Last year I found an awesome-looking electric mini-truck on a Chinese shopping website and decided I simply had to have it. With a $2,000 sticker price, I figured it was risky, but that I wouldn’t lose the farm if the transaction went tires up. And so I embarked on one of the weirdest vehicle purchases of my life.
China’s little electric vehicles
I’ve spent years watching the Chinese electric vehicle industry develop. I’m not talking about the Tesla imitators and other mainstream Chinese EVs. I’m talking about the quirky, weird, and funny little mini-EV industry that has been absolutely dominated by China.
Not only do I write a fun tongue-in-cheek column every weekend tracking the silliest of these mini-EVs, but sometimes I even put my own skin in the game by buying the ones that I can’t resist or can hide from my wife.
First of all, this cute little thing turned into the electric truck that broke the internet. Millions of Electrek readers scrolled through to read about the experience. Millions more tuned in for the videos. I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe the mini-truck size (it’s just under 5:8 scale, or 11 feet long compared to a Rivian at 18 feet). Maybe it’s the affordable price, as I could buy a garage full of these for the price of an F150 Lightning. But everyone seems to love the little electric truck, neighbors included!
Since then I’ve gifted the truck to my parents for use on their Florida ranch. There it serves all sorts of roles from garbage collection to landscaping duty. Stop by on the right day and you’ll see my dad toting his grandkids around hayride style in the back. The 25 mph (40 km/h) speed isn’t an issue for the type of off-road utility use my parents put it through.
The famous electric mini-truck: How is it doing now?
I wish I could tell you how many miles we’ve put on the truck since, but it doesn’t actually have an odometer. Based on the wear and tear though, it certainly looks lower mileage than it is. That’s because the truck has surprised us all by holding up incredibly well!
Sure, it’s only been a bit under a year, but if the comments section is any indication, then most people didn’t expect the truck to last this long. But not only has it lasted, but it’s working better than ever.
The hydraulic dump bed in back, which has proven quite useful for spreading mulch and top soil, seems to only function better with time.
I think they sized the hydraulic ram a couple sizes too large. While it has plenty of lifting power, it would often get stuck on the way down without sufficient weight in the bed to keep it lowering. I’d have to pull on the bed a bit to get the ram lowering again. It was if there just wasn’t enough mass pushing the hydraulic fluid back out of the piston, relying on gravity only. Over time the ram has worn in and now it lowers nearly as well as it raises.
I still don’t know what the lift capacity is, but I’ve had around 500-700 lb. of dirt in the bed, and it lifted it with the same ease as a single 40 lb. bag of top soil. So every indication is that it has more lift capacity than would actually fit in the bed.
Charging the electric mini-truck
I also don’t know what the exact range is, though I paid for the biggest 6 kWh battery the factory offered me. Fun fact: The $2K truck’s sticker price ballooned after another $1K for the biggest battery and $2K for shipping, plus stateside fees (more on that here).
We generally recharge the truck every couple weeks, and it theoretically has a range of around 50 miles (80 km) or more.
But since the truck is used entirely off-road around the property, it just doesn’t go that far and range has never been an issue.
It died once when my dad let the battery get too low, but he just walked his Jackery 1500 portable power station out to it. He put a few minutes of charge into it and then was able to drive it back to the house.
I’ve also found that I can solar charge the mini-truck with that same portable power station and a set of four solar panels allowing it to be used as a solar generator.
That’s a cool feature, since many electric car chargers could be too powerful for smaller portable power stations. The Jackery 1500 would actually handle a 1 kW car charger with ease (though not for very long). But even smaller power stations could still handle the approximately 500-600W charger that came with my truck.
By running the solar panels at the same time as the truck’s charger, I can replenish the solar generator nearly as quickly as it dumps energy into the truck. That way it basically lasts for a whole day of sun.
The truck’s systems are working great too. The LED lighting all works as well as the day it arrived, with the exception that my dad accidentally broke the mount for one of the spot lights. It got scraped off when he drove under a tree that he swears he always clears, but that this time the branches had grown down just a bit lower. No worries though — a little repair job on the light’s housing and it was good as new.
The air conditioning still works great as well, though it is so loud that we don’t use it too often. The car breathes well when you open the electric windows, plus the sunroof helps get even more ram air cooling into the cab. But during the hot and humid Florida summers, that air conditioning is a nice feature to have. The small size of the mini-truck’s cab also means it cools off quite quickly. I left the air conditioning running for about 30 minutes once parked just to see if it had any issues with run time. I came back to find the entire windshield covered in thick condensation. So yeah, it gets quite cold.
The suspension is still way too rough, but that’s likely because they again sized the components too be way too large. The springs are something like 400 lb. coils, and that’s too much stiff for a small truck like this. I bought some 125 lb. springs to swap on, and I look forward to seeing how much that improves the bumpy ride.
I’ve also picked up some bigger tires for the truck that will hopefully give it better off-road performance. The stock tires are designed for the street. They’ve been doing fine with the sandy soil and high grass around the property, but they aren’t ideal. The new tires should be a big improvement.
Is it street legal?
One of the most common questions I get from people is whether this mini-truck is actually street legal. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Many people think I can slap an orange triangle on the back and drive off into the sunset. That’d sure be nice, but again, no. It doesn’t work that way.
The closest vehicle category it would fit into would be as a Low Speed Vehicle (LSV). This is a federally regulated motor vehicle class for these types of 25 mph (40 km/h) slow moving and often small-format vehicles.
But it’s a common misconception that a vehicle simply needs a 25 mph speed cap and seatbelts to be a legal LSV. There’s a lot more to it. All of the safety equipment has to come from DOT-certified factories. The factory that assembles the vehicle has to be NHTSA-registered. There’s required equipment like a backup camera (which my truck has), a pedestrian warning noisemaker (which my truck doesn’t have), and several other components. Again, all of those have to come from DOT-certified factories. It’s not enough to put in seatbelts with a DOT label sewn on.
So as much as I would love to use the truck on-road, it’s not really a possibility. Nearly zero Chinese imported vehicles currently fulfill the legal requirements of LSVs, and in fact many that claim to simply don’t. Hopefully that changes soon, as I think there’s a real market for these small and inexpensive electric vehicles for neighborhood and urban use. But in the meantime, they’re still quite effective for off-road use like how I’m using mine.
What’s next on the upgrade list?
I love this little electric truck, but it could always be better.
I already mentioned the new tires and springs that I’ll be installing soon. But I’ve also got plans for a 50W solar panel for the roof. I figure it will be perfectly sized for the top of the cab and won’t stick off like a funny hat. I can pair that with a DC-boost charge controller and directly charge the battery. The truck is fairly efficient since it’s not very fast, and can do around 40-50 Wh/mile. So for each hour of good sun, I could get around a mile of charge. Less than five miles or so of use per day around the property would mean essentially never needing to plug the truck into the charger.
I also really need to put a bed liner in the truck. Each time I fill up the bed and think of the thin paint, I feel bad for it. I’m considering using a roll-on truck bed liner that I can apply myself. Any suggestions on colors?
In fact, if you have any other good ideas for upgrades that I should explore, put them in the comments section below. And don’t say “installing a paintball gun turret in the back to turn it into a technical.” I already want to do that.
So you want one too?
Every week I get flooded with emails of people wanting to get one of these electric mini-trucks. I get it. They’re awesome. But be warned, it’s not an easy task to bring one of these into the US.
I had to import mine for off-road use only since it’s not street legal for use on public roads. That’s legal to do, but it’s still tricky and has its pitfalls. I’ve heard of others trying to import these Chinese trucks and having them stopped by Customs and Border Patrol as the truck appeared to be destined for on-road use.
Even if you don’t have that issue, there are tons of nickel-and-dime charges along the way. Shipping fees, port fees, loading and unloading fees, customs broker fees, etc. It’s a mess.
There are companies that import these things for you, though they make it clear that they offer no warranty and that they simply handle the logistics – for a very healthy markup.
A few of my readers have also been bitten by the Alibaba and shared with me their own stories of importing electric mini Jeeps or other oddball four-wheeled EVs. If you check out their adventures, you’ll see it’s not something for the feint of heart.
What’s next for my electric mini-truck?
My plan for now is to simply continuing using my electric mini-truck, pushing it hard for daily chores and seeing what it can do.
I’m sure it will eventually develop problems, as any machine would. And when that happens, repairs will likely require a bit of ingenuity and craftiness. That’s the downside of buying a vehicle without a local dealer to offer support. But that’s also how people used to live – they fixed their own stuff when it broke. And so I’m not too terribly worried about it. I also happen to have a degree in mechanical engineering and years of experience as a battery engineer, so bring it on, world!
If anyone has any questions about the truck that I didn’t answer, feel free to put them in the comments section below! Just make sure you do it quickly, as Electrek‘s comments section closes like a steel trap after 48 hours!
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