From the October 2018 issue
You know me; I don’t like to brag. But in only the past few months, I have spotted on the road a Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS, a GMC Envoy XUV, several Ford C-Max Energis, and a slew of Lincoln Continentals (the new ones with the crazy door handles). And hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, because this one could blow them clean off: I have witnessed a Chrysler Aspen hybrid moving under its own power on a public thoroughfare. Okay, that was several years ago. I mean, I’m blessed, but I’m not a god or anything. But I didn’t realize those had actually gone on sale.
Anyway, there’s a reason I have seen all these things and you probably haven’t, and that is because I live in southeastern Michigan, the only place on this earth where those vehicles could sell in numbers large enough to actually see evidence of them. My perspective is therefore skewed. My sense of the vehicle fleet is pretty much the flip side to that of an Angeleno, who might see an operational Datsun 510 or a Nissan Hardbody in the wild.
This automotive regionalism is often due to the location of production plants or heavy concentrations of employees. Such a large percentage of people in the Detroit area work for automakers that local television car advertisements regularly quote employee pricing. Domestic-brand cars are predictably popular here. Almost a decade ago, in researching a story, I stumbled across a curious anomaly in some of General Motors’ sales figures: The Chevrolet brand then had a 94 percent share of the new-car market in Uzbekistan. Who knew, right? Well, most of the U.S.-based GM spokespeople didn’t, that’s for sure. Turns out, there was a large production plant in that particular stan that was a joint venture between the state-controlled auto operation (called UzAvtoSanoat) and Daewoo (of course). Then GM gained control of Daewoo and bing, bang, boom, a load of bow-tie badges and you got yourself a whole mess of Chevys.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of regional preference. Why is the Toyota Tacoma the best-selling vehicle in Hawaii? Is it because the nose and tail of modern full-size pickups would hang off opposite sides of the island?
But with the Lord as my witness, I have never seen anything so bizarre as what I have just observed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve been there, so know that this metropolis is a mix between sad, crumbling Soviet-era construction-the museum of natural history had to relocate some of its prized dinosaur bones to a nearby shopping mall because its building is falling apart-and the shininess of modern Chinese-style luxury. It’s a city of more than a million hardy souls, at least a couple of KFC restaurants, many statues of Chinggis (a.k.a. Genghis) Khan, even more varieties of vodka, and, it seems, about a million Toyota Priuses. Yes, Priuses. Toyota’s decidedly light-duty runabout positively clogs the lumpy streets of Ulaanbaatar, the coldest and most polluted capital in the world. How cold? It’s so cold that oftentimes in winter, longtime rivals Celsius and Fahrenheit finally throw up their hands and agree that it’s -40 degrees.
Outside the city, where roads are often little more than lightly worn tracks across the desert, old Russian UAZ-452 vans, tattered motorcycles, and short horses are more popular means of transport. But in town, it’s an endless stream of Priuses, flotillas of them puttering through the streets. There are examples of each generation. Occasionally you’ll see one with gold-wrapped rims and Prius-club stickers. Others are adorned with fabric window curtains and green LED accent lights. My personal favorites are those that have been lifted-just a couple of inches, nothing too redneck-and fitted with all-terrain tires.
But most of them are just plain old bone-stock Priuses, almost all wearing innocuous paint colors. Apart from the ever-present thick layer of dust, they usually appear to be in quite good shape. The overwhelming majority of them are right-hand-drive examples, despite the fact that Mongolians drive on the right side of the road. This is because the Priuses are mostly imported used from the Japan market. But while it might have become fashionable or at least common to drive a Prius in Ulaanbaatar, the other reason they’re so popular is more prosaic: For years, the Mongolian government has exempted hybrids, along with full electrics and LPG-powered cars, from excise taxes. A 10-year-old car with an engine the same size as a Prius’s would cost a buyer an additional $3500 plus in excise tax. This in a country where the average annual household income for 2016 was less than $1500.
In Detroit, that $3500 will get you a Malibu Maxx SS.
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