really wanted the orange with white interior (Dreamsicle) version, but couldn’t find one so I got the Celeste Blú model and I love it. I agree with you that the build quality, comfort and pretty much everything else about it are much better than I expected.

        There aren’t as many around as there were 6 months ago, as they’ve almost all been bought up, but Carvana used to have a bunch of them in their inventory. A quick search on Cars.com turns up 180 of them from all across the country. If you want one, I bet you can find one close to wherever you live.

      1. Actually, you can, if you buy a FMVSS500-rated one and live in a state with LSV rules. The EZ-Go 2Five is one example, and in my state of Illinois would be legal to have plated and drive on streets with speed limits of 35mph or less. I believe there are other manufacturers selling FMVSS500 models as well.

  2. I have told everyone I know that I would immediately buy a Citröen Ami if Stellantis deigned to import them here. I just dislike the almost-but-not-quite designs of the Chinese EVs they export here. Their domestic-market EVs aren’t bad looking either, just what we get.

    It helps that I live in Brooklyn where 25mph and 30mph roads are the norm and the only driving I really need to do is to Wegman’s, Costco, and the bike shop.

    1. My first thought. However, the golf carts that are currently everywhere in the SC beach towns I think are more for cruising teenagers, who would not like to be seen in one of these. So maybe Florida retirement communities.

      1. Given how easy it is to get a driver’s license in most states (Hell, all of them?) compared to most countries, that’s kind of a distinction without a difference. My dog almost passed his test -and he woulda too but he turned out to be color-blind (who knew?) and so he kept chasing cars through red lights.

    1. Now that would be fun if American’s started to hit on the Ligiers (1) and Aixams.

      (1) yes THAT Ligier.
      It’s the same guy that sold 16 years old, no driving license required, microcars and created, owned and managed a F1 Team.

      1. Technically, if you count “being owned by Ligier” as being Ligier, there was a US-market version of the Microcar MC2 with an EV conversion, the ZENN, and late ZENNs would’ve been produced after Ligier bought Microcar.

    1. Same here. I could just about make it to the grocery store, but not the one I prefer to shop at and only by one carefully-chosen route. It’s also a route that is mostly 35 mph, and while these cars might be allowed on that road, doing 25 mph flat-out in a tiny almost-car while everyone else is doing 40 mph in huge pickup trucks sounds terrifying.

  3. probably the market in the midwest will be the electric bike crowd that suddenly want some weather protection for not much more money outlay. but as long as shitbox winter beaters exist this will be a tough sell.

  4. You’ll get a few customers that buy it for the novelty, but I don’t think it will amount to much more than that. City cars have come and gone, but never taken root here. One of the pros of living in a city is not having to deal with car ownership. Yeah, this is only $10k, but you still have to have a place to park it. You will still need insurance. You will still need a license. etc. etc. If you have to deal with all of that, why not have a real car you can use anywhere? For people outside the city, it cannot take the place of a real car, so they will need to have multiple vehicles. The rise of the crew-cab pickup and monster CUV proves that people want the swiss army solution, and not a specific tool for different uses.

  5. “years and years of experience in copyright and trademark law”

    Hmm, unfortunately for him, it’s patent law he needs to be concerned about, and in particular Mini’s design patents…

  6. Darn, this totally wouldn’t work for me. All the roads I need to get anywhere in my slice of suburbia are 40 mph or more.

    A used LEAF or 500e would be the ticket.

  7. I love that someone’s trying to give us bargain runabouts,but these are too expensive for what you get.

    Something like the Wuling MINI EV would be GREAT.Assuming it could be made to pass safety regs,which is probably unlikely

  8. My custom-built bicycle/microcar thing doesn’t need a drivers license/insurance/registration/tags/ect. to be operated in my state, would cost roughly $3k in parts purchased as one-offs to replicate(cost would go way down in bulk purchases), gets triple the range of these offerings, and can cruise at 45 mph. It weighs all of 91 lbs, and gets a 150+ mile range at 30-35 mph speeds on a 1.5 kWh battery. If the battery runs out, no problem, as it can still be pedaled faster than a normal bicycle due to aerodynamic drag reduction, in spite of its weight. With the motor disabled, holding 20+ mph for hours at a time and sprinting to 35 mph on flat ground are both doable. It also has a trunk.

    I’m currently upgrading it from 4 horsepower to 13 horsepower, adding a roll cage, adding light-duty DOT rims with solar car tires, hydraulic disc brakes, a new more streamlined body shell, and other changes in preparation for being able to top 100 mph and do 0-60 mph in under 8 seconds. It’s going to weigh right at 100 lbs when finished, and it will still be pedalable with the motor disabled.

    Unfortunately, U.S. regulations won’t let me sell it as an ebike unless I limit it to 28 mph/750W. In many states, I have to restrict it to such to be legal on their roads, even though I can pedal it to faster than 28 mph with the electric assist disabled.

    It doesn’t need much battery, because the Wh/mile energy consumption is in the single digits on most days.

    1. I do not understand why they haven’t approached you yet about writing a piece about your vehicle? It’s not like they don’t do similar articles (I remember the piece about converting a Vespa to electric).

      1. Now would be a bad time, because it is currently disassembled and everything on it is being overhauled. It has over 70,000 miles on it and lots of things are worn. The time to do it would have been in the first few months of this site’s existence while I still had it fully assembled and was still using it as a daily.

        That said, I’m hoping to have the next iteration of it ready sometime next year. The next body is going to have about 1/3 as much drag as the one pictured, and ground clearance will be slightly increased. It’s going to be quite a fun machine, and serve as a proof of concept.

        Underneath the prototype plastic bodywork is a recumbent tricycle. Most cars start with more volume/mass/parts than needed and are then simplified/reduced. I’m taking the opposite approach. Start from zero and build up the bare minimum needed. This yields something much more efficient and less expensive to operate, while requiring less power for a given amount of performance. The cost and mass reductions cascade from there on every component of the vehicle. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute realized this more than 30 years ago, but was a lone voice in the wilderness on that.

        We could have single-seater enclosed microcars with Hayabusa motorcycle engines that get 500+ miles per gallon of gasoline or battery EVs that get single-digit Wh/mile electricity consumption when driven sanely with respect to the existing traffic laws, but would also be able to rip off 9 second 1/4 mile times when one doesn’t care about traffic laws, while costing as much to build and operate as a cheap Chinese moped or scooter or even a decent e-bike. But no one with such a vision has had the resources to make such a thing reality, and no one in the auto industry with the resources to make such a thing a reality wants it to be a reality because sales of existing expensive/high-margined cash cows will be compromised and so too will the recurring expenses that these cash cows impose.

        If your $5,000 runabout can allow you to drive all year on $20 worth of fuel or electricity, cost very little in maintenance, be repairable by Bubba with basic tools over a weekend and a few beers, and run circles around a $1 million hypercar on a track, then it gets a lot harder to justify the existence of that $1 million hypercar and that sort of performance loses its “exclusivity” by being opened up to the masses, and then the operators of such vehicles are not spending money making already rich people even richer.

      2. Here’s videos of me riding an earlier prototype of this vehicle back in 2018:

        https://vimeo.com/284616898

        https://vimeo.com/284616919

        When that video was taken, I was operating it without a motor in use. This body shell had about twice the drag as the one pictured in my profile.

        Take efficiency on that level, and run it off an internal combustion engine, and you could get many hundreds of miles per gallon of fuel, possibly thousands of miles per gallon with the right type of engine and properly selected gearing. Upgrading everything to handle car speeds on bad roads really isn’t that difficult and won’t add as much weight as you’d think, because the vehicle’s mass will stay low which reduces the loading on all of the components even at highway speeds. Basically, think of a faster, street legal, slightly crashworthy version of an Electrathon car, that you can still pedal, and that is what I’m seeking to build.

        I built mine in the kitchen of an apartment on a shoestring budget. The frame now has more than 70k miles on it.

  9. This would be a perfect second vehicle for us. It’s one mile from the front of our subdivision to either Walmart or a grocery store. One minor detail. That road is posted at 55 mph. Which is insane by the way but driving 25 on it is asking to be a hood ornament. Hell. Driving 55 on it is the same.

    1. The question in my mind is, why spend five figures on a second vehicle to do a job that your first vehicle presumably already handles just fine?

      1. If your first vehicle is perfectly suited, you might not be in the target demographic.

        I think in a lot of the suburban sprawl that most americans live in, there’s not really a great use case for these sorts of vehicles. Speeds are generally too high, parking isn’t an issue, distances can be longer than you would think, etc.

        But there’s places where that’s not the case, and having a smaller vehicle that’s cheap to operate, easy to park, etc makes sense. It’s not perhaps a high volume market segment but it might be large enough that there’s money to be made.

        It’s similar to the reason why there was an attempt by Smart with the fortwo to try and sell in America. Though at least in this case the vehicle you’re buying is actually cheaper than a normal new car rather than being in a similar price segment as the fortwo was, which I think really hindered smart amongst the folks who could have really made optimal use out of that vehicle’s particular attributes.

  10. For $9,000 you can get yourself an actual car with far more capability than these things, not to mention safety equipment. We’re talking about a perfectly decent used sedan, hatchback, or crossover from the mid-2010s, with about 100,000 miles on it. Up your budget to $12,000 and you can do much better than that. Yes they’re used, but I’ll bet you most of them still have more miles left in them than these imported LSVs do when brand new, and there are mechanics in every town who can repair and maintain them.

    They’re also not restricted to a 25 mph top speed, have ranges in the hundreds of miles, look normal (important to most people, believe it or not!), and if someone T-bones you in an intersection you are way less likely to become permanently disabled. They are more expensive to operate to be sure, but it’s an expense that most people understand and accept. Anyway short, in-city trips are pretty cheap even in a gas car, and you save money by only needing one vehicle that can do everything. I have a hard time seeing many people buying a $9,000+ LSV as their only vehicle—if that’s your entire car-buying budget, get yourself some kind of small crossover and you’ll have something with much broader utility.

    Now, I’m not saying nobody will buy these. Some people have the means and inclination to go out of their way to get something weird that suits the lifestyle that the buyer imagines themselves living. Believe me—as someone who goes around installing solar panels all day, I meet a lot of well-off, eco-conscious customers who sometimes make some rather quirky purchases in search of whatever techno-utopian vision of society they are striving toward. There are probably even enough such people to float a business on, at least for a while. If these types of vehicles are going to make a big impact though (and hey, it would be nice if they did as they consume way fewer resources than full-blown cars) they will need to be a lot cheaper.

    1. Sure, but have you seen the prices for literal golf carts lately? This is on par (pun intended) for price and much better equipped. Not to mention we are talking EVs, not ICE, and that’s a whole different world.

  11. I remember finding those “Sprout” ones that look like shrunken Jeeps on Alibaba in the past! They only cost $2000, but you had to buy a minimum of two at a time. However, one of the perks if you bought 100 of them was that you could put custom badges on it with your very own brand!

    It looks like Wink took them up on that offer.

  12. I live just north of Pasadena and I could get a lot of use out of one of these, but damned if I’m going to pay more than two or three grand for a vehicle I can’t pass a school bus in.

    1. You think this thing could handle the steep hills in your neighborhood? It has about the same horsepower as the 70cc Honda Passport scooter I drove around there in high school in the early ’80s and that was a struggle on the rare occasion I had a girl on the back.

  13. IIRC the main issue with the Mahindra was specifically the grille. That’s very Mini-esque but doesn’t straight copy a main feature so I don’t see the look being an issue.

  14. Let’s recap. DOT approves these on roads of 35 mph.max. Who knows what the real “standards” are to satisfy DOT, and if those fun-loving Chinese producers really meet them. You propose to operate these at speeds limited to 25mph, on American roads posted up to 35 mph. This company buys what AliBaba sells for $3,000, and sells it for around $10,000.in the good old USA.
    The most you can say about these things is that they are better than a Changli. No offense, Jason, but that is about the LOWEST bar you could set. Nobody in their right mind could feel safe driving these on an actual American street or road. Hell, even if these were able to achieve 35mph, they would become the sail cats of the Chinese clown car world. Around here, 35mph roads are regularly traversed at 45-50mph. Sorry for introducing reality here. EVERYBODY will be taking chances trying to get around these colorful rolling roadblocks. Hilarity and fatalities ensue.
    And one last thing. This another CHINESE piece of crap product, to enter our market to be paid for by Americans too stupid to notice that a real car can be obtained for that kind of money. Used, yes, rough looking, yes. But light years ahead of these little abominations. Oh, but they are ELECTRIC, right? So was Sing-Sing’s “old sparky”.

  15. These are great. If I lived in a resort area it would be perfect for the quick runs. Or put it in a travel tailer/RV garage. Heck, it can be towed behind a motorhome with a trailer.

    1. I like the idea of pairing it with an RV/motorhome. Being lighter and smaller than a regular car would make the transport much easier, and you could charge it off an RV hookup or the RVs own generator without much fuss. Assuming you aren’t parked too far from civilization, use it to make runs back to town for supplies. Or, use it to run around town when you *are* in civilization so you only have to find one parking spot for your enormous motoryacht.

        1. I’d say the trailer will be needed. Remember the couple who set miles of forest fires with a towed vehicle that had blown a tire? I recall the state was suing them to recover firefighting costs.

          If the vehicle is speed-rated at 25, I sure wouldn’t want to tow it at 55-75.

          Hey, Jason, what are the Changli’s tires rated for?

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