It’s not a beautiful machine. The Shifeng brand car resembles a plump Fiat Mini with oversized headlights and has a top speed of about 50 kilometres per hour.
But Chen’s little car has a big advantage: it cost only 31,600 yuan (about $5,000), far cheaper than BYD’s larger e6, which costs 369,800 yuan ($58,700). And it helps that it’s not a real car in the eyes of the government.
"I had considered getting a gasoline car, but you need to have a driver’s license and pay insurance for that," Chen said, beaming as he drove his car home from the village school where he is a teacher.
Beijing has made a dismal start toward its ambitious goal of putting of 500, 000 hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) on China’s roads by the end of 2015, rising to more than 5 million by 2020. Last year, a mere 8,159 were sold across the entire country, including those for government pilot programs for e-taxis and e-buses.
Although heavily subsidized, the EVs the government promotes remain expensive. Even after generous subsidies of 120,000 yuan, the price of the BYD e6 would be seven times Chen’s salary.
A dearth of charging stations and high battery prices have also contributed to the slow pace of high-performance EV sales.
But while policymakers and executives at major automakers wring their hands, scores of small, unlicensed entrepreneurs are tapping the market’s real sweet spot – not middle-class environmentalists, but lower-income buyers who want to get off their bikes and into any four-wheel vehicle they can afford.
By some estimates, some 260 million people in China still rely on bicycles and motorcycles as their main mode of transportation and could be potential customers.
"Mini electric cars are getting popular in rural areas as farmers need something affordable to carry them around," said Wei Xueqing, vice chairman and secretary general of Shandong Automobile Manufacturers Association.
"Many are still taking their kids to school on bikes, motorcycles or even three-wheel farm vehicles, which are neither safe nor comfortable."
Mainstream automakers, however, see it differently
"These cars are illegal, unsafe and shouldn’t be on the road," said an executive at Changan Automobile Group, China’s fourth-largest automaker. There could also be some intellectual property rights issues, he added, and "the government should do something about it."