Starting a car company is expensive. Starting an electric car company is even more expensive. Wouldn’t it be great if a startup could leave the whole car building thing to an existing company so the startup could focus their development money on making all the electrical bits? This is exactly what Tesla did with their first car, the Roadster. They bought the custom ordered body shells from Lotus, so all they had to worry about was making it much heavier.
Wheego, an Atlanta-based company you’ve probably never heard of until now, also took this approach to car production. They bought the body shell of an existing car from an existing car manufacturer, and then they electrified it to make their own car. The idea is fine — but, for reasons I can only assume are a large lack of money, they made a terrible error in the selection of their electric car’s base body shell. They picked a car that no one has heard of, but everyone recognizes: the Shuanghuan Noble. This is a car known almost singularly for being a Chinese knock-off of the original, first-generation Smart ForTwo.
Conveniently, I happen to own a 2013 Wheego. I bought it a year ago for $5,000 (it was $36,000 just four years prior) because it amused me and I wanted to try out an electric car in a very cheap way. Even more conveniently, I also happen to own a first-generation 2005 Smart ForTwo. I bought it a few months ago to use in a video because the dealership refused to loan it to me and I wasn’t going to stand for that sort of denial. Now it has some weird electrical problems, so I’m probably stuck with it for a while. Having both of these cars gives me the excellent opportunity to showcase just how different these two cars aren’t. And so I shall begin.
A great place to start is the side profile. When you line the two cars up front to back, you can see an immediate resemblance. The resemblance is so strong that everyone that asks me about the Wheego just assumes it’s a Smart without question. This is despite the giant, shouty “Wheego Electric Car” stickers on the side. Public opinion notwithstanding, the two cars are not exactly identical. The Wheego is a fair bit longer than the Smart, and a good portion of that length comes from the extra girth Shuanghuan put into the B pillar compared to the Smart (in China, the Noble is a 4-seater). In addition, due to its front-engine and front-wheel drive layout, the Wheego has an actual nose, whereas the Smart looks like it had a front-end collision somewhere in the design process. This all results in the Wheego having a drastically different front shape compared to the Smart. Despite those differences, the side profiles are pretty much identical at glance or even a slow stare. The doors, quarter windows, C-pillar, fenders and roofline are all visually similar.
Because of the vastly different engine layout between the two, the front end of both cars is pretty much completely different. This is not amusing at all, so I’m going to move on to the back. Aside from two details, the two cars have visually identical rear ends. The Wheego has completely different tail lights — probably because Shuanghuan found the complex design of three glass circles too difficult to copy. And the Wheego is missing the rear wiper that it so desperately needs. Aside from those little details, you would never look at these two cars together and think it was a case of simultaneous invention. You might even think they were different model years of the same car.
And the similarities continue on the inside. When you open the Smart’s signature glass hatch tailgate arrangement … on the Wheego, you can see that every detail was copied, right down to the hinges for the hatch. The tailgate is exactly the same. The hatch is exactly the same, although it is installed rather poorly and rubs against the tail light. It’s all very non-coincidental. Unfortunately, that isn’t even the most blatant copy of the interior of the Smart. That comes in the form of the dash.
The Smart has a very interesting dash. It’s covered in funky patterns, it has some funky spherical air vents mounted on top and the shape would probably best be described using the words bubbly and/or curvy somewhere in a list of other geometric buzzwords. Rather shockingly, the dash in the Wheego is identical looking — minus the funky patterns. Oh, and it’s all falling apart and warping because Shuanghuan prioritizes “cheap” far above “long-lasting” in a long list of materials criteria. I mean this. Every single panel I can touch is broken or warped in some way, and this is a car that’s just five years old with less than 15,000 miles.
Thankfully, the instrument panel is nothing at all like the one in the Smart, but this is because Wheego made their own digital dash as part of the electric car “conversion”. Another difference between the two dashes is, in my opinion, the most hilarious bit of aspiration ever put in any car. Flanking the central air vent on either side are two scroll-wheel-looking chunks of plastic. They do not move. They do not control anything. They are just there. Below that central air vent is a strange cascading row of dots. Again, they perform no function at all. In the original Shuanghuan Noble and the low speed Wheego Whip, these bits of plastic light up blue and red for no apparent reason. In the more substantial Wheego LiFe, they were blacked out for no apparent reason.
When I looked inside the Smart for the first time is when I instantly realized what these chunks of plastic were for: In the Smart, these are the climate control levers! Shuanghuan made a vague attempt at copying the design via blank plastic pieces, but moved the actual climate controls to three simple knobs just above the radio. The Wheego may be the only car in history to have blank plastic switches to remind you that, maybe, if you would’ve worked just a bit harder, you could’ve bought a completely unrelated make and model of car.
After you get past the dash, I’m afraid it gets a little boring. Yes, the seats have the same design, but not much else does. The center console, for instance, is completely different between the two cars. What’s even more upsetting about the things they did copy is the way they went about copying them. They only made everything visually similar without copying over any of the clever design ideas or build techniques from the Smart — and that really exemplifies the reason behind the copy/paste attitude. More about that in a second.
First, I want to give you some examples of how the Wheego greatly differs in construction from the Smart. The door on the Smart is somewhat brilliant to me. The outer door panel is a plastic panel that’s relatively easy to take off or swap out. In fact, the entire car is covered in these easily swappable plastic panels that, among other benefits, allow you to change the color of your car in a matter of hours. The door is also fairly modular and easy to work on. The door handle is held on by one single screw and a couple clips. The Wheego carried over none of this clever design. The door is steel. The body panels are steel. The door frame is a jagged piece of stamped steel. I would rather dig my hand through a bucket of slightly dull knives than attempt to take out that stupid Wheego door handle again.
One of the Smart’s biggest selling points is the “tridion cell” construction. This is an externally visible roll cage that makes up a very significant part of the Smart’s strength. The Wheego, as you should not be surprised to learn by now, does not have a tridion cell. It does, however, mimic the outward visible appearance of the tridion cell, but the “cell” is merely sheet metal just like the rest of the car’s body.
There are more examples which you can see in the video, but the point has already been made. This is a car made for the purpose of being a visually similar and significantly cheaper alternative to fool the less than careful consumer. It’s pretty much exactly like the $15 Chinese Apple Watch clone I bought off Amazon. The troubling problem with this realization is that the less-than-careful consumer in this instance appears to have been an entire electric car company. Why would anyone at Wheego think the Noble was a good base upon which to build their entire company?
What Wheego’s catastrophic decision resulted in was possibly the worst new car sold in North America in the past 15 years. I am dead serious when I say the quality on this thing is appalling. In the year that I’ve owned this five-year-old car, I’ve patched rust, fixed a bad wheel bearing and replaced cloudy marker lights — and so much more is still broken. If the build quality wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a rolling copyright infringement. Wheego could’ve picked anything, but they chose the Noble. It was, quite literally, not a Smart choice.
The surprising part about all of this is that Wheego is still in business. They’re not making cars anymore, and they haven’t since 2013. Instead, they’re now in the business of making autonomous car technologies. A few years ago, to reflect this change in business, they changed their name to Wheego Technologies. This was apparently not good enough for them — and in a move potentially focused on distancing themselves from the tragic Wheego reputation, they rebranded just last month to Autonomous Fusion. All existences of the word Wheego have now been scrubbed from their website.
I, however, will never forget their history.
All of this sounds awful, but it’s the exact reason I like the Wheego so much. The car is so tremendously awful in every way, and it’s a USDOT-compliant Chinese knockoff. What’s not to love? It’s like driving electric-powered comic relief. Plus, now I have the car it tried to copy, so I can have a lot of fun at cars and coffee events parking my twin cars side by side. No, the Wheego’s not very good at being an actual car, but it’s great at being entertainment.
Robert Dunn lives in Missouri and runs a YouTube channel called Aging Wheels, which is brilliant.