Carlos Ghosn Has His Eye On Inexpensive Electric Cars For China


Say “electric cars” in the US and most people think of Tesla. It makes sumptuous electric cars that sell for $140,000 or more. Tesla is poised to bring its Model 3, an affordable electric sedan, to market in about 18 months, but what is affordable to some is well beyond the reach of others.

Nissan to build inexpensive electric cars in China

In China, the government wants to have 5,000,000 electric cars on the road by 2020. Very few of them will be Teslas. While stories abound of wealthy Chinese snapping up luxury automobiles, the reality is that for many Chinese citizens, the vehicles they want most are inexpensive cars suitable for basic transportation, much like the original Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan plans to make precisely the low cost electric cars Chinese consumers want, even though they may never be sold outside of Asia. He says, “The Nissan LEAF is sold in China. It is a very nice car but it is selling a few hundred per month. We envision much bigger [sales] than that. We know price is a handicap. For me the solution will be a very cheap electric car.

“Obviously, however, with very low performance you can manage that. So the question is, what is the best compromise between an acceptable performance and the lowest price possible? This is something that doesn’t exist today and we are willing to find a solution. I bet there is going to be a lot of development work on very affordable electric cars.”

Chinese regulations make it essential for foreign companies to build their cars in China with a local partner in order to avoid steep import duties. Nissan is partnering with Dongfeng to make a version of  the Renault Fluence for the Chinese market. Thierry Bollore, Renault’s chief competitive officer, says that he expects sales to be in the thousands of units per month.

But mass sales will depend on Nissan and  Dongfeng producing a very inexpensive electric car. “The Chinese government wants more electric cars, so we say ‘yes’, but the customer wants them to be cheap and there is a limit to how much of a [government] incentive they can put on every car,” Ghosn tells Autocar.

Bollore adds that any new government legislation could force a rapid pace of change among China’s car owners. He points out that when China put regulations in place that favored electric scooters,  gas powered scooters disappeared from China’s roads almost overnight. “China is typically a market where things can move very suddenly. It could move very quickly if the government decided to make it a state project,” he said. If that happens with electric cars, Nissan expects to be ready to meet the demand.

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I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • Miles Harding

    “Chinese regulations make it essential for foreign companies to build
    their cars in China with a local partner in order to avoid steep import

    In Australia, the government has given the car makers their marching orders, saying “P1ss off, we don’t want you!” by lowering the import duties to zero for mass market cars.

    In reading this, I was thinking that the Chinese car is likey what we all should be considering — light weight and energy efficient.

    Perhaps there’s another way of looking at this: With Beijings traffic jams, there’s probably no install either batteries or a motor. 🙂

    • Steve Hanley

      Yes, I admit I am confused by Australia’s decision to let its national car industry sink out of sight. I guess it’s the free market system at work but it seems perverse to me.

      I doubt the cars Ghosn is talking about would appeal very much to people in first world countries. We have become accustomed to fully loaded bloatmobiles with every option imaginable. The cars Ghosn is considering…..well, calling them “rudimentary” would probably be much to kind. Not even sure they will all have doors!

      But still, they may lead to less expensive electric cars in other markets. Thanks for your comment.

      • kvleeuwen

        I imagine a 4-seater Twizy would be great in Asian cities.

      • Miles Harding

        Hi Steve,

        Overall, I see the demise of the Australian car industry as a combination of globalisation allowing the world to be flooded with (fuel burning) vehicles from the cheapest sources and the fact that Australia has only 24 million citizens, so doesn’t get the same level of economies of scale as the major producer/consumer nations.

        My observation is the the domestic family sized 6 cylinder car made here is now in a no-man’s land between smaller low cost imported economy vehicles and imported SUVs that the population is increasingly buying while we enjoy low oil prices.

        What we didn’t see was any substantial attempt by the government to help this industry reform or reinvent itself. Some of the manufacturers have jumped tracks to other industrues, notably in the renewables sector, but the makers themselves, suppliers and workers are looking at a bleak future post-2017 without some inspired thinking.

  • MB

    they already have an example in the Indian market … check out the Mahindra Reva/e2O for about $10K