By Julian Dierkes
Our image of Mongolia may be dominated by horses as a part of the landscape, but also as a mode of transport. But, of course, motorized transport is very common place today.
Development Stages and Motorization
I imagine that there’s some kind of impressionistic literature out there that classifies development stages by the kind of vehicles that predominate in urban traffic. Whether it is the tiny Hondas of the 1960s in Japan, the bicycles of pre-1980 Beijing, or the motor scooters so common across SE Asia, the predominant forms of transportation provide a measure of the funds that are available for urban transport, but also for luxury purchases.
Types of Cars
When I first started visiting Mongolia very regularly in the mid-2000s, I thought of Ulaanbaatar as the place that Hyundais went to die. This was an extension of my own experience in Alaska which around that time was the place where Subarus went to die. In both cases a brand that was enormously common and seemed well-suited to local conditions. In the case of Hyundai Accents, these were largely used imports from Korea that were affordable and possible to maintain. They thus dominated the Ulaanbaatar car-scape until Prius started arriving in numbers (see below).
Arrival of Prius
In 2016, the Beijing correspondent of the Globe & Mail, Nathan Vanderklippe, noted the preponderance of hybrid cars in Mongolia, but the growth of this sector had been going on for some years. Is it that Mongolians have seen the eco-light and want to save gas? Is it that this is an individual decision to alleviate a collective winter-time evil, air pollution? No, it’s mostly that most cars in Mongolia are imports from Japan (or Korea). Given Japan’s very strict safety inspections, cars are discarded in Japan strangely quickly and the used market for older cars is totally underdeveloped. So, roughly five years after hybrids, and especially the Toyota Prius, started being more popular in Japan, they “naturally” started showing up in Mongolia. Of course, drivers will be delighted by the gas-savings, but the market share of the hybrids is probably more due to push factors related to Japanese exports than any other decisions.
By 2017, Prius seem to be the most common car in Ulaanbaatar. They are the workhorse of modern Mongolian living. They seem to be approved to carry at least 11 people.
This might be an answer, it has more room haha ???????????????? pic.twitter.com/lheYPvpuWF
— bate (@bat_rosso) February 20, 2018
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) February 20, 2018
If you follow the secret-code-on-how-to-shut-off-hybrid-mode instructions, you can even drive through rivers with them. I can only imagine what the Toyota engineers who designed these would think when they see how their hi-tech hybrids are out through the ringer of life on the steppes, and how well they seem to handle that.
Resurgence of right-hand drive
The shift from Hyundai Accents to Toyota Prius also brought a resurgence of right-hand drive cars, imported from Japan. Today, Mongolia is a mix of right-hand drive and left-hand drive cars, even though traffic is on the right side of the street, of course. Given the high quality, low mileage, and technological advances in the domestic Japanese car market, it seems unlikely that this will decline as a major source of cars in Mongolia for some time. The main threat to the dominance of used cars from Japan, may be new cars from China, especially if electrification there really takes off. It would seem that the domestic market for used cars in China itself is so large that few cars might emerge from this to be imported into Mongolia, but new cars seem more likely, especially as Mongolia becomes more affluent.
Why no Subaru?
I have often wondered why there are no more Subarus in Mongolia. Again (as above) given my Alaska experience, Subarus seem ideal for Mongolia. A bit of ground-clearance, 4-wheel-drive, utilitarian, plenty of them in the Japanese used market…
So what keeps them from showing up in bigger numbers here? Do Japanese owners hang on to Subarus longer than other makes? Are the Boxer engines more complicated to maintain? Do they guzzle too much gas for Mongolian tastes?
Mongolians probably like the utility of pick-ups, especially for the countryside. They have sporadically started appearing. Mostly, they are bigger US models, it seems, that rely on a differential tax rate as trucks rather than passenger cars.
However, no nation nearby has significant numbers of these and since large parts of the Mongolian automobile market continue to be used cars from Japan and Korea, pick-us are probably unlikely to disappear in big numbers.
Cars are such an obvious element in the central Ulaanbaatar streetscape that I will continue to note changes as they occur over the years.
One of the interesting features of car life in Mongolia is that model years are designated by numbers that I’ve never heard in Canada. Do you know what a Prius 20 is vs a Prius 30? What about all those numbers that designate generations of Landcruisers?
Fortunately, Hummer Craze Waning
Some years ago, Hummers seemed to be proliferating. The whole off-road, weird macho image with Schwarzenegger and all seemed like they would be a thing in Mongolia. Fortunately for the world, that trend never quite became a craze and the few Hummers that are around now look like the dinosaurs they are.
Two August 2018 Addenda
- Yes, the Hummer craze may be waning (see above), but there is a stretch Hummer limousine about town. In my mind, that must be signalling the end of Mongol civilization if the Louis Vuiton boutique or the Porsche dealership didn’t…
- I had never noticed before, but there are almost no Chinese-brand cars in Mongolia. There may be some Chinese-built cars (a number of the Chevvies that seem to be somewhat proliferating have that look about them), but no Chinese brands that I’ve seen.