Electric Autos

Building e-Minis in China

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The yellow is supposed to tell you it's an electric Mini. Source: BMW

China’s discovery of electric cars and the Brexit are unusual bedfellows but they’re forcing BMW to rethink its production strategy – and location – for its iconic Mini sub-compact. The German carmaker is in talks with Chinese peer Great Wall about a joint venture to manufacture electric Minis in China, sources familiar with the discussions told Handelsblatt.

The plant would have enough capacity to support growing global deliveries of an electric Mini but would first supply southeast Asia and NAFTA, and ultimately the EU. The forecast growth would exceed the Mini’s main plant in Oxford, UK but the Brexit will also make the plant unviable for exports. BMW could add capacity at Dutch contract manufacturer Nedcar, but it would also be unable to deliver the necessary volume.

“Great Wall Motors could benefit greatly from this kind of a joint venture,” said Zhong Shi, editor-in-chief of trade journal Auto. “Great Wall Motors’ strengths do not lie in electric cars but in the SUV. There are better options out there.” Great Wall Friday confirmed the talks but BMW would only say it was looking for a Chinese partner to meet Mini production goals. Until now, BMW’s only Chinese joint venture was Brilliance but the duo only produce BMW-branded vehicles.

BMW Chief Executive Officer Harald Krüger had to act. The company wants the Mini to spearhead its electric strategy and unveiled an electric version of the small car at the Frankfurt IAA car show earlier this year. It plans to begin production in 2019. BMW believes that the future of the small car, which is especially popular in cities, is purely electric as consumer tastes switch. In just one example, Paris this month said internal combustion engines would be banned beginning in 2030. Mercedes has similar plans for its small-car brand Smart. China is key: One in two electric cars are currently sold there.

BMW would be a welcome partner for Great Wall. The company’s shares jumped by 20 percent when news of the talks first leaked. The automobile manufacturer, established in 1984, is trying to make a name for itself, especially with SUVs. Great Wall sold more than a million cars for the first time last year. It unveiled its luxury brand Wey, which aims to compete with companies like BMW with its well-equipped SUVs, at the IAA in Frankfurt.

DEU Kabinett Elektroauto
We’re not mechanics but we think that’s an electric engine. Or a battery. Or a toolkit. Look, it’s an electric Mini, OK? Source: BMW

But talks don’t mean a venture may actually happen. Cui Dongshu, general secretary of the Chinese automobile association, warns: “Just because these efforts exist doesn’t mean that they will be approved by the Chinese government.” In fact, things could turn out very differently. The government in Beijing is considering exempting foreign automakers from the joint venture requirement if they switch to electric cars completely. BMW could go it alone in China.

BMW officials are worried the talks could negatively affect their relationship with long-standing joint venture partner, Brilliance. Last year, rival German automaker Audi irked its own Chinese joint venture partner, FAW, by bringing in a second partner, SAIC, for production and sales “to avoid having to rely on only one partner”. FAW auto dealers went on a slow-down strike and Audi lost its market leadership in China to Mercedes. Dietmar Voggenreiter, Audi’s board member for sales and marketing, was fired.

This helps explain why BMW made such a show on Thursday of highlighting its strong working relationship with Brilliance, which is set to continue well into the next decade. Their jointly operated plants delivered more than 300,000 cars in 2016, and production is expected to increase to 450,000 cars. Five models are now being produced in China, and there are plans to add a sixth model, the X3, to the mix. The medium-term corporate strategy calls for building 600,000 cars a year in China and North America, as part of the three million vehicles BMW intends to manufacture worldwide.

BMW is also reorganizing all of its plants. The automaker’s goal is to have only one platform for front-wheel and rear-wheel drive vehicles starting in 2021. BMW expects this basic technical design to enable it to deliver any car with either an internal combustion or electric engine. About a quarter of all vehicles, or roughly 600,000, are expected to be electric by 2025. Many of those could be Minis.

Marcus Fasse covers the auto industry for Handelsblatt. Sha Hua is a correspondent in Beijing for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: fasse@handelsblatt.com, hua@handelsblatt.com.

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