When Battsengel first grabbed the wheel of his 1999 Toyota Prius, his friends and family mocked him.
“You bought the worst car in the world,” they said, after he took possession of the little Japanese car six years ago.
Nothing about the second-hand hybrid seemed like a fit for Mongolia, a place where just 10 per cent of the roads are paved. The only way to reach most of the country is over grass and dirt tracks that cross tens of thousands of kilometres of steppe and mountain.
Then there’s the cold: Ulan Bator is the world’s most frigid capital, a place that outshivers Moscow and Ottawa.
Mongolia, in other words, is Land Cruiser country. Who would want a Prius?
Battsengel, who like most Mongolians goes by one name, was worried, too. He picked the Prius for its price – just $2,500 – and fuel economy. But maybe he chose wrong?
“I actually thought of replacing it and buying a different car,” he said.
“It took one month for me to be convinced it’s a good car.”
And no one questions his decision any more – because most of them have come to the same conclusion.
Priuses now make up nearly 13 per cent of the passenger vehicles on Mongolian roads, according to government registry statistics, a number that is rising fast. Last year, Mongolians imported 19,494 Priuses, a staggering 52.5 per cent of total vehicle imports, and up from 38 per cent the year before.
It’s no stretch to call the Prius the unofficial car of Mongolia, making the tiny-wheeled hybrid the unlikely automotive conqueror of the land of Genghis Khan.
On the streets, it’s common to see flotillas of uninterrupted Priuses, some of them so old – such as Battsengel’s – that they were built when the car was sold only in Japan, before its global debut in 2000.
Outside the city, too, the diminutive two-wheel-drive picks its way across snow drifts and rock-strewn dirt, navigating the same routes as camels, horses and Soviet-era UAZ jeeps.
The reasons for the Prius dominance are partly mundane. Mongolia charges no excise or air pollution tax on hybrids. That makes Priuses cheap, a particular virtue as the country’s economy hits a wall. Mongolians have grown so cash-poor some are now offering cows to repay bank loans.
Where taxes fall, Priuses thrive – not just in Mongolia.
“We hear that there are a large number of used-car hybrid cars, including Prius, in Sri Lanka and Fiji because hybrid vehicles enjoy favourable treatments on tariff in these countries,” said Maki Niimi, a spokesman for Toyota.
Toyota itself hasn’t exactly grown rich off Mongolia: It sells about 10 new Priuses a year. The remainder are bought used.
But it’s hard to imagine a better vote of confidence in the ruggedness of its green machine than its overwhelming popularity in a place with such harsh conditions. It’s not Toyota’s doing. “We do not do anything particular on the sales side to promote used-car Prius,” Niimi said.
The car owes it popularity instead to people such as Luvsansambuu, an importer who last year brought in containers stuffed with 1,800 Priuses, nearly 10 per cent of the total. He sources them from auctions in Japan.
He brought his first two Priuses to Mongolia in 2010, making him among the first to gamble on the car. By the following year, the Prius was all he imported.
“Priuses sold well, people bought them quickly,” he said. Still, it was “a high risk but high demand car,” he said. “By high risk I mean that the batteries and the engines could break down – and the cost of repair was high.”
Rumours abounded about the strange new vehicles. In the cold, some people thought, electric drive components would freeze, requiring replacement of the entire engine. First-time buyers called Luvsansambuu in a panic when their gas engine cut out at traffic lights. “What’s happening? What did you sell me?” they asked. “I had to explain that when you stop, the electric part kicks in and it doesn’t emit sound. So nothing to worry about.”
A former Soviet satellite state, Mongolia’s roads were once dominated by Russian vehicles, whose ungainly forms still trundle distant grasslands centres. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Korean cars made major inroads. But when mining brought wealth to Mongolia, people went Japanese. In 2011, one survey found that 45 per cent of cars in the capital carried the Toyota’s three-oval marque.
With popularity has come a radically adjusted image of the value of the Prius – especially in the cold. With its giant battery, it always starts. A diesel Land Cruiser can only dream of performance like that.
“People who bought Priuses don’t need to worry about a garage, so it’s also cost-efficient,” Luvsansambuu said.
Mine worker Amarsanaa switched from a Land Cruiser to a Prius two years ago. He uses it to cart around his family of six. “It’s an easy, light ride,” he said. “And it’s good for the environment.”
Ulan Bator now boasts dozens of Prius-only repair shops.
They have found flaws. Steering wheel columns and electric cooling pumps break on early models (Toyota has issued recalls for both), and later models have not proven as durable. Drivers criticize the sound insulation and, in Ulan Bator, report real-world fuel economy numbers of seven to nine litres per 100 km, at least 50 per cent worse than what Toyota advertises. Rear shock absorbers give out, and batteries don’t last more than 10 years, far less if the car isn’t driven regularly (Toyota warranties new batteries for five years).
“It would be better if they improved the battery life,” says Batbold, who bought his first Prius in 2010 and opened a repair shop a year later. “In Mongolia, you have so many older models which have been running for many years. The common problem is the battery.”
Between himself, his brothers and his cousins, the family owns six Prius repair businesses.
“In terms of cost, I would definitely recommend Mongolians buy a Prius,” he said. “But in terms of reliability, it depends on the age of the car.”
As for Luvsansambuu, the importer, he drives a Land Cruiser Prado. “People who buy Priuses are doing so purely for transportation purposes,” he said. “People who want to make a statement or show others that they are successful buy Lexuses or big SUVs.”
Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent.
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