GM has 15 EVs in lineup for China: Here's why they won't work in the US

Jamie L. LaReau
Detroit Free Press

General Motors' top selling electric vehicle in China — the Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV — can be customized to include, say wings, and it is available in a two-door convertible or three-door hatchback style, it costs about $5,800 and it goes about 170 miles on a full charge.

But it will never be is sold in the United States, and something that small with such limited range would probably not play too well anyhow.

GM and its two joint-venture partners in China currently offer 15 EVs in China and most are dramatically different from what the automaker has planned for stateside — and you won't ever see them. Just like the Chinese won't see the GMC Hummer pickup — which is one of five passenger EVs GM sells in the states. The Cadillac Lyriq SUV is sold in both the countries.

Wuling Hong Guang MINIEV is General Motors best-selling EV in China

There are many reasons for such dramatic differences in products, but in short: “Our uses are different," said Tu Le, founder of consultancy Sino Auto Insights. Le, who grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, lived in China for 13 years and is an expert on EVs. "We tow more than Chinese people do."

Even at that, Americans might want big, but their pocketbooks prefer those priced closer to the Hong Guang Mini EV, Le said.

2022 GMC Hummer EV Edition 1 electric pickup.

"The Hummer is a missile, but it’s $110,000 so it’s never going to be a mass market vehicle" in the United States until technology can provide big power from smaller batteries, lowering the price. In fairness, GM has promised the Chevrolet Equinox EV will be priced around $30,000 when it comes to market later this year and estimates that it will get up to 300 miles of range on a full charge.

In China, the prices are so incredibly low because the range and power are less in the smaller batteries.

The great American road trip

Most Chinese customers have different driving habits and expectations from EVs than Americans do, industry observers said.

Wuling Bin Guo EV is SAIC-GM-Wuling’s first five door, all-electric hatchback. It will be available in the first quarter of 2023, with EV range options of 203 kilometers (106 miles) and 333 kilometers (207 miles).

"We have a consumer here who has a very strong preference for big vehicles, and we have this expectation that every weekend we’re going to drive from L.A. to Vegas and this car has to be able to go there and back," said Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics for J.D. Power. "We have this expectation around the great road trip."

For EVs to drive those great distances they must have big battery packs, and those make for expensive vehicles that would not play well in the uber-competitive China market. In China, the majority of EVs average $25,000 compared with the United States where its $50,000 to $60,000, Jominy said.

More range, more money

The average range on an EV in China is about 200 miles on a full charge compared with in the United States where "we want 275 — that’s what consumers will take," Jominy said. "But we talk about it like has to be 400 miles, like if it doesn’t have 400 miles of range it’s not good enough.”

The Electra E5, a large five-seat electric SUV, is the first Buick EV developed on the Ultium platform for China. It features Buick’s all-new EV design, along with the latest Virtual Cockpit System and GM's hands-free Super Cruise driver assistance technology.

China currently has a better infrastructure to support smaller EVs with limited range, he said. And due to urbanization, they don't drive far.

"China has a number of mega cities, so there is a much more urban environment which favors smaller vehicles with less required charge," Jominy said. "If we had a better charging network, consumers would see that they can drive from Boston to New York in an EV and not worry about running out, even with a smaller battery pack."

Put another way: “You want to go 400 miles that costs $150,000, you want to go 250 miles that costs $60,000," Jominy said. "You want to get cheaper EVs, we need smaller batteries and that means having the infrastructure."

GM China sales struggling

GM and its two joint ventures have new EVs coming to the world's largest car market in the upcoming months. It is critical for the cars to be hits. GM has struggled in China in recent years and so far this year is no different. In the first quarter, GM reported total vehicle sales in China plummeted 24% to roughly 462,000 units sold.

The sporty-looking Menlo sedan is Chevrolet’s first all-electric vehicle in China. The 2022 Menlo EV has an extended NEDC22-estimated range of up to 518 kilometers (322 miles) on a single charge.

Even GM's most popular brand in China, Buick, reported a 35% drop in sales to 106,000 in the quarter. Chevrolet sales fell 35% to 34,000 and sales of Cadillac came in 32% lower than the year-ago period at 32,000. GM produces Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet vehicles at SAIC-GM, which is its passenger-vehicle partnership with SAIC Motor Corp.

The reasons for the sales declines are many. It is partly political as buyers opt for domestic automaker's cars, which are increasingly attractive and priced right. On GM's April 25 earnings call, GM CFO Paul Jacobson told Wall Street that China has been challenging "as the industry navigates continued COVID-related impacts, regulatory changes for both EV and (internal combustion engine) vehicles and greater-than-expected competitive pricing." He does not expect GM's equity income in China to improve until the second half of the year.

GM makes minibuses and mini EVs under the Wuling brand and entry-level cars for Baojun at SAIC-GM-Wuling, which is GM's light-vehicle partnership with SAIC and Wuling Automobile Industry Co. 

This year the two joint ventures will bring 20 new and refreshed models to market in China — about a third of which will be electrified cars, GM said. Those include four EVs propelled by GM's Ultium system across Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet. Buick’s first Ultium-based model is the Electra E5 SUV. It went on sale last month. It followed the Cadillac Lyriq SUV which went on sale there in December. 

For sale in China

The Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV is one of the best-sellers, having sold 58,000 in the first quarter. It is made by GM's joint venture SGMW. When adding together all three Mini EV styles, sales have passed 1 million sold since its launch in July 2020.

Wuling Hong Guang MINIEV is General Motors top-seller in China.

"Wuling takes a strong consumer-oriented approach. The Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV is popular for its affordability, practicality, and energy efficiency, which helps bring in entry-level buyers," GM China's communications team told the Free Press in emailed responses to questions. "The brand is also a trendsetter that prioritizes emotional value as well as luring young consumers, especially female users, by creating differentiation that makes it a phenomenon."

Tailored for mainstream EV buyers, the Buick Velite 6 has a range of up to 518 kilometers (322 miles) on a full charge under China Light-Duty Vehicle Test Cycle (CLTC) conditions.

Compact EVs have historically dominated the China market due to affordability, but GM China said the larger size models are showing signs of growing in market share. The Cadillac Lyriq was the first Ultium-based EV to launch in China last September. Buick’s first Ultium-based model — the Electra E5 — launched on April 13. It will be followed by another Buick EV in the first half and Chevrolet will introduce its Ultium-based EV later too, but GM is not releasing further details on those two vehicles.

On the GSEV platform, which is the system GM uses in China to underpin and propel its other EV, it launched the Wuling Bin Guo at the end of March. Building upon the success of the Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV, the newest member Wuling Bin Guo was launched on March 29. GM China delivered 15,000 of the small EVs in April, making the Wuling Bin Guo the "No. 1 nameplate in 4-door small EVs" that are less than four meters or 13 feet long.  The Bin Guo’s average transaction price is about $10,000. Baojun will launch SGMW’s first all-electric SUV, the Baojun Yep, in May.

There will be more EV launches based on the locally developed GSEV platform later this year and the hand-built Cadillac Celestiq, which starts at about $300,000, will be the first product to be brought in China by The Durant Guild, GM’s newly launched premium import business.

The KiWi EV is SAIC-GM-Wuling’s all-electric mini under its Baojun brand. It provides two EV range options, with a maximum of 305 kilometers (190 miles). The 2023 KiWi comes standard with DC fast charging, two 10.25-inch screens and supports over-the-air updates.

Here are the current EVs available in China:

  • Cadillac: Lyriq
  • Buick: Velite 6 hybrid, Velite 6 EV, Velite 7 EV and new E5
  • Chevrolet: Menlo
  • Wuling: Hong Guang Mini EV, Hong Guang Mini EV Gameboy (a roomier version), Hong Guang Mini EV Cabrio (convertible), Nano EV, Air EV, Rong Guang EV, Wuling Bin Guo.
  • Baojun: KiWi EV

GM China has opened two Ultium plants — one in Wuhan and one in Shanghai — to assemble battery packs for locally produced Ultium-based EVs. Ultium in China is different from Ultium Cells LLC in the United States, which is a joint venture with LG Energy Solution that makes battery cells. In China, it is part of GM's joint venture with SAIC and it assembles batteries from suppliers.

"By 2025, GM plans to have more than 1 million units of EV production capacity in China," GM China said. "More than 15 Ultium-based models will be launched in China by 2025."

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.