BMW will start assembling an electric model of Mini in China, in a partnership with Great Wall. Photo: Handout

German auto giant BMW has hooked up with Chinese carmaker Great Wall for the localized assembly of its Mini compact cars, starting with the upcoming all-electric Rocketman series, at a time the legendary marque sporting an retro-esque, stylistic design increasingly holds its appeal for China’s millennial motorists.

The new lithium-ion-powered Mini Rocketman series is scheduled to start rolling off production lines in 2022, at a joint venture plant with an annual output of 160,000 units currently taking shape in Changzhou in Jiangsu province, a coastal city near Shanghai.

China’s Great Wall has emerged as the saviour to keep the Rocketman plan rolling after the exorbitant cost from development to marketing for the new electric model Mini reportedly forced BMW to hit the brakes, despite the model’s conceptual debut in 2011 at the Geneva Autoshow.

The Chinese automaker, which is making inroads into the electric vehicle segment, has agreed to foot much of the cost, with its own e-cars to share key powertrain system components with the Mini. Great Wall’s own hatchbacks have long been mocked as Mini copycats.

Mini Rocketman will be part of BMW’s aggressive plan to launch 25 electric and hybrid models by 2023, while some of them have already been considered for mass production at BMW’s existing plant in Shenyang, in the northeastern Liaoning province.

The team-up follows a deal entered in March between Daimler and the Zhejiang-based Geely Auto for the production and joint promotion of Smart’s electric two-seaters and subcompacts.

BMW’s executives at the 2018 Guangzhou Autoshow. Photo: WeChat

BMW and Mini bucked the downward trend in the Chinese market and have sold more than 350,000 petrol- and electricity-powered cars in the country during the first six months, outperforming compatriot rivals including Audi and Mercedes-Benz in the top-line segment with a higher-than-expected year-on-year growth of 16.8%.

As a whole, foreign brands outsold Chinese manufacturers amid the overall downturn, according to preliminary figures examined by Xinhua, when Chinese buyers opted for more sleek sedans and SUVs from BMW and the like over their indigenous brands.

Meanwhile, foreign automakers are in a race to ally with Chinese partners to secure supply of battery packs in the advent of green transportation.

Previous reports say Chinese suppliers have cracked the technical hurdle in mining and extracting lithium from the nation’s vast deposits of the soft, silvery-white metal, slashing unit costs to as low as 15,000 yuan (US$2,180) per metric ton.

The purification of lithium from other elements present in brine salts remain costly, but a complicated electronic membrane filtering process may hold the key to bolstering lithium production to charge China’s shift to zero-emission cars, when Beijing is no longer hoarding its domestic lithium reserve.

It has already been reported that lithium slats that lie beneath salt lake beds in the wilderness of the alpine Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will be extracted, transported across the nation and manufactured into battery cells to propel Minis and Teslas assembled and sold in China.

China’s stranglehold on the production of lithium batteries has forced importers and traders in the US and Europe to recycle used battery cells to avoid becoming too reliant on China.

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