SUVs overtake the Mercedes Benz as Nairobi's status car

Despite the fact that four-wheel drive is no longer necessary to navigate Nairobi's roads, SUVs are an increasingly frequent sight on the streets.

Brendan Bannon
A new Nissan SUV on sale in a downtown Nairobi showroom

This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

Mike Pflanz charts the rise of car ownership in Nairobi, and sees how what were once toys of the few are now available to the many.

It was once the ultimate symbol of power in Africa, a car which gave its name to the continent’s often crooked elite: the "WaBenzi."

But the Mercedes Benz is losing its position as the only car to buy to boast of your success as sales plateau, overtaken by Japanese SUVs and muscular 4x4s.

“You cannot overestimate the importance of cars as status symbols here,” said Gavin Bennett, director of the Kenya Motor Industry Association.

“And when you had made it, by fair means or foul, you had to have a Mercedes Benz to prove it. Today, that’s all changed, those guys are cruising around Nairobi in a big off-roader, none better than the Range Rover HSE.”

The WaBenzi, it seems, have become the WaFourWheeli.

In the Nissan showroom at DT Dobie, one of Kenya’s leading car dealers, the best sellers are all four-wheel drives or large pick-ups. Toyota’s biggest mover is still its standard sedan, the Corolla, but the midsize RAV4 SUV and its premium LandCruiser models are close behind.

“It used to be that you’d need a 4×4 to make it upcountry on Kenya’s roads,” said Bennett. “But many of the main roads have been fixed. To be honest, people are buying these things mostly just to drive around Nairobi.”

Usha Nagpal, general sales manager at DT Dobie, agrees.

“Cars are now changing into a lifestyle choice,” she says. “You are someone who’s out and about, here on a Saturday night, there on a Sunday, you can’t be seen in something rattling around and falling apart.”

The people behind the wheels have changed as well. Luxury models and even midrange sedans were once beyond the reach of all but the few at the top of the income pyramid.

But now a booming middle class with access to bank credit are flooding into the market, looking for wheels. And as often as not, it will be a woman driving, too, said Nagpal, who’s been with DT Dobie for 35 years.

“It’s changed a lot in the last decade or so. Women have better jobs, they have more power to make their own decisions,” she said.

Outside city clubs and estate pubs on a Friday night, or in shopping centers on a Saturday morning, car parks are packed with BMWs, Audis and Jeeps, with Vitz hatchbacks and compact VW Jetta sedans.

Almost 50,000 cars were registered in Kenya in 2010, an increase of 6 percent from the year before and part of an almost continuous upwards trend going back a decade.

That figure is all the more striking when you consider that all new and used cars imported into Kenya attract tax and duty of between 55 percent and 61 percent. That means a Mercedes E-Class costing $42,000 new in the US will set you back in excess of $100,000 here.

More than 80 percent of newly registered cars are, however, not new, but imported used cars, shipped in mostly from Japan and Dubai. New car dealers are struggling in a market crowded with these nearly new vehicles.

And what of the venerable Mercedes Benz? It may no longer be the must-have motor, but DT Dobie still sells an average of 25 a month here. Hundreds, if not thousands, are imported.

“I have been driving these for 40 years, as has my wife, and we’re wouldn’t buy anything else,” said Iqbal Ahmed, chairman of a property development firm, who was touring DT Dobie’s showroom looking for a new Mercedes E200 for his wife.

And the firm is still finding new buyers. One prominent businessman recently rolled off the forecourt in a new top-of-the-range, specially-tuned Mercedes AMG E63, the first to be sold in Africa.

The price? $297,620.

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