Mongolia: Land of the Eternal Blue Sky… and the Toyota Prius?

I slept through most of my flight from Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar, dreaming about the adventure that was to come – riding horses on the open steppe. 5 classmates and I had planned a weeklong excursion riding horses through Mongolia. After a week in China I was ready for the cold nights, for the sore legs, and for the laughter from my friends as they watched me try to ride a horse for the second time in my life.

I was not, however, prepared for the number of Toyota Priuses that we would encounter on the crowded streets of the city’s capital. Nor was I prepared to see Priuses souped up with off-road tires and aftermarket suspensions, digging through mud and accelerating over random obstacles in the countryside.

I was intrigued, and I vowed to learn more…

The New Mongolian Workhorse

Priuses make up over 13% of cars in Mongolia – and this number is expected to grow rapidly. In 2015, Mongolians imported over 19,000 Priuses, more than 50% of total vehicle imports. But why have these hybrids that seem more at home parked outside of a Southern California Whole Foods than a nomad’s ger, become so popular? Let’s count to 2:

  1. They start in the cold. Fun fact – with an annual average temperature below freezing, Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world. In winter months, temperatures can reach -40°F. Gasoline and diesel have trouble starting in such extreme weather, especially if they have been parked for some time. Mongolians enjoy the reliability that the Prius offers in the cold.
  2. They aren’t charged import tax. Used Priuses represent great value for Mongolians. The government does not charge excise tax or air pollution tax on used hybrids. Over 99% of the Priuses in Mongolia are purchased second hand, imported from Japan. The Japanese government discourages people from owning old cars by requiring costly safety inspections called “shaken.” Therefore, used hybrids are sold to developing countries that offer tax breaks on environmentally friendly vehicles.

What’s Next for the Mighty Prius?

The popularity of the Prius in Mongolia has led to new business opportunities within the country. Savvy importers have begun to purchase these popular cars at used auction houses in Japan, single handedly importing thousands. Others have started Prius-only repair shops. The Mongolian Prius Club on Facebook has over 7000 followers.

Unfortunately, this obsession with Priuses has led to some unforeseen problems. As the older Priuses begin to fail, people have difficulty finding ways to dispose of them. Ulaanbaatar does not have enough sites for waste, so battery packs and other dangerous components are discarded wherever possible. What was meant to be a more environmentally friendly car now generates more waste and pollution. The Mongolian government needs to develop a solution to this issue, or else it will be simply subsidizing Japan’s waste.


By: Jalees Khalid