The Impressive Engineering Behind The Cheapest Electric Car In The World

The cheapest new electric car in the world, the $US1,200 ($1,715) Changli Nemeca from Chinese e-commerce website Alibaba, is a truly amazing machine. This became clear as soon as my coworker Jason Torchinsky unboxed the car and saw its unexpected features, and even more so when he drove it. But it wasn’t until he and I looked at the tech under the skin that we truly realised the Changli’s unbelievable value. Here’s a look at the engineering behind the incredible 1.1 horsepower Changli.

Jason had a vision last year: He was going to buy the cheapest electric car in the world from Alibaba, ship it across the ocean to the U.S., deal with all the customs paperwork, truck the car down to his place in North Carolina, and show the world what the wackiest form of EV ownership looks like. Amazingly, despite uncertainty within our company, and despite the coronavirus and related economic turmoil, he pulled it off. The car that began life in Jiangsu, China now sits in Jason’s backyard in Chapel Hill, where the machine immediately blew us away with its impressive features.

The car’s value, though, continues beyond just interior gadgets like the MP3 player and backup camera. The Changli offers surprising hardware under the skin, too. No, it’s nothing crazy, but it’s far, far more advanced than what Jason and I were expecting (which was a porta-potty on a crude frame with a little motor driving a single wheel via a chain). Let’s start by having a look at the steering and suspension.

Steering and Suspension

To understand why the Changli’s front suspension is so impressive, you have to consider the fact that most entry-level golf carts — which tend to cost five times what the Changli costs — offer much, much cruder designs.

Take a look at the photo above. It shows the Changli’s front suspension, which consists of a basic dead axle and kingpins to allow the steering knuckles to rotate. This is actually quite simple.

The surprising thing, here, is the fact that instead of using leaf springs — which are cheap, in part because they not only absorb road bumps, but they also act as structural elements against lateral and longitudinal loads — Changli decided to use a three-link suspension design. This consists of two lower control arms (radius arms — see above) and a track bar.

The radius arms locate the axle longitudinally and — because they mount to the axle in two locations — limit axle wrap under braking and accelerating (well, if this were live axle with brakes, that is). And the track bar, shown above near the steering intermediate shaft and rack-and-pinion steering setup — locates the axle laterally (i.e. cross-car).

This is the exact same suspension design that you find under vehicles like the Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series, last-generation Land Rover Defender, and the modern Suzuki Jimny, whose front suspension is shown below:

For comparison to this radius arm setup, here’s a look at some typical golf cart front suspensions. This first one is from an E-Z-GO, and uses a dead axle suspended by two longitudinal leaf springs and what appears to be just a single shock:

What seems like a more common setup is this one from a Club Car, which does have upper control arms instead of a solid axle (in other words, it’s an independent suspension design), but — as Jason points out with text and arrows — also uses an antiquated transverse leaf spring:

The Changli somehow uses zero leaf springs. In the front, it actually has a pair of coilovers, and that’s quite impressive.

Sure, there are plenty of golf carts out there that use coilovers, but they don’t cost $US1,200 ($1,715). The fact that the Changli is so cheap, but uses a coilover front suspension with a three-link radius arm design used by modern production cars meant for public highway use just seems impressive to me.

That coilover attaches to the top of the axle inboard of the spindle (or steering knuckle), which is — thanks to the tie rod connected to the steering rack — rotated about the axle tube via a kingpin (basically a big bolt with some greaseable bushings that allow for rotation).

This kingpin setup is quite antiquated (it’s similar to what you’d find on a Ford Model T — modern cars tend to use ball joints), but it seems to be the standard among golf carts, and the aforementioned Jimny does use a type of kingpin design.

The suspension in the rear is similar, except of course, there is no steering rack or spindle. Also, the coilover is replaced by a separate spring and shock absorber.

Still, the general setup remains: There’s a solid axle with two stamped steel radius arms to limit wrap and fore-aft axle motion, and there’s a track bar going from the frame to the top of the axle to limit lateral axle motion.

Darn near every golf cart — which again, costs much more than the Changli — uses a basic leaf spring design out back, consisting of no control arms, no track bar, and — of course — no coil springs. Here’s a look at a Club Car:

How could Changli possibly justify this more expensive suspension design, especially considering that numerous pickup truck manufacturers have stuck with leaf springs over coils, in part, to save money? How is it that the cheapest EV in the world decided to eschew the leaf pack for a three-link with coils? I’m assuming economies of scale, and of course, low labour costs, that made it feasible.

By now, it should be clear that, though the Changli’s suspension is far from sophisticated (after all, a dual solid axle design is basic compared to, say, a fully independent design), it’s surprisingly complex for the money. I mean, $US930 ($1,329) for the car ($US1,200 ($1,715) with batteries) is dirt cheap to be seeing a suspension setup that shares more in common than a Suzuki Jimny than with a golf cart.

Brakes

The braking system is incredibly simple. There are no brakes at all on the front axle, while the rear consists of a set of drum brakes activated by rods, shafts, and a pedal/bellcrank.

The brake pedal is pretty much vertical, and acts as a bellcrank, meaning the pedal itself rotates about a pivot and moves a lever arm in an arc, pulling a rod.

The rod runs down the fore-aft axis of the car, attaching to another lever arm, which rotates a large shaft (the hand brake in the cabin also acts directly to rotate this shaft). At the end of that shaft is another lever arm, whose end moves in an arc, pulling another rod.

That rod is outboard of the radius arms, and runs right back to the drum brakes:

Here’s a look at where the rod connects to the splined lever on the drum brake:

It’s a very basic brake setup, consisting of drums and levers, and no brakes at all on the front axle. It doesn’t get much simpler outside of maybe a cantilever style brake from a bicycle, but the setup is enough to lock up those 3.5-inch wide, 10-inch inner diameter tires.

Powertrain, Drivetrain, Power Electronics

One of the most impressive things about the Changli is the fact that the rear axle actually contains a functional differential. Jason and I were expecting a basic, exposed chain drive to just one wheel, but no: There’s a diff!

Granted, there’s still a chain between the 60-volt, 1.1 horsepower DC motor and the diff, but that chain is contained in a housing, and apparently rotates a sprocket that would, on a normal differential, be the ring gear. Here’s a look at the housing:

I assume that 1:8 sticker on top of the housing refers to a gear reduction? I’m unsure, but that does sound about right for an EV.

The image above shows the packaging for the power electronics. There’s a little shelf under the rear load floor, easily accessible by simply lifting the rear carpeting (and yes, the Changli has carpeting, which is great for a $US1,200 ($1,715) car).

On the shelf is a black rubber box that contains a bus bar, and acts as a junction for wires coming from the charger (port shown below), pedal, batteries, and motor.

To the left of the black box is the controller, which, among other things, handles turning the pedal/shifter input into a motor output. And then below that controller is a small DC-DC converter rated to change 48 to 72 volt inputs into 12 volt outputs for lights, radios, and other accessories.

Batteries

Under the driver’s seat are five 12-volt lead-acid batteries wired in series for a total of 60 volts. They simply sit in the rectangular compartment under the seat, and are held down with a big bar spanning between two threaded rods on the outside of the case. Three pieces of cardboard — the one that the batteries came in, presumably — sit between the tops of the batteries and that large bar, presumably to prevent short circuiting.

The Body

The Changli’s body is made up of rectangular tubing, diamond plating, and regular steel sheets, all tack-welded together (shoddily, in most cases, if we’re honest). What’s great is that everything is painted, including the entire underbody, which should allow this vehicle to drive in rain without immediately turning into a pile of small rust fragments.

The exterior panels are made almost entirely of metal. The wheel flares aren’t even plastic, nor are the front and rear fascias — this is uncommon on most modern cars, which tend to use plastic in these areas.

The metal stampings seem to be quite large. I see no weld lines or gaps between the front fenders, A-pillars, B-Pillars, and rear quarter panels.

Jason and I expected the Changli’s body panels to be made mostly of plastic. The fact that almost none of it is is just amazing to us.

Other Impressive Hardware

If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see a dog. You’ll also see a curved glass front windshield with nice frit-bands and LED projector-beam headlights. You’ll also notice that the wheels are aluminium (not stamped steel with hubcaps), and they are held to the hubs with four single-piece lug nuts. The Smart ForTwo and other actual cars use only three lugs, and many automakers have used crappy, cheap two-piece lug nuts over the years, so Changli went above and beyond, here.

Also, the interior features two-tone faux-leather seating, nice plastic door cards (my Postal Jeep didn’t even have door cards), actual door locks, and — as previously mentioned — padded carpeting!

Quality Issues

The Changli does suffer from some quality issues. The paint is dull in some areas, the rear weather stripping, which is connected to a hard plastic piece, seems to have been fitted around the curved door by simply angle grinding the hard plastic and not cleaning up the cut marks (see above). Plus, the driver’s seat has some hilariously shoddy staples holding the fabric together:

But despite the quality issues, it’s clear that the Changli could have been much, much cheaper. It’s not just about cool features like the LED light bar, backup camera, electric heater (shown below), rooftop fan, or MP3 player. It’s also about the mechanical bits.

The curved glass, the coilover three-link front suspension, the rear differential, the almost-entirely-steel body that’s covered entirely in paint, the projector beam headlights, the aluminium wheels, the four single-piece lugnuts — the Changli was dirt cheap at only $US1,200 ($1,715), but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the hardware.

Because it is downright impressive, especially compared to any modern golf cart. Even if it is really, really slow.