Imagine an automaker building a minivan that costs only $5,000 and gets more than 40 miles per gallon. General Motors did. It's called the Wuling Sunshine. But it's only available in China and other developing nations.
It takes a couple of minutes on the streets of Shanghai before an example of GM's biggest success in China putters by. Last year, GM and its partner Wuling sold more than 560,000 Sunshines, a minivan that's popular both in the countryside and in big cities. The Sunshine sure puts the mini in minivan. But a newer, similar model, the Wuling Rongguang, suits 45-year-old Yu Guomin just fine.
Yu works at an electroplating company, and he and his nephew Yu Bin use their Rongguang to get to work and haul materials. Yu Guomin says the van is roomy, reliable, and the gas mileage is fantastic.
'A Pumpkin On Wheels'
Sounds great. But there are a few drawbacks by American standards. Let's start with the Sunshine's little three-cylinder engine.
"There are frankly some lawn tractors that have more horsepower than that," says Michael Robinet, an auto industry analyst with CSM Worldwide.
Robinet agreed to talk about the Sunshine after GM declined. He thinks trying to sell it in the United States would be crazy. He calls the Sunshine "a pumpkin on wheels." It has a top speed of about 80 miles an hour.
There's a radio. But Americans expect things like entertainment and navigation systems. And the biggest drawback is safety. Robinet says there aren't even any seat belts in the back row.
"In North America, we are accustomed to at least six air bags," Robinet says. "Driver, passenger and probably two side air bags on each side. That vehicle is not engineered for air bags. So you'd have to re-engineer the entire vehicle for the safety structure that we expect in this market."
In Shanghai, a little van is a lot safer than fighting traffic on a bicycle. But the Sunshine would never pass a U.S. government safety inspection. Once you've gone down that road, the cost starts to skyrocket.
No American Substitute
There isn't anything close to the Sunshine at Lou LaRiche Chevrolet in Plymouth, Mich. GM doesn't even make a minivan for the U.S. market. General Manager Ron Chaudoin looks quizzical when a reporter describes the Sunshine's horsepower.
"To get to top speed you probably take a wind behind you and a downhill ramp to get there," Chaudoin says. "Our cars will get there by the time you're at the end of the driveway."
Chaudoin points to a model that can move both people and cargo: a Chevy Traverse SUV with six times the Sunshine's horsepower. The base price is also six times more. The Traverse has front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, tire pressure monitoring and other safety features. Not to mention the interior.
"Well, I don't imagine they put leather seats in a $5,000 car," Chaudoin says.
To be fair to the Sunshine, GM made money off this vehicle last year. And the lifestyles of hundreds of thousands of people in China improved because they could afford to buy it. GM says it will make money in the U.S., too. But the company will have to go about it American style. That means zippy engines, style, crashworthiness, creature comforts and a higher price.