China is the biggest market for electric cars in the world. It has the most domestic electric automakers. Three of their battery companies make approximately half of all the electric car batteries used on this planet. One of those three companies is BYD, which is also the biggest maker of electric and hybrid cars on the globe (yes, bigger than Tesla). They just debuted the BYD Seagull, an electric car that starts at $11,000, and I think it’s the first EV that’s both extremely cheap and something truly suitable for a global audience. That’s a big deal.
People Want Inexpensive Cars, Not Cheap Ones
The extremely cheap car has been a fantasy for roughy the last 125 years, with the Curved Dash Olds probably earning the title of the first truly “economy car” with a price tag of $650, or about $24,000 adjusted for inflation. While not cheap, another reasonable turn-of-the-century car would probably be a Packard that cost about four times as much. When the Ford Model T went into production it cost around $1,000 in 1908 money, though mass production allowed them to actually lower that price over time until the Model T dropped to less than $400, or about $10,000 in 2023 dollars.
Many other cars followed this same model, with varying degrees of success. In particular, the Volkswagen Beetle proved to be just enough car for just enough people for many decades (it was about $1,600 in 1968 or $14,000 today), which is how Volkswagen sold more than 23 million of them globally, making it the best selling car in history. It’s long been the assumption that a cheap car from somewhere else would come in and spread across the globe in the same way as the Beetle, but the reality is nothing has quite had the right blend of style, value, and fun.
I remember when the Tata Nano debuted in 2008. There were all these excited accounts of how this $2,500 Indian-built car would change the future of automotive. It would get 52 MPG! It would be cheap! It could fit a small family!
It failed. Badly. Why? This Autoweek article sums it up quite nicely: “The Tata Nano failed because nobody aspires to own a cheap car”
It couldn’t really compete with scooters and motorbikes when it came to extreme rupee-pinching, while a nicer used car with more features and a more premium badge on the front could be had for a similar outlay. And compared to slightly more expensive, yet still relatively affordable, competitors like the Datsun Go or Renault Kwid: The Nano comes off very much like it was built to a specific, and low, price point. The Go and the Kwid may not be paragons of luxury (or safety), but they do a little bit better job of dressing up their fundamental frugality.
It’s why Jason’s Changli, while being the cheapest electric car you can buy, is not something everyone would necessarily desire to own. Most people don’t want to have to use a chainsaw to fix their car.
China Already Has A Cheaper EV You Wouldn’t Buy
The best selling electric car in China is the approximately $5,000 Wuling Mini EV. It’s a cute, tiny car with about 27 horsepower and enough range to take you 75 miles. For a little more cash you can get a long range, high-speed version that’ll go a whopping 62 mph and can even stretch to 175 miles. For a city car that’s totally adequate.
As much as the curious autojournalist in me would love for these to be sold here, it’s unlikely most reasonable consumers in places like America or Germany would buy such a small car–it has a 76-inch wheelbase, which is a hair longer than a Smart ForTwo, but is as much as half a foot narrower than the Smart.
So, we can fantasize about a city full of Mini EVs in the same way we can desire Japanese kei cars. It’s a great fantasy. Because Wuling is partially owned by General Motors, if they wanted to bring it here, in theory, they could. That they won’t and have not tells you all you need to know.
The BYD Seagull Is Inexpensive But Not Cheap
We’ll continue to learn more about the BYD Seagull as they start going out to journalists, but reports from Shanghai’s auto show this week make it sound like it has the ideal balance of capability, performance, style, and thrift. I’ll start with performance and price, because those are fairly objective measures.
The Seagull, according to reports, comes in two variants. The base version costs 78,800 RMB (or $11,400) and comes with a 75 horsepower motor that can get the car up to 80 mph. More impressively, the vehicle can go up to 305 km on the Chinese range cycle, or 189 miles. That number could be lower if measured on the EPA scale, but it’s still impressive.
Arguably, the 95,800 RMB ($14,000) version is an even better value on paper. For just a few grand more there’s a 38 kWh lithium iron phosphate battery that gets 405 km of range, or about 250 miles. Both can use DC charging to charge up to 80% in a reported 30 minutes.
It’s not super small either, with a wheelbase of approximately 98.4 inches and a length of 148 inches. That wheelbase is approximately what you’d get in the last generation of five-door Ford Fiesta sold here, though it’s a few inches shorter. Again, we’re not talking about an SUV here, but it’s not impractically tiny. Think of it as a Fiat Panda, basically.
Those are the objective measures. Subjectively, I think the car looks like a totally fine car to own. It was styled by Wolfgang Egger, who you might know as the guy gorgeous Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. Egger also worked at Lamborghini and Audi and there’s definitely something Lambo-esque about the front headlights. Overall, the use of a blacked-out c/d-pillar, the darkly-colored five-spoke wheels, and the body sculpting give it an aesthetic that can work in any market.
While the Seagull’s interior isn’t extremely complex, it has all the features people expect out of a normal car, with seating for four or five individuals. The car offers a digital display above the attractive flat-bottomed steering wheel and a 12.8-inch infotainment system in the middle for the driver/passenger. There’s also a wireless charging pad for people who go in for that sort of thing. If there’s anything that might limit its popularity abroad it’s that it only has two cupholders.
The Seagull Already Looks Like A Hit
This was referenced in The Morning Dump today, but it’s worth highlighting this excellent and punny headline from Reuters: “Shanghai auto show crowds flock to BYD’s Seagull.” Get it? Super hoping this is a reference to English new wave band Flock of Seagulls. Here’s what they said:
At the Shanghai auto show this week, the largest crowds can be found around an unassuming, bright yellow hatchback parked at the booth of China’s largest electric carmaker BYD.
“It’s my kind of car, it’s suitable for driving to and from work, and you don’t need to manage anything, just use the battery … it’s also a relatively low cost product,” said Fan Yuhong, 28, a visitor to the fair who works in advertising and was among those at the booth.
Bill Russo, the Shanghai-based founder and CEO of strategic advisory firm Automobility, predicts the Seagull will become the best selling car in China within six months of its launch.
While it’s impossible to perfectly predict will or will not sell, I think Russo’s prediction sounds reasonable. BYD’s Song, available as a regular gas-powered car, hybrid or full EV, is already China’s best selling car, and the EV version of that costs around $28,000. This is less car, but it’s also more than half as much. Building something that’s more car than a Mini EV but cheaper than a Song seems like a no-brainer.
BYD has announced plans to expand its small footprint in Europe to sell across most major markets, focusing on slightly higher-end electric cars and crossovers with longer ranges than European and American companies at more affordable prices. Could something like the Seagull follow? Absolutely.
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