By on March 1, 2014

3 Toyota Prius I x3

Three first generation Toyota Prius at a traffic light: a common sight in Ulaanbaatar…

We now continue on our Trans-Siberian railway adventure and after going through Siberia and crossing the Lake Baikal up to Ulan Ude in Buryatia, we are now travelling South to Mongolia. In this post I will describe my first impressions about the unique Mongolian car landscape, but we will start with a bit of introduction on Mongolia as a country, because knowing overall facts about this country goes a long way in explaining its car park.

If you can’t wait for the next report, you can follow my trip in real time here, or check out 174 other car markets on my blog.

2 Hyundai PorterHyundai Porter in Northern Mongolia

Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world with just 2.9 million inhabitants on 1.6 million square km, or 1.8 inhabitant per square km. Around half of the country’s total population lives in Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital city with an annual average temperature of 0°C (32°F) and January averages dropping as low as -30°C (−22°F). This means outside of Ulaanbaatar we are looking at less than one inhabitant per square km. Mongolia is landlocked between Russia (50 times more populated) and China (450 times more populated)…

2 Kia SportageKia Sportage in Ulaanbaatar

In spite of its sparse population and challenging climate, Mongolia was the fastest-growing economy in the world in 2012, with a GDP up 12%. This growth will be sustained – if not improved – by this year’s opening of the $5 billion Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi desert in South-Eastern Mongolia, expected to single-handedly account for one-third of the country’s GDP by 2020! Today in Mongolia about 20% of the population still lives on less than US$1.25 a day.

11 Toyota Prius I IstTypical Mongolian car landscape in Sükhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar.

95% of Mongolians (citizens of Mongolia) belong to the Mongol ethnicity, originally claimed by Genghis Khan in 1206 when he founded the Mongol Empire. More than half of the people not living in Ulaanbaatar are still nomadic or semi-nomadic, with Shamanism and the belief in maintaining a balance with nature (not digging holes or tearing up the land) very much alive, along with Tibetan Buddhism which is the predominant religion in the country. As such the Oyu Tolgoi mine is inexcusable according to shamans, and may lead to retribution from the sky gods.

Nissan SunnyNissan Sunny in front of the Blue Sky Hotel, Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia’s turbulent political history in the last century is probably the most important element to be aware of in order to understand the composition of the car landscape today. In 1911 Mongolia declared its independence from China, but then came under Soviet influence from 1924 onwards. After being refused entry in the United Nations by the USA and China in 1945, Mongolia was eventually recognised by the UN as an independent country in 1961, but the USSR continued to occupy it with troops and run it as a satellite state until 1990, when the first democratic elections were held. Despite leaving a seven decade-long communism heritage behind only 20 years ago, Mongolia is often held up as a model emerging democratic state, which is nothing short of a miracle based on its geopolitical situation.

13 GAZ VolgaGAZ Volga – the only Russian Passenger Car I saw in the entire country…

Now we all know a bit more about the country, on to the car landscape. And as soon as I crossed the border, the contrast with Russia was striking. Used Hyundai Excel and Ponys were everywhere, and no Ladas in sight! The country’s history has indeed had a massive impact on today’s Mongolian car landscape. There are virtually no Russian nor Chinese passenger cars in Mongolia! I only saw one GAZ Volga and one Chery QQ6, both spotted in Ulaanbaatar. Commercial vehicles are a bit different: the UAZ Bukhanka and Hunter are relatively common as overland 4WDs, and most of the infrastructure work I saw is catered for by Chinese heavy trucks.

As we drove closer and closer to Ulaanbaatar, a totally new element came to light: the unbelievable frequency of the first two generations Toyota Prius as used right-hand drive Japanese imports. This is even more blatant in the capital, and I saw more first generation Prius in the first 20 minutes I spent in Ulaanbaatar than I did in my entire life before that! Sitting at a busy intersection for no more than 8 minutes, I counted 69 first generation Prius and 75 second generations, making Mongolia the country in the world with the highest penetration of Toyota Prius in its car landscape! Basically if you are a Toyota Prius and you behaved in Japan, you earn yourself a second life in Mongolia…

4 Toyota Prius IISecond generation Prius.

There’s a simple explanation to this madness: there is no import tax on used hybrid vehicles in Mongolia, and it’s forbidden to import a vehicle aged over 9 years. The equation is simple: the cheapest car to import into Mongolia today is a 2004, 2nd generation Toyota Prius which will see its share of the Mongolian car landscape increase further over the next few years to the detriment of the 1997-2003 first generation which is technically impossible to import anymore. Remember how Mongolians believe in maintaining a balance with nature? Not taxing hybrid imports is one very effective way to follow this belief, and compensate a tiny bit for the Oyu Tolgoi mine…

10 Toyota Verossa Hyundai Sonata Toyota PriusToyota Verossa, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Prius in Ulaanbaatar

Below the first two generation Prius, the other successful used Japanese imports will be familiar to those who have read my are earlier Trans-Siberian Photo Reports: the Toyota Ist, Probox and the rear-drive Verossa are the most frequent. It looks like every single Verossa sold during its short-lived Japanese career (2001-2004) is now finishing its days in Mongolia, with many more of them in the capital city than I saw in the whole of Russia. There are a few newcomers to the used aisle though: the Toyota Mark II Grande, Mark X and current gen Crown hybrid are also extremely popular here.

7 Toyota Land Cruiser Lexus LXToyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX in Ulaanbaatar

All this is good and well, but where are the new cars?  My estimation of the Mongolian new car market before this report, based on YouTube videos, placed the Hyundai Accent and Sonata atop the sales charts. My first observations squash this estimate, as the Toyota Land Cruiser looks like the most popular new car in Ulaanbaatar and therefore the country, with its (even more) luxurious counterpart the Lexus LX following close behind.

8 Toyota Prius I Hyundai SonataHyundai Sonata and Toyota Prius in Ulaanbaatar

Wot? Yep. Mongolians have embraced consumerism whole-heartedly and in a very limited car market – 45,000 units (used and new) predicted in 2013 – if you have enough money to buy a brand new vehicle, you preferably buy a big, badass one. Like a Nissan Patrol, Infiniti QX or… Hummer, extremely frequent in Ulaanbaatar! I will write more on this subject in one of my next Mongolian Photo Reports.

Hummer Mercedes G ClassA sight I never thought I’d see in Ulaabaatar: a Hummer next to two Mercedes G-Class!

The Hyundai Sonata is by far the most popular Hyundai here, with the last four generations of the model all equally well represented on Mongolian roads, and the current gen should be on the podium in 2013 whereas the Elantra and Accent are much less successful as new models. A special mention to the Hyundai ix35 and Kia Sportage, I saw a lot of them in the streets and they should find their way into the 2013 Top 5.

6 Toyota Prius I Land CruiserToyota Prius and Land Cruiser in Ulaanbaatar

9 Hyundai SonataHyundai Sonata in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar traffic jamTraffic jam in Ulaanbaatar

14 Chery QQ6 VW AmarokChery QQ6 – the only Chinese passenger car I saw in the country so far!

15 UAZ HunterUAZ Hunter

That’s it for the introduction to Mongolia and my first impressions on the country’s fascinating car landscape, next we will stop in Terelj National Park, 80km East of Ulaanbaatar, the opportunity to test out sleeping in a traditional ger and verify the 13 to 1 horse-to-human ratio Mongolia so proudly advertises…

Source of the Mongolian background facts: Wikipedia and Lonely Planet Mongolia, 2011 edition.

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27 Comments on “Best Selling Cars Around The Globe: Trans Siberian Series Part 11: Mongolian First Impressions...”

  • avatar

    Marvelous. Love this series.

    Can there be any greater testimonial to the Prius’ build quality than their second life in this brutal environment?

    • 0 avatar

      I think there can be. Import duties dictate that early Prius models make up a large percentage of the cars imported. They also provide an incentive for keeping them on the road once they’re there. There are plenty of other indicators that the Prius has excellent build quality, but this is practically a captive market for them. It’s sort of like how people point to Africa to prove that Peugeots are tough. It has nothing to do with the cars, and everything to do with French imperialism.

      • 0 avatar

        I am schooled.

      • 0 avatar

        Old Peugeots ARE tough. The only things that kill them are rust and ham-fisted American mechanics. Neither of which are a problem in Africa.

        • 0 avatar

          Mechanics don’t work on cars that aren’t broken. Peugeots were worse than every car that didn’t get driven out of the US market.

          • 0 avatar

            And your personal experience with them is what, exactly? I have owned eight of them, for many happy and uneventful miles.

          • 0 avatar

            I grew up in a college town with a dealer. I knew people that owned them as long as they were available. A good friend of mine cut his teeth maintaining them, helping him to become a BMW tech and eventually an engineer. You have no idea what constitutes a good car. You boast about your Spitfire, which even discerning British roadster fans concede is not a good example of one. Perhaps rubber-baby-bumper Midgets are the only cars held in less esteem, but you think the Spitfire is great.

          • 0 avatar

            So as I suspected, you have no personal knowledge of owning and maintaining Peugeots. Mechanics rarely have an unbiased view of the cars they work on, they only ever see the broken ones afterall. I know a couple of Honda and Toyota techs who hate the things.

            As for my Spitfire, of course it is a terrible *car*, it is a 40yo British sportscar! But it is damned good fun on a sunny day in the summer, and has been for the nearly 20 years that I have owned it. It has even been a reasonably decent investment, as it is worth notably more than I have in it, to the point where I would not have done much better putting the money in the market. And going up nicely every year. So whatever, mate, I’ll enjoy what is in my garage, you enjoy whatever is in yours.

      • 0 avatar

        Japan’s inspection regime is designed to discourage a local used car market. As a result, large numbers of used JDM cars get exported at relatively low prices to countries that drive on the left and have no auto industry, such as New Zealand, as well as to developing countries.

        Presumably, Mongolia is one of the latter. A quick check of Mongolia’s import tariffs would suggest some favoritism toward sub-1.5 liter cars, and discouragement of anything more than 10 years old.

        It’s a poor country. If their fuel prices are similar to ours, then they’ll be motivated to conserve, due to its high cost compared to average incomes. Access to cheap JDM cars, combined with poverty, would make a used RHD Prius an attractive alternative.

        • 0 avatar

          The article says their is no import tariff on used hybrids. The Prius has been or is the best selling car in Japan. As you’ve stated, continuous ownership is discouraged in Japan. I still doubt poverty is a problem for people that can afford nice used imports, at least not in the historical sense.

        • 0 avatar

          The article also mentioned you are not allowed to import anything older than 9 years.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, in many developing countries Toyota is popular. But this has to be qualified by owner expectations and level of gizmos on cars. Very few in these countries worry about infotainment, sunroofs, miscellaneous rattles, carpet, soft-touch plastic and so on. The cars and trucks are built for durability under very harsh conditions, potholes that look like elephant wallows and spotty maintenance.
      I liked the M/B built for ZA, they are solid.

    • 0 avatar

      Glad you love the series Kenmore!

  • avatar

    That LX looked like it was imported right from the land of red, white, and blue!

    What everyone else said; I love seeing the automotive markets in other countries.

  • avatar

    Isn’t Hunter supposed to come with the one-piece rear bumper and the exhaust stub on the left? I think it’s actually an UAZ 469 in the picture, the predecessor of Hunter.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    We have college friends who have lived in Ulaanbaatar for the last 17 years, first in a ger, and later in the city.

    While the country is quite poor, they describe a gripping form of consumerism that is eating the people inside out. Entering the modern era has benefits, but there seems to be a dog-eat-dog fervor which leads to rampant alcoholism and broken families as people climb over each other to gain more stuff. Any quaint outward appearances are only skin deep; it’s actually a very sad country.

    That aside, the density of Gen 2 Priuses is amazing, but makes sense given the importation structure described above.

  • avatar

    I would expect that Volkswagen next to the Cherry to be Chinese. But i’m not good in spot-the-model.

  • avatar

    You say you only saw 1 Russian vehicle, though I wonder if the Hummer was from the Russian (partial) assembly plant or the American AM general plant.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Hummer,
      Most Hummers sold in Mongolia are imported from the USA. Stay tuned, as an entire article about the craze for Hummers in Mongolia will be published soon!

      • 0 avatar

        Oh wow, didnt expect that response, the brand has been in the news a nice bit recently for a dead brand. 08-09 H2s scoring the best resale values at 71% of new, Lutz talking about the brand, reports GMC is considering a new HUMMEResque vehicle.
        The brand has a pretty good loyalty.

        I look forward to the article, and any associated “hummer hate” comments.

        • 0 avatar

          I hate the interior of the H2 and H3, as they were rubbish.


          • 0 avatar

            Depends the 03-07 H2 interior was probably the cheapest crap made. The 08-09 definately took it up a lot, but while it may have took it up, it also took the utilitarian feel. I don’t have much of a problem with the H3 interior, leather seats are way better than the cloth though.

            These aren’t luxury vehicles, there made to get covered in mud and be easily cleaned off, and that they are.

            Personally I’d have preferred a decent interior with exposed fittings, quality panels, and easy to clean.


            Also not what I meant by Hummer hate… but you knew that :)

  • avatar

    Another excellent report! Mongolia is in the process of a unique transformation. Must be a great time to visit this mythical country!

  • avatar

    I should visit here. Completely off the radar.

    Since i don’t hear about them in the news, and the Russians aren’t invading them. They must be doing something right.

  • avatar

    “God damm Mongorians!”

    But seriously, how angry are you going to make other drivers and citizens when you roll up in your $90,000USD imported luxury SUV and they’re living on $1.25 a day? That’s $456.25/year, which means they could afford your car in 197 years.

    Also the Verossa is utterly hideous, and I never want to see one again. It’s like some awful Lancia Ypsilon impression.

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