By Trefor Moss
SHANGHAI -- A tiny electric vehicle from General Motors Co. with a top speed of 62 miles an hour has zoomed past the Tesla Model 3 to become China's bestselling EV.
Launched in late July under GM's local Wuling brand, the Hongguang Mini costs $4,300 and primarily targets consumers in China's smaller, less affluent cities. The Model 3, which Tesla Inc. started producing in Shanghai last year, costs roughly $37,600 after subsidies and is tilted more toward buyers in China's wealthy metropolises.
GM's strategy to go after the low end of China's EV market runs counter to its approach in the U.S., where it plans to launch a battery-powered Hummer pickup truck under its GMC brand in about a year, priced at around $113,000. After years of struggling to sell relatively affordable electrics like the Chevrolet Bolt, GM's coming slate of EVs will include larger vehicles and luxury cars, which should help the company turn a profit on them, analysts say.
Through the three months ended Oct. 31, the Hongguang Mini notched 55,781 in sales, compared with the Model 3's 35,283 sales over that same stretch, according to the China Passenger Car Association. The duo are the top-selling EVs in China by a wide margin, accounting for nearly a quarter of the purchases.
Wuling, which GM produces through one of its two Chinese joint ventures with state-run SAIC Motor Corp., has been the dominant player in China's entry-level segment for many years. The Hongguang's instant success suggests Wuling is well-placed to maintain that position as auto makers transition away from gasoline to electric propulsion.
The mini EV also launched into a favorable market. Chinese EV sales emerged from a year-long slump in the summer and are now rapidly increasing again, more than doubling year-over-year in both September and October.
She Xiubing, an architect in the southern city of Shantou, bought a Hongguang last month for daily trips to her office and to her son's school, both of which are within a three-mile radius of her home. Its size was one attraction. "Driving a clunky sedan can be a nightmare here -- you can get stuck in an alley for half an hour," Ms. She said.
Millions of people in China drive electric scooters rather than cars, and for them the Hongguang is an appealing upgrade, offering better safety and cover from the elements, Ms. She said. It comes with few frills, but "you get what you pay for," Ms. She said.
Overall, about 144,000 EVs were sold in China last month. That compares with 30,590 plug-in vehicles sold in the U.S. in October, according to Argonne National Laboratory, which tracks U.S. EV sales.
The popularity of the Hongguang shows the potential for mass EV adoption across China if auto makers can produce cheap EVs that inspire confidence on the key issues of safety and range, said Michael Dunne, chief executive of the consulting firm ZoZo Go.
The Hongguang can travel 105 miles on a single full charge.
"GM can now say they're the market leader in EVs. That's quite an achievement," said Mr. Dunne, even if the margins on the Hongguang are thin. "The question is: How do you take those consumers to higher price points? It's really important they establish themselves at the high end."
In contrast with the Hongguang, GM has struggled to find buyers for higher-priced EVs released under the Buick brand. The company says it has more EVs in the pipeline. "We're well-prepared for this EV future," said a company spokeswoman, adding that EVs are set to account for 40% of GM's product launches in China over the next five years.
She didn't say whether the Hongguang Mini is profitable or whether GM is increasing output to meet demand. "But I can tell you we're selling every Hongguang we make," she said.
GM's rivals are also ramping up EV output. Volkswagen AG started production at a new Shanghai plant dedicated to EV production in October. Tesla is set to start building the Model Y crossover in Shanghai next year.
Ford Motor Co. had sought to challenge Wuling by forming a joint venture with Yongkang, China-based Zotye Automobile Co. in 2017 to produce affordable EVs targeting buyers in China's smaller cities. But the planned venture went nowhere as Zotye ran into financial difficulties culminating in a bankruptcy filing in September.
--Raffaele Huang in Beijing and Mike Colias in Detroit contributed to this article.
Write to Trefor Moss at Trefor.Moss@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires