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Now, imagine a minivan that costs just $5,000 and gets more than 40 miles per gallon. General Motors has one. But its only available in China and other developing nations.
Michigan Radios Tracy Samilton reports why its not on the roads here.
(Soundbite of street noise)
TRACY SAMILTON: It only takes a couple of minutes on the streets of Shanghai before an example of GMs biggest success in China putters by. Last year, GM and its partner, Wuling, sold more than 590,000 Sunshines, a minivan that's popular both in the countryside and big cities. The Sunshine sure puts the mini in minivan, but it suits 45-year-old Yu Guomin just fine. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Yu Guomin drives the Wuling Rongguang, which is a similar, newer version of the Sunshine.]
Mr. YU GUOMIN: (Foreign language spoken)
SAMILTON: Yu Guomin works at an electroplating company. He and his nephew, Yu Bin(ph), use their minivan to get to work and haul materials. Yu Guomin says the van is roomy, reliable, and the gas mileage is fantastic.
(Soundbite of a vehicle engine)
SAMILTON: Sounds great. Where can I get one? Well, there are a few drawbacks by American standards. Lets start with the Sunshines little three-cylinder engine.
Mr. MICHAEL ROBINET (Auto Analyst): Forty-three horsepower. I mean, there are -there frankly are some lawn tractors that have more horsepower than that.
SAMILTON: Michael Robinet is an auto industry analyst with CSM Worldwide. He agreed to talk about the Sunshine after GM declined. He thinks trying to sell it in here would be crazy. He calls the Sunshine a pumpkin on wheels. It has a top speed of about 80 miles an hour. Theres a radio. But Americans expect things like entertainment and navigation systems. The biggest drawback is safety. Robinet says there arent even any seatbelts in the back row.
Mr. ROBINET: In North America, we are accustomed to at least six air bags. Driver, passenger and probably two side air bags on each side. That vehicle is not engineered for air bags. So youd have to re-engineer the entire vehicle for the safety structure that we expect in this market.
SAMILTON: 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 youve gone down that road, the cost starts to skyrocket.
I head down to Lou LaRiche Chevrolet in Plymouth, Michigan to see if theres anything close to the Sunshine here; there isnt. GM doesnt even make a minivan for the U.S. market. General Manager Ron Chaudoin looks quizzical when I describe the Sunshines horsepower.
Mr. RON CHAUDOIN (General Manager, GM): Which means to get to top speed you probably take a wind behind you and a downhill ramp to get there. So our cars will get there by the by the time youre at the end of the driveway.
SAMILTON: Chaudoin shows me something that can move both people and cargo. Its a Traverse, an SUV with six times the Sunshines 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. Inside...
Mr. CHAUDOIN: Well, I dont imagine they put leather seats in a $5,000 car.
SAMILTON: To be fair to the Sunshine, it has to be pointed out that 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.
For NPR News, Im Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.
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