Guess what is the best-selling make of car in Lebanon? Haven't a clue? Okay, I'll tell you. It's Kia, the South Korean manufacturer best known for its Sportage, the popular and compact 4x4. But it isn't the Sportage that has been driving sales. That honour goes to the Picanto, the urban runaround that has been racing out of the showroom and on to Lebanon's lethal roads, fuelled by affordability, easy-payment terms and low fuel consumption.
The Japanese giant Nissan had held the top spot for many years. Its Sunny was a Lebanese workhorse of sorts, while the sexier runaround the Tiida offered an affordable and reliable alternative to the VW Golf, a car that in Lebanon, thanks to VAT and a strong euro, had become less and less a genuine people's car. I knew Korean cars had become more popular in the past decade, but I always assumed Hyundai was the leader of the chasing pack and didn't expect market domination to happen so quickly.
Anyway, for the record, it's Kia in first place with 5,932 new cars sold in the first 11 months of this year (compared with 3,368 over the same period last year) Nissan came in second with 5,192 (compared with 6,112 last year) and Hyundai was in third place with 3,786 (compared with 2,074 last year). Toyota, Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, Renault, Mazda, Peugeot and BMW made up the seven remaining places in the top 10. The total number of new cars sold was 30,966, an annual growth of 6.3 per cent, but the news was that Nissan, the hitherto darling of the local market, saw sales drop by a shade over 20 per cent.
My recent forays into car dealerships could go some way to explaining the turnaround in respective fortunes. Earlier in the year, Mrs Karam said she wanted a new car and so we headed to the to Jeep, Nissan and Mitsubishi showrooms. Jeep because I had one and was looking for a decent part exchange; Nissan because I had heard glowing reports of the new X-Trail, and Mitsubishi because a friend assured me that Dimitri Michel Eid & Son, which also has the Peugeot dealership, had recently started selling the Japanese marque. What had been a sluggish performer on the Lebanese market was suddenly looking quite interesting. "They are very dynamic and are offering deals," he said. "Go have a look. Trust me."
It was a Saturday. The Jeep showroom was like a crypt. The salesman, while pleasant enough, didn't seem like his life depended on a sale. At Nissan there was more activity, but one felt that the salesmen knew - or at least thought - they were the market leaders, so there was little room to manoeuvre on price. Only at the Mitsubishi dealership did one sense any degree of urgency. The 2010 Outlander was on offer and, from what I could tell, they were shifting faster than they were coming in. One cannot get a snapshot of a sector's activity in one morning, but Jeep isn't in the top 10. Nissan is licking its wounds and Mitsubishi came out of nowhere to take the number six spot.
"It's easy to explain," my friend said when I told him of the new rankings. "No one can compete with the Picanto. If you have a daughter who wants to go to university and you don't need a headache, you are going to buy something new that is functional with a/c and a stereo and will last a few years. It may not be the safest car for our roads, nor is it necessarily built to endure them, but people don't really care about that these days."
But isn't it about reliability and resale value? "Not any more," he said.
Elsewhere, I'll wager that Lebanon's taxi drivers have also been making a difference. As the old, early 1970s Mercedes 200 series cars either die or fall apart, Toyota's affordable seven-seater Avanza is the new must-have for the nation's cabbies and might partly explain the company's position in fourth place. In April, I found myself driving through the centre of Beirut in one of the ageing Mercs when a gleaming new Avanza glided by.
"With that," said my driver longingly, "I could do day trips for tourists anywhere in the country."
But the Lebanese would not be Lebanese if they all favoured function over form. One only has to consider the number of BMW X5s and, to a lesser extent, VW Touaregs, on our roads as evidence for how we all want to be seen driving the very best in European automotive excellence. The X5 has been around since 1999, and so there has been plenty of opportunity to snap up an affordable model - and it is in this segment that the used-car market is still vibrant.
The Porsche Cayenne will no doubt eventually suffer a similar fate, and pioneering consumers are already wondering what to buy next to set themselves apart. The Range Rover has been very good at reinventing itself (although there is a clique of enthusiasts who have never parted with their first generation Classic, a model still seen as the ultimate war and post-war status car). The BMW X6 is an option if one wants to annoy the motoring arrivistes, while Lexus and Inifiniti still have a bit of cachet.
My advice? You can pick up a 25-year-old Rolls-Royce with 60,000 miles on the clock for about US$16,000 (Dh58,768) in the UK, where they are prohibitively expensive to run and insure. Now there's an idea … Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all.
Michael Karam is a publishing and communications consultant based in Beirut