Home » This Chinese Microcar Is The Tiny EV You Secretly Really Want

This Chinese Microcar Is The Tiny EV You Secretly Really Want

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I know it’s bad form to start a piece of writing with a bad attitude, but I really can’t stand the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV. Listen, I can understand its appeal; it’s charming little cube-like design, a base price that is about as much as a family of four would spend at a T-Mobile store on matching iPhone 14s. But, like, it’s not a real car, is it?

Sure, it’s got four wheels, a motor, and some modern conveniences, but underneath, it’s a “car” largely in the sense it can move under its own power. It’s very slow, and can’t go very far, and both Chinese and Western journalists alike have derided its kind of crude design. I mean, it’s a tiny car, only about 10 inches longer than a Smart Fortwo, with a three-link solid axle like what you’d find on a very cheap light truck. And it has no rear bumper, meaning that even acute rear crashes put the car at serious risk. To top it all off, it can’t fast charge, it doesn’t handle well, the heat sucks, and it can barely go 60 mph.

We don’t need the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV. What we really need, as I learned at the Paris Motor Show, is the Leapmotor T03.

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I’ve watched Leapmotor from afar for a while now, obsessing watching for the past 15 years as I moved from high school to college, and now as a working automotive journalist, as China went from making cloned crap to some truly world-class vehicles that serve the needs first and foremost, of Chinese people. Leapmotor kind of came from left field, although, I guess with the sheer number of EV startups in China, it’s not that far from left field. The brand started with a small EV sports coupe that to me, looked like a Ford ZX2 run through a cyberpunk DALL-E filter. Most recently, the brand pivoted to bigger luxury-oriented SUVs and sedans, but before that, it introduced a small city-oriented EV that wowed a lot of folks: the T03.

From what I gather, the Leapmotor T03 would be in the same class as the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, but the T03 is more than double the price, competing against more expensive tiny EV offerings from GM-backed Baojun. As it should be, it’s double the car. It has double the power, and double the battery, and the interior doesn’t look to be made of plastic wasn’t good enough to be recycled. The car has been wowing journalists; Eliot from Fully Charged had glowing impressions of the car. But, seeing is believing. A car that photographs and videos well might be significantly less impressive in person. 

I got the chance to find out for myself. I was at this year’s Paris Motor Show, strolling around the somewhat empty convention center. Tucked away in the corner, near the BYD and DS (Citroën) stands, sat a French importing company that had a few Leapmotor products it had planned to port to the French EV market. The Leapmotor C11 EV SUV was locked and off-limits, but the super cute T03 was free to be pawed through.

From my initial quality perception, the Leapmotor was as impressive as English-speaking outlets have claimed.

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Compared to the Wuling Mini Hongguang EV, the Leapmotor T03’s front-motor, front-wheel-drive design is pretty standard to nearly small EVs, but remember, cars like the Hongguang Mini EV seem to have platform designs that are more akin to Jason’s Changli, rather than, say, any given subcompact car, ever. The T03 uses pretty substantial MacPherson struts up front, instead of some shit that looks stolen from a cheap scooter. The rear uses a pleasantly benign semi-independent torsion beam rear axle, instead of a chicken-leg skinny solid rear axle with a motor the size of a Conair hair dryer that feeds directly into it. Hell, the battery is even liquid-cooled, not just cooled by essentially a box fan on top of the battery, or nothing at all, which is common in very cheap EVs. This is a real car, folks.

Inside, the ergonomics are usable, reminiscent of, say, any number of tall city cars like the Fiat 500. Plastics fit well, although they are hard – but what do you expect from such a cheap car? The UX on the infotainment screen and gauge cluster was really speedy and very easy to use. The trunk and back seats are reasonably spacious for how tiny the car is, and overall it just shows that the designers at Leapmotor thought about what matters in a tiny, cheap EV.

 

My French is just as bad as my Mandarin, meaning I can’t speak either, but I did notice that the French-market Leapmotor T03 has had a few engineering changes to make it suitable for French roads. I tried to reach out to Leapmotor’s official channels, but they’re being a bit mum about the changes the car has had for Europe. Still, I can use my eyes; the Chinese market T03 only has a 36 kWh battery and a 75 horsepower motor, and it’s also limited to around 65 mph. 

Yet I noticed that the T03 on display had a bigger battery (41 kWh), and a bigger motor, good for 109 horsepower. It looks like the Chinese market gets both variants, but it appears that Leapmotor is leaving the standard version back home. I’ll bet the European T03 is capable of speeds more suitable to Western freeways, given the bigger electric motor. The importer claims it should be rated for 280km (173 miles) on the WLTP cycle, also pretty damn respectable for a tiny car. 

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I feel so silly being obsessed with this dumb little car. It’s on the dull side of stylish, and it’s maybe more than a little inspired style-wise by the Smart ForFour. Yet, the car’s ethos is refreshingly basic; it’s a tiny, well-made small car that doesn’t seem to have any strange compromises. It can go on the freeway, it’s easy to park, and it’s not too expensive — the complete anthesis to big-ass EV hypertrucks that investors and brands have collectively decided that we’ll all be driving in the near future. 

I’m gonna need one of the OEMs to do more cars like the Leapmotor T03, please.

Kevin Williams is an automotive journalist based in Ohio. His writing has appeared in Road & Track, Jalopnik, AutoGuide and many other places.

All photos via Kevin Williams

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7 Responses

  1. Sounds solid.Well done Leapmotor.
    I cant believe they screwed up the styling though.It’s not terrible but definitely off.Are we re-doing nineties curves and combining it with chinese awkwardness now?

  2. So it’s an EVKei? At first I was very meh as electric city cars have an inherent problem: most of your parking in a big city – particularly in Europe, and especially in Paris is on-the-street, catch-as-catch-can, good-luck-buddy stuff, because any type of dedicated parking spot is expensive and if you start insisting on a power outlet, the price is going to go up.

    Then I recalled reading that Paris is requiring all vehicles in the city to be EV’s in 2030. 2023/2024 would be a good time for a foreign maker trying to the market to establish a beachhead to learn the ins and outs of French Bureaucracy, and do a good shake-down on the car to adjust it for the the quirks of the French market. Cup Baguette Holders?

    https://electrek.co/2017/10/12/paris-electric-cars-2030-ahead-of-france/

  3. As the owner of a 2017 Fiat 500e, I highly approve of the sentiment of this article. Hopefully the upgraded French-market version is capable of surviving impacts better than the lesser version. Other than the small overlap driver’s side test, the 500 has excellent crash ratings, so I feel safe in it for the most part. But mostly, it’s just FUN. With 111 ponies available instantly, and decent handling, it’s capable of getting out of everyone’s way, it’s a pure pleasure to park anywhere and it’s totally adorkable. I’ve never had a car that so many people asked me about randomly in parking lots. The range is a bit short, but I only drive other vehicles for longer (>80 mile) trips, or if I really need the load capacity of my Tundra, which is to say, very rarely.

    So yeah, bring on the small, fun, moderately-priced EV, says I.

  4. It sure does sound nice, but I can’t help but wonder about crash safety. Colliding with one of the quite common American Battle Wagons we call SUVs and pickups would surely be a thing.

    (Don’t call me Shirley!)

  5. Like many products Chinese these days there are a few genuine great buys but mostly they are far cheaper for a reason. Sure they do everything the more expensive stuff does…but for how long and how dangerous is the failure mode? Then you have to square the idea that the reason a product is cheaper may simple be because IP theft and reverse engineering someone else’s work is cheaper.

    Obviously this isn’t true in whole or part of all Chinese goods…nor does it matter, there are more than enough sales all over the world to show that people value price over other considerations.

    In the end, you always have to ask yourself the question – WHY is it so much cheaper?

    1. This little EV is particular is roughly the same price as the slightly bigger Kia Picanto or even Mitsubishi Mirage so I don’t see it as being ridiculously cheap against other cars in its class..

      I do know that importers of Chinese made vehicles into Oz started off with significantly lower comparative pricing by reducing their margin on each vehicle and by minimising local adaptation of vehicle dynamics and user interfaces. The lack of localism in their products has begun to bite them in the arse and is being rectified…which has impacted pricing so now the comparative pricing gap has often closed up dramatically and in some cases gone negative on some models against their Korean competition…

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