KABUL – Cheap, robust and reliable: Consumer culture may be relatively new to Afghanistan, but when it comes to cars, there is a clear favorite — the trusty Toyota Corolla.
In a country where even paved roads in the smartest parts of the capital are riddled with potholes, the sturdy Japanese-made car is the vehicle of choice for all but the richest.
“There have been Toyota Corollas here before it was even produced in Japan,” jokes Mohammad, a Kabul resident in his 30s who works for a foreign company.
Mirwais Nabizada, 38, who has sold used cars in Kabul for 20 years, says that they are popular because they are not as expensive as other vehicles and spare parts are easy to find.
“Many people buy them because they are robust, cheaper and there are spare parts available everywhere,” he says.
He has 70 cars in his showroom, all but six of them Corollas.
They come in many shapes and colors: black, blue, green, yellow or white. Some have tinted windows, some don’t. Others have a curved chassis or square headlights. Old or new, it is always a trusty Corolla sedan.
“White is a favorite of buyers because it shows the dirt less, there is a lot of dust here,” says Nabizada.
On one 10-minute drive between the center of the capital and the embassy district, a reporter counted 194 Corollas, compared with 89 of all other vehicles — cars, buses, trucks and security vehicles.
Owners love and cherish them. They put stickers on their rear windscreens reading: “Beautiful Corolla”, “Super Saloon Corolla” and “Corolla I love you.”
Experts can recognize whether the vehicle came originally from North America or Europe from the size of the bumper or the position of the license plate.
And although Afghans drive on the right, there are many right-hand drive Corollas on the streets.
Almost all taxis are Corollas and customers who call a cab aren’t told the make, just to look out for a “gray 2002″ or a “brown 2007.”
The head of Kabul traffic police, Gen. Asadullah Khan, says Corollas account for 80 percent of the 700,000 vehicles driving through the congested streets of Kabul, where 500 to 600 new or used vehicles are registered each day.
“The Corolla is the car of the people. It doesn’t use too much gas,” he said.
But their ubiquity also makes them the weapon of choice for Taliban car bombers, who stash them with explosives and drive unnoticed through checkpoints as they fight against the U.S.-backed government.
And with potential buyers wary of growing insecurity when the NATO combat troops leave next year, sales are down as people become more reluctant to spend money on a car when they feel uncertain about what the future holds.
Although they are cheaper than other cars available, Corollas are still no bargain due to high taxes — a dented old wreck costs $3,500 while a 1-year-old with low mileage goes for $26,000.
Customs fees for each imported car are about $5,000, plus $1,500 for licensing and with a range of other taxes to be paid on top, says Nabizada, who says he sells only five a day, down from 10 a few years ago.
But existing owners continue to pamper and preserve their beloved Corollas.
“In Islam, cleanliness is an important value,” said Shaker Bakhter, one of the few dealers in Kabul, who says he has sold at least 10,000 Corollas in his career.
And why do Afghans pay so much for their cars?
“You foreigners spend your money by going dancing or bowling. We invest in what is useful,” Bakhter said.