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Electric Vehicles

I Can’t Stop Driving This Ludicrously Cheap Chinese EV

The Changli is weird, about $1,000, and a surprisingly compelling vision of the future.

A small EV being pulled out of a box.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to look over your efforts, scribble things on a pad, scowl, and then say, “Have you tried half-assing it? Really phone it in?” This almost never happens. And yet it's precisely what I think needs to happen for electric cars to live up to their potential. They need to suck far, far more than they currently do. I know this sounds like what many experts would call “a terrible idea” and “stupid,” but I’m confident in this belief for one very notable reason: I’ve lived it.

For the past few years, I’ve used and enjoyed an electric car that is, by the standards of any EV available on the mass market today, terrible. I’m talking about something with about 1/10th the range, about 1/250th the horsepower (and that’s being generous), and maybe 1/5th the maximum speed of a modern EV. These are the sort of specs that should be charitably considered garbage.

And yet, despite it all, what I’ve learned is that not only are such meager capabilities enough for a shocking amount of my transportation needs, the whole experience has been downright fun. Yes, fun.

The car I’m talking about is called the Changli Freeman, and I believe it is the cheapest car in the world. In fact, that was the initial reason I bought it. You see, my job is to write about and do things with interesting cars, so when the pandemic arrived in 2020, that put a real crimp in my usual plans of traveling to people with strange cars all over the country and driving them, on video, to the delight of audiences in the high severals.

So, stuck at home, I hatched a new plan: I’d bring the interesting cars to me! Well, one interesting car, and that interesting car would be the cheapest new car one could buy.

My research brought me to a category of automobile that is known in their native land, China, as 老头乐, something that translates to “old man happy car.” That’s because this type of car is primarily sold to elderly folks in second-tier cities who need something to get to the market or pick up grandkids from school. Slow is just fine, and the legality of these cars, even in their native China, is muddy, at best. But they are definitely cars, of a sort.

At $930, the Changli was the cheapest of the cheap. Add in the necessary five 12V lead-acid batteries, which aren’t included in the base price, and the bill lurches up to $1,200, still absolutely, impossibly, floor-settingly dirt cheap for a new car of any kind.

Oh, and perhaps equally incredibly, I found this car on the website, and bought it online, just like you would buy a video game console that looks like a Playstation 5 but perversely only plays 40-year-old Nintendo games.

Sure, shipping from China and all of the related customs hassles brought the total cost to about $3,300, but even so, we’re still talking about something wildly inexpensive. We’re still comfortably lying down on that bottom tier, and if you need further proof of this, here’s a video of me when I first got it and had to take it out of the massive cardboard box it shipped in:

Unboxing The World's Cheapest New Car Reveals It's So Much Better Than You

Now, aside from the fact that my new car arrived in a cardboard box, what you should note is my raw, unmitigated delight.

I had been genuinely ready to accept what would effectively be a plastic porta-potty-type body on a crude, flimsy chassis with a chain-driven axle and an effective operational lifespan roughly on par with your average mosquito. But that’s not what I got. What I got was a very cleverly-designed little car with an all-steel body, all the required legal lights and indicators, a windshield wiper, heater, radio with an MP3 player, and even a freaking backup camera. It was so much better than I ever could have imagined.

I later brought the Changli to Munro and Associates, one of the leading vehicular evaluation companies in the world, a place where major automotive manufacturers bring competitors' products to determine how they’re built and how much it costs to make them.

Sandy Munro, who runs the company, was genuinely stunned by what the Changli had to offer, and how it was made:

Sandy Munro Attempts To Demystify The Absurdly Low Cost Of The

Remember, these are the reactions of someone who has torn down every major electric car on the market, from Teslas to Fords to BMWs. He knows what he’s talking about.

The specs on the car aren’t exactly impressive: 1.1 horsepower electric motor, 60V of batteries which gave a (tested) range of 27 miles, and a top speed of about 25 mph or so, though something around 20 was more common. My kid is able to run up a hill faster than the Changli can get up it. And yet, somehow, it works.

Here's What The World's Cheapest Electric Car Is Like To

It actually does more than just work; it’s a usable transportation solution for far more of my normal transportation needs than I’d have ever guessed. While it may have come into my life as a curio, it very rapidly became an actually useful conveyance.

I used it to go to the grocery store. I sometimes took my kid to school in it, or to a friend’s house. I picked up take-out. I got parts from the auto parts store when one or more of my “real” cars needed repair. I met friends out at restaurants or galleries or clubs in town, and when I did, I could always park where no one else could, nose-to-curb or in tiny nooks behind dumpsters or any number of other small, forgotten spaces.

I did all of the sorts of mundane, low-distance, low-speed personal transportation acts that we all do, and which command a far larger percentage of our day-to-day transportation needs than many of us realize.

Now, I live in an environment where this sort of thing is perhaps unusually possible. It’s a college town, so there’s a lot of fairly dense commerce surrounded by a lot of low-speed streets, which makes it ideal for using a low-speed neighborhood electric vehicle (as it’s technically classed). According to the rules of this vehicle classification, which varies a lot from state-to-state, I can drive my absurd little machine on any street with a speed limit of 35 mph or less, though I think I can cross streets with higher limits.

There’s no highway travel, of course, but that’s not a restriction I’d need to be told to obey, as trying to drive this thing on a highway would be like shoving a sloth into the path of a cattle stampede. Were I to be in an accident with something like an F-150, I’d probably end up accordian’d like a cartoon coyote.

What I learned was that about 75% of my daily transportation needs could be accomplished with this shockingly minimal machine, and, even better, done with more fun than getting in a full-sized car. It was even easier than driving my regular cars! It was quiet and leisurely and everyone who saw this refugee from Cartoonistan greeted it with amused bewilderment or a smile or both.

Compared to a real EV like, say, a Tesla Model 3, this thing is a joke. But it’s a joke that can get to and from the grocery store in about the same amount of time when driving through town, and accomplish pretty much the same job, for a tiny fraction of the price and without hauling around an extra 3,000 pounds of car and battery that were, for the purposes of a trip like a grocery run, just dead weight.

There’s something in the automotive industry known as “vehicle demand energy,” which basically refers to the amount of energy needed to simply put the whole car in motion. The vehicle demand energy of a Tesla or a Ford Mach-E or even a Nissan Leaf is orders of magnitude higher than what the Changli demands, and for an awful lot of driving, that’s wasted energy.

If we’re really serious about using EVs to make a real dent in climate issues and energy usage, then we should adjust our thinking to make room for Changli-type vehicles.

Side by side with a “real car,” the Changli looks like a comical, shrunken subset, but compared to other minimalistic electric, low-speed transportation solutions like an e-bike, it feels like being carried in a luxurious, silken-draped litter. Unlike an e-bike, you’re still enjoying complete protection from the weather, and since you’re not teetering on a pair of wheels, but are rather cozily lounging inside a metal box, you can carry so much more stuff.

That’s why a minimal car-esque EV like the Changli is viable for transporting, say, tubs of Chinese food home or taking your kid to school: It’s a car, not a bike. It’s an obvious thing to note, but it’s a big deal when it comes to actually using the thing.

Sure, you can’t take a roadtrip in a Changli, but you knew that from the moment you looked at it. It is just a case of the right tool for the right job. Live somewhere dense, with a lot of low-speed travel? Maybe a Changli makes sense! Live on a compound and it’s a 45-minute trip if you need dental floss? Maybe not. There will always be a place for long-range, comfortable and safe EVs, capable of high speeds and long road trips, but they don’t need to be your daily driver.

Perhaps many of us will have small, fun, a-bit-better-than-Changli-type vehicles that we drive day-to-day, and then take majestic powerful, long-range EVs on the occasional road trip.

This doesn’t have to be a punishment. I’m a gearhead, I love cars and driving, and I can honestly say my driving experiences in the Changli have been a blast. I even took it to a track event. I’m pretty sure I hit 26 mph, and, like any car at its limit, it was pretty fun, making those bagel-sized tires squeal and feeling that tall, silly body lean and tilt like a drunk on an escalator.

Already in Europe we’re starting to see some realization that this sort of category is viable; French carmaker Citroën has a cheap, $10,000-ish car called the Ami that is classified under European quadracycle laws, which is essentially a category for low-speed city cars, which make a lot of sense the dense urban landscapes found all over Europe.

The Ami’s speed is limited to 28 mph (I suspect it’s technically capable of more), and it can go about 47 miles on a full charge, both of which are enough for the job it’s designed to do. The more I think about cars like the Changli and the Ami, the more I think they should be far, far more common than they are.

If we want to really change the transportation landscape in a way that’s good for the climate, is less demanding on the difficult rare-earth resources required to make EV batteries (for the resources that go into the battery of one full-range and power EV, you can likely make at least three short-range-use EVs), and yet still preserves so much of the personal transportation freedom that we’ve all grown to expect, then its time to really think about scaling down the sorts of vehicles that we use for all the little drives we do.

And, remember, it’s not a punishment. It’ll be fun. I know, because, again, I’m doing it, in the most minimal, ridiculous way possible.

Jason Torchinsky profile image

Jason Torchinsky

Jason Torchinsky is the co-founder of The Autopian, the fastest-growing automotive enthusiast website on the internet. Prior to that, Torchinsky was Senior Editor of the website Jalopnik, where he wrote over 6,000 articles and helped define that site's tone and reputation. Torchinsky has been on Jay Leno’s Garage and was a producer on the show as well. He has appeared in many online videos and television shows, including his own, Jason Drives, an internet show featuring millions and millions of views run by Jalopnik, which features Torchinsky driving obscure cars, and newer versions run by The Autopian. Torchinsky is also a stand-up comic who has opened for George Carlin; an artist whose installations have exhibited around the world; and the author of the book Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving, and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. A long-time resident of Los Angeles, CA, Torchinsky returned to his home state, North Carolina. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read More

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