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Hello, Sunshine
Jamais Cascio, 9 Aug 05

wulingsunshine.jpgIf China is to avoid an environmentally grim future, it's going to need to push the adoption of high-efficiency energy consumption technologies. In the case of vehicles, that means high mileage, whether attained through hybrid cars, electric bikes or fuel cells. But China has an odd combination of problems compounding the vehicle issue: increasing demand from citizens without the money to buy high-end, high-tech cars; a populace, especially in rural communities, heavily dependent upon pollution-spewing small cargo vehicle deliveries; and a strong political desire to build as much of its booming economy internally as possible.

Fortunately, a vehicle is available in China that goes a long way to solving these problems: the Wuling Sunshine. It's a small van, running about $5,000 total in cost, and getting around 43 miles per gallon in the city. On sale since 2002, it's among the most popular vehicles in the country, helping to push Wuling to the number one spot in the light vehicles market. The surprising part of the Wuling Sunshine story? The van was designed by General Motors, co-owner of Wuling since 2002.

That's right -- GM focuses its light-duty efforts in the US on the declining market for too-heavy-to-be-legal luxury trucks, but helps to make wildly-popular cheap cargo minivans with hybrid-level mileage for China.

Granted, American buyers would likely be reluctant to get into a Wuling Sunshine, at least for now. Aside from the size anxiety, the seating is spartan, the top speed a sluggish 81 miles per hour (and that's the higher-end model), and it appears to be minus some of the safety features -- like airbags -- that US and European markets have come to require. These are solvable problems, and even with the inevitable boosted price and lowered mileage of an "Americanized" version, the Wuling Sunshine puts the lie to the claim that high mileage vehicles can only be expensive hybrids or cramped microcars.

More importantly, this is a strong early indicator that China could well come to dominate the global vehicle market in an era of permanently high oil prices. While the Wuling Sunshine isn't going to win any cutting-edge design awards, its look and size would not be out of place around much of the world. Cheap, relatively-high-efficiency work/domestic vehicles would be used globally; the Sunshine and its various competitors could easily come to dominate streets from Mexico City to Mumbai.

Remember, too, that the 43 mpg rating was achieved with an engine inexpensive enough to allow the Sunshine to be sold for just $5,000; as more efficient engine technologies come down in price, the Sunshine will get more powerful, more efficient, or maybe even both.

One key question is whether GM will learn from its involvement with Wuling. Unfortunately, the early indicators aren't good. According to today's New York Times, the GM executive in China who conceived of and shepherded the Sunshine design "resigned" -- the clear implication was that the resignation was not entirely willing -- and there are signs that GM is looking to exert more control from Detroit over its wayward subsidiary in Liuzhou.

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Comments

Start a campaign to contact GM and ask to purchase one of these vehicles. Spread the message far and wide. Be insistent. Flood their switchboards and stuff their mailboxes.

As Kenneth Boulding used to say, "Anything that exists is possible."


Posted by: David Foley on 9 Aug 05

Japan also has a lot of these kinds of cars. Subaru makes one cald a 'sambar', but many other companies make these 'k-vans'. 'K' is short for 'kei' which means 'light(weight)' in Japanese, and in fact it is a whole seperate class of car, with white license plates for 'normal' cars and yellow plates for light cars.

Funny, though, that most people from western, non-european countries with enough money will always buy a fullsize car. Despite the roads being narrow and difficult to navigate, many of the above stated people would have a 'yellow plate stigma', and probably see it as embarrasing to drive light cars (I was frequently given flack for driving these cars)

I can only hope that chinese consumers are either unaware or apathetic to this way of thinking.


Posted by: travis on 9 Aug 05

putting that car side by side with a bloated american SUV is dangerous for the small car, and it's occupants.

so somehow we gots to get the big (wasteful) dogs off the road -

extend the life our current infrastructure, too.


Posted by: Jon S. on 9 Aug 05

Problem is that "car" is alot smaller then it looks. Unless your arse is about 12 inches wide forget it..

I still remember when japan had to start modifying trains because the average japanese ass was now larger then 13 inches...


Posted by: wintermane on 9 Aug 05

Unless the people in the photograph are midgets, I'd say that the vehicle is spacious enough. Heck, I'm 6 feet tall (183 cm.) and weigh 180 lb.s (82 kilos) and I know I could drive it comfortably.

It's true that larger vehicles are dangerous to smaller ones, but the "big vehicle is safer" argument has a lot of evidence against it. There are many factors in auto safety; two of the most important are speed and attention to conditions.

It takes about 7 to 10 years, perhaps longer, to "turn over" the inventory of cars on the road. Vehicles like this, adapted to U.S. safety and pollution standards, need to be available to Americans for their next purchase. Let's face it, Americans are still the 800-pound gorillas when it comes to environmental impact from cars.


Posted by: David Foley on 10 Aug 05

This is a fine case cultural point of view. In order to understand the chinese view on these things you need to see it from thier eyes... litteraly.

In this picture we are seeing through thier eyes and thus that van is a comfy minvan. That home is a roomy home. That door is perfectly sized...


But you have to remember you arnt chinese your a big fat doofus of an american about as normal to this point of view as an ogre would be.

In fact I dare say if you change your world view to chinese centric america is full of big ogres driving big ogre cars.


Posted by: wintermane on 10 Aug 05

wintermane, have you driven a wuling sunshine?


Posted by: hijiki on 10 Aug 05

Unfortunetly I cant drive that class of car im far too big. It would be a wonder for taking kids around or grocery shopping but id need the drivers seat expanded dropped a fair bit and pushed back also.

In america we have something like it a nifty little number thats a micro car people transport microvan... and im afraid to say it but I cant even get in the door much less sit.

Unless im reading what they wrote on it wrong the seats are realy small... unless they ment the seats have very little padding....


Posted by: wintermane on 10 Aug 05

I don't care what kind of cars Chinese drive, if they come even close to per capita ownership and use as the U.S., we and they are totally screwed.

The Chinese started industrialization with the advantage of being able to see the future. And they blew it. For God's sake, they are actually basing their future on mass automobile ownership. Totally absurd.

When are people going to realize that the car, as we know it, and even as we don't know it, is doomed?

The American model sort of worked for a brief moment in time. But that time is rapidly coming to a close. Selfish? No, just realistic.


Posted by: tstreet on 10 Aug 05

Thanks for this story. After blogging about it, I received a comment from someone who runs a blog called Liuzhou Laowai, and who takes issue with several points about the NY Times story. You can read his take on it here.


Posted by: Rob Cottingham on 10 Aug 05

Oooh 43mpg!!!! What a ridiculous American way of thinking! In Europe, let me tell you, even a family saloon (sedan) or hatchback with room for 5 people with a 2 litre diesel engine can do 45 or over. I drive a Skoda Superb Tdi, a largeish 5 seater family car that does 130mph and 0-60 in under 10 seconds. It has returned 48mppg average over 9000 miles. Looking at the cheaper side of the market (the Superb is around 15,000 pounds sterling), something like a Renault Mégane diesel (starting at around 8-9000 pounds) does up to 60mpg and will easily top 100mph. It also exceeds by far all the latest crash testing, being one of the few cars to achieve a five star rating.
Working in the car industry, I am well aware of the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese car market... but I think it's better to adapt the latest European technology to the Chinese than get excited about a van that does over 40 miles to the gallon! Might be a good idea to restrain the Americans fuel consumption too... maybe if they paid 2 dollars a litre like we do, they'd buy less SUVs!


Posted by: Stephen Davies on 11 Aug 05

Thank you for your observations, Stephen, but it's important to recall that the interesting aspect of the Wuling Sunshine isn't simply the mileage -- which is decent but, as you point out, hardly record-breaking -- but the combination of decently high mileage, utility (it's not a minicar), and price. A vehicle going for £8,000-9,000 is still around three times the price of a $5,000 Sunshine at current exchange rates (remember that the Yuan is still priced off of the dollar, even with the new float, so the declining value of the dollar relative to pound sterling hits the Chinese, too).

Of course, if you can take that Renault Megane and make it bigger (the current model is a smallish hatchback) while cutting the price by two-thirds -- without reducing the excellent 60mpg mileage -- then you have a wonderful future selling cars across the developing world.

And if you're looking for an fight about American auto habits, fuel consumption and the need for higher gas prices as a way of changing behavior, you've really come to the wrong place.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Aug 05

Stephen you're right, but those figures you stated are in imperial gallons. In american gallons, the 48mpg would become 40mpg and the 60 would become50mpg.

There's no need to start getting too excited about this vegicle, they are common in china and many companies have been building them without the help of GM and they rank lowest on desirability rating, majority of the sales go to commercial purposes.

Europe is doing pretty well with fuel efficient vehicles, but those mpg are begining to drop all the manufacturers start to pursue performance. America has a lot to learn from europe. What keeps the sales of those gas guzzlers high is the cheap petrol. Doubling the price to $4/gallon would make people consider lighter fuel efficient cars. What kills me the most is to hear the rant about hybrid technology, when you could get similar economy with a compact car, and diesels are rarely mentioned.

China unfortunately would follow the footsteps of US the way things are going. Those small vans get their economy from anaemic power output and light weight construction that gives little to crash protection. They are far from efficient. Small engines like that in the toyota aygo are powerful, cheap and far more efficient. China should look at such development and use that if they want to improve.


Posted by: Tman on 11 Aug 05

Dont worry its impossible for china to pick up culture from america as everyone knows we dont have any.

I rather expect china will be a combo of everything from everywhere as they are surely big enough to do everything we do and in greater numbers to boot.


Posted by: wintermane on 11 Aug 05



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