As you may be aware, I’m in the process of buying a new car for the first time in my life, and I’m probably in my 70s. The car is, of course, the Changli NEMECA, which has been called by websites I don’t work for the cheapest car in the world. It was listed as being $930 on Alibaba when I bought it; of course, like everything else, it’s actually way more expensive by the time you factor in batteries and shipping and customs and all kinds of tedious handling stuff. It’s still pretty cheap, though. Let’s figure out exactly what all this is costing.
What’s frustrating and amazing about all of this is just how difficult it is to find any accurate information about the total cost of shipping something like this from China to America. There’s more information out there for “real” cars, which, legally, the Changli is not, at least in America.
Even though for many elderly rural Chinese people this car—and many other ones very much like it—are absolutely used like real, usable cars, the truth is it’s far closer to a golf cart. It’s only got a 1.1 hp (possibly 1.6? I’ll try to dyno it when it arrives) motor and is much smaller and lighter than even the smallest and lightest of cars you can imagine.
It’s about 800 pounds, about half the weight of my Nissan Pao, which is about half the weight of almost everything else out there. It’s small.
In fact, on official documentation, it’s described, bafflingly, like this:
Yes, a four-wheel electric tricycle. You know, like a biped with a third leg, or a five-legged quadrupedal dog.
I should mention before we get into all the details about money that Jalopnik’s corporate overlords have been very supportive of this project, and, yes, that’s where all this cash is coming from.
Since the quarantine is keeping us from shooting our usual Jason Drives season this year, I was able to convince them to put those resources here, bringing the weird cars to me, instead of me to them, and, incredibly, it worked. So please click on these stories so they’ll see crazy shit like this pays off. Big time.
We’ll start with the charges through Alibaba and to Changli, which you can see broken down in this invoice:
Oh, and that’s not my address, that’s the address of the Port of Wilmington. I do not live at the Port of Wilmington like some kind of CG-animated wharf rat from an upcoming Pixar movie.
The car itself is listed at $1,235 because the batteries are separate, which is sort of disappointing, but it’s just $305 for some amount of what I believe are lead-acid batteries. Maybe I can swap some old lithium laptop batteries in there at some point and save some weight? We’ll see.
Next, we have the shipping charges from Shanghai to Wilmington, NC, which, at $549, actually seem pretty reasonable. That’s really not that bad to haul 800 pounds halfway across the globe.
So, now we’re at a total of $1,784. That’s almost double the original $930 advertised price, but, compared to other new vehicles, even limited electric vehicles like golf carts, it’s still cheap.
Remember, golf cart prices are insane. Look at this EZ-Go electric 3.3 HP golf cart that has about the same top speed (20-25 MPH or so) as the Changli and a much more rudimentary body:
Over eight grand. I still can’t wrap my head around that.
We’re not nearly done with the Changli costs, sadly. That almost $1,800 is just for the vehicle and getting it to America. Getting anything into the country from overseas is a colossal, nerve-wracking hassle, especially for me, since I seem to have some sort of deep-seated, innate fear and hatred of paperwork.
I don’t know why, but lots of paperwork always makes me feel confused and anxious, Kafka-style, so this was no fun for me. Luckily, the Changli representative, Amy, was in nearly constantly-available contact with me via Alibaba’s integrated chat support system, and she was very good about talking me through the process and helping me get the paperwork I needed.
If you’re considering buying something like this from Alibaba, the direct support from the suppliers is easily one of the best parts about this. I’m not sure it’d be possible at all without a representative on-call to help with all the questions.
Of course, even with a representative there to hold your hand, individuals can’t really do everything you need to get something in the country; you need a customs broker to handle all of that, and they like to get paid in money, which, I’m told, they exchange for goods and services, much like you or I.
And even before you get to the customs stage, you have to pay for port fees and handling and unloading costs. In the case of my Changli, even though I was hoping the container ship would go right to the Port of Wilmington, it actually docked in New York, and would then be trucked down to Wilmington.
That ship, by the way, was the Cosco Shipping Lotus, and you can actually find pictures of it and information about it online! What a glorious world we live in!
My, she’s a majestic sea bird!
Here’s what we had to pay to the company that handled unloading the container from the ship:
By the time you add up handling, warehouse fees, security, docking, loading onto the truck, fuel, and so on, it’s another $528.60.
Okay, that brings our total up to $2,312.60. A hell of a lot more than that $930, but still well below our baseline competitor golf cart.
During all this time, I’m having to make sure documents get sent from the Chinese exporter to the American customs agencies, the most nerve-wracking of which was a form called an Importer Security Filing (ISF) form, because if that one is wrong or missing or not filed in time or properly or out of order in some way you’re on the hook for a $5,000 fine.
After some initial confusion and panic about the form, it was located and sent via my customs broker who took care of the filing, so I could quit worrying about a $5,000 fine on a $900 ridiculous electric shitbox.
Next, there were multiple DOT forms where I had to be sure this was classified as something other than a conventional, street-legal motor car. The particular classification for mine is similar to what is used for factory or campus utility vehicles, and can then be registered as a low-speed neighborhood electric vehicle at the state level, which I’ll tackle once it arrives.
The important thing for this part is making sure the DOT knows it’s not something like a gray-market Skyline or Land Rover or something like that. There’s an awful lot of confusing customs paperwork involved, and it all seems to have high fee stakes and particular timeframes and requires a knowledge of the byzantine machinations of the customs system, which I suppose is why this part was so expensive, the next most expensive cost after the car (plus batteries) itself: $1,018.67.
Here’s how that broke down:
A lot of that money goes to the government for import duties and other U.S. Customs fees, and that import duty is based on the value of what you’re bringing in—so, if you want to import a more expensive weird-little Chinese EV, you’ll end up paying more than the $339.63 we had to pay.
With the $1,018.67 customs fee we’re at a grand total of $3,331.27.
I expect another couple hundred I’ll have to pay at the warehouse for handling fees and likely a disposal fee for the bulky cage-thing it ships in, since I don’t think that’ll fit into the Jeep J10 pickup David Tracy is driving over to help me collect the Changli. Let’s just guess and call it an even $3,500 by the time it’s all done.
You can think of the fees as having three main parts: the initial cost of the vehicle or whatever you’re buying, along with the shipping, paid to the actual vendor; then the arrival and unloading charges when it arrives at the port; and then the charges to the customs handling agency for dealing with the vast amounts of paperwork.
So, there you go. The real cost of a $930 electric car from China is over three times that amount, at least if you want it actually moved across the world and entering America legally. That’s still a hell of a lot less than the golf cart, and I still think this could prove to be a viable option for people with some very, very specific sub-actual-real-car transportation needs.
Remember, this thing has lights and turn signals and wipers and doors and all that real-car candy, just unimaginably cheaper and hanging on a likely flimsy frame, powered by a 1.1-horse electric motor.
I’m very excited to get this thing, which should be available for pickup early next week. We’ll do a full unboxing video, technical overview, first drive test, anything and everything we can.
Get excited, people. It’s almost Changli-time.