If you had to guess which Japanese automaker would launch a budget-friendly electric vehicle sub-brand in China next year, who’d you guess?
Probably Nissan, right? That’d be a good guess since Nissan and Tesla sold the most EVs in the US last year, and Tesla has already claimed a good chunk of the Chinese EV market share.
Surprisingly, it’s not Nissan, but Toyota. Even as the world’s largest Japanese automaker is moving away from electric vehicles in the US, it looks like they’re embracing them in foreign markets like China. Next year they’ll launch a new marque called Leahead (or Ling Zhi in Chinese), which is meant to evoke the phrase “Leap Ahead”. The sub-brand will exclusively sell economical, city-friendly electric vehicles like the mysteriously unnamed EV Concept from last year’s Shanghai Motor Show (below).
Although… That’s actually not an accurate description of what’s happening, even though that’s what most other auto blogs are reporting around the web.
The folks over at AutoBlog Green were kind enough to contact Toyota directly about their new Chinese project. After all, a new EV-only sub-brand just doesn’t sound like something we’d see from the characteristically HFCV-oriented automaker. A response from Toyota Motor Sales’ communications manager, Jana Hartline, helped us make sense of the move.
Hartline explained, “Toyota just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of GAC Toyota Motor Co., Ltd (GTMC), its joint-venture manufacturing company in China. And it is GTMC, not Toyota directly, that is the company behind Leahead.”
So, it sounds like Toyota’s association with the new Chinese Leahead EV brand wasn’t really their idea, but rather one that they got on-board with without needing too much persuasion.
Why is an eco-EV JV a good idea for Toyota? Let’s look at the facts:
First, the Chinese government is set to offer significant incentives to EV automakers. A couple years ago the China State Council committed to putting 5 million EVs on Chinese roads by 2020, and just earlier this month they committed to making 30% of all new government vehicles electric.
Second, unlike in the US, low-speed electric vehicles are a hot trend in China. Low-speed means lower manufacturing costs. And as we said, Tesla has already sold their EVs in China with huge success.
With these factors in mind, it’s no surprise how many analysts are claiming that China will be the largest market for electric vehicles in the world within 5 years. It makes perfect sense that Toyota would want a JV partnership to take advantage of that trend.
Rumor has it that we’ll see the first Leahead EV at either the Shanghai Motor Show next April or the Guangzhou Auto Show next November. Either way, the first car is expected to be based on the Chinese Toyota Yaris L.