Day 97: Chevrolet

a lonely Matiz relaxes in the shade outside a traditional home within the Itchan Kala, Khiva’s historic center

They say the fastest way to clear a room in Tashkent is to make an announcement, “To the owner of the white Chevrolet, your car is being towed.”  In the heart of Central Asia you would hardly expect to find a Chevy on every corner, but thanks to a joint venture between the Uzbek government, UzAvtosanoat (75%) and the US multinational corporation General Motors (25%), you are far more likely to find yourself in a Nexia or Spark, rather than a Soviet era Lada.

The origins of this partnership can be traced back to the GM takeover of Daewoo in 2008.  UzDaewoo, as it was known before, was formed through the special Uzbek-Korean relationship in the early 1990s immediately after Uzbek independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today, GM Uzbekistan produces in excess of 250,000 units per year in the country, well over half for local purchase, making Uzbekistan the eighth largest market for Chevrolet worldwide.

As the Uzbek economy continues to grow, more and more citizens are taking the plunge and buying cars, either as an investment, source of income for use as a taxi, or regular transportation.  Despite having a relatively well developed public transportation system, busses are slow and crowded, and the Tashkent metro only goes to certain parts of the city.  Cheap taxis are the transportation option of choice for most.  Unregulated and numerous, citizen-taxis are by far the easiest way to get around.

Taxis here are so ridiculously cheap that when we moved here three years ago we decided it wouldn’t be cost effective to purchase a car of our own.  From anywhere in the city, you can hail a cab in minutes which will take you wherever you want to go for less than 10,000cym ($1.25).  Simply stick your hand out as traffic drives by and a car will stop.  Chances are it will be a Chevrolet.

much less surprising to see on the streets of Uzbekistan would be a Soviet era Lada, such as this one spotted in Samarkand

Unlike in the Western world, where a car loses a quarter of its value the moment you drive it off the lot, in Uzbekistan automobiles retain their value.  This is probably why people here take such pride in ownership of old Soviet era cars which can still be found in pristine condition on the streets of Tashkent.  Increasingly, however, these relics of the Soviet Union are getting harder to spot in traffic among the hoards of white Chevrolets.

While the city-car sized Matiz and Spark seem to be the best and cheapest options for zipping through rush hour traffic, the Nexia has proven to be the more popular car of choice for those seeking a bit more room.  Categorized just under the more well known in North America “Cobalt” model, the Nexia is the family car of choice for most Tashkent residents.  Also common are the aforementioned Cobalt, Lacetti, and top-of-the-line Malibu, considered full-sized, more expensive, luxurious, and rarely offered as a taxi.

Prices for these made in Uzbekistan Chevrolets are also much less than you would expect to pay for a similar model elsewhere in the world.  A brand new Matiz will set you back just $5,000, while a Nexia starts at $9,000.  Not bad for a four door family sedan, but when considering the average income and required down payment, affordable transportation options are still well out of reach of most citizens.  There’s no such thing as 60 month / $0 down financing options in these parts.

typical car-park scene in Tashkent – photo credit Jon Worth

Contributing to the lack of variety on the streets of the capital are high import tariffs on foreign manufactured cars.  See a brand new Audi or Volkswagen on the road?  Car buyers who want an import car can expect to pay up to 150% of the sticker price.  Yet another reason to buy that shiny new white Nexia.  So overwhelming is the market share that 94% of new cars sold in Uzbekistan are manufactured by GM.

So next time you’re watching your favorite prime-time television and that Chevy commercial comes on advertising an sale at your local dealership, with patriotic music, animated American flag backdrop, crazy financing options, and slogans like “What’s more American than apple pie, rock’n’roll, and your brand new Chevrolet,” remember that the highest rate of Chevrolet ownership in the world is in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan.

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