It only stands to reason that this desert kingdom's roads should be ruled by powerful vehicles.
'Nobody buys those things anymore, but Saudis love them'
JEDDAH // It only stands to reason that this desert kingdom's roads should be ruled by powerful vehicles. So it is no surprise that here in the world's largest producer and exporter of oil there is no shortage of luxury cars, of BMWs, Lexuses and Mercedes. And with petrol selling for just 1.65 dirhams a gallon, Saudi Arabia shares the UAE's penchant for gas-guzzling SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban, or the Hummer, General Motors's modified combat vehicle.
But if there is one vehicle that sets this country's highways apart, that distinguishes Saudi Arabia's taste in motoring, it is the kind of full-sized American sedan that disappeared from most US garages years ago - eight-cylinder behemoths such as the Mercury Marquis, the regal Lincoln Town Car and, at the head of the pack, the Crown Victoria. "Nobody buys those things anymore, but Saudis love them," said John Sfakianakis, the chief economist at SABB, HSBC's affiliated bank in Saudi Arabia.
It so happens that all three models - the Marquis, the Town Car and the Crown Victoria - are made by a single company, the Ford Motor Company, at a single factory in Ontario, Canada. Saudi Arabia has emerged as Ford's largest market for these cars anywhere. Their popularity helped push Ford's sales in the Middle East up 23 per cent last year. But as much as they are coveted for their comfort, power and affordability, Saudi Arabia's beloved Canadian Fords may face an uncertain future. Ford last year passed up the kind of rescue loans that the US government gave Detroit rivals GM and Chrysler, with the company's chairman, William Clay Ford Jr, telling reporters this week that America's second-largest car maker would ask for government loans only if "the world implodes as we know it".
With the US economic outlook weakening, the world is moving towards smaller, more fuel-efficient cars again and Ford is moving towards building an electric car. The Ontario plant is running below capacity, and while Ford has promised to keep it open until 2011, its fate and that of the sedans it produces appears in doubt. "They're going to stop making them," said Rashad Bafail, a Crown Victoria owner in Jeddah. "I'll keep mine for five years, then I guess look for something else as good."
Few people outside of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, where they are also popular, may have even heard of the Crown Victoria or Town Car - unless they happen to have ridden in the back of one. Town Cars today serve largely as private limousines, and are particularly abundant on the streets of Manhattan. New York's taxi fleet was once dominated by the Crown Victoria, which before 1992 was known as the LTD. New York's mayor recently ordered all taxi companies to switch to hybrid cars by 2012.
The "Crown Vic" remains popular as a pursuit vehicle for police, particularly for its ability to reach 210kph and ram other vehicles to a stop. Police in Riyadh, for example, drive Crown Victorias. What is good for law enforcement is good for the Saudi motorist, too. "We introduced the Crown Victoria in 1992 and over the years it has proven its value for money and reliability," said Waldo Galan, the managing director of Ford Middle East, during a visit to Riyadh this week. "They're popular with large families who don't want to move into SUVs."
Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, the choice of sedan may have as much to do with who is in the passenger seat as with who is behind the wheel. Women are still banned from driving here, which may explain the emphasis not only on power and size, but comfort. Reliability and safety are big selling points, too. The Crown Victoria, for example, comes with a five-year or 200,000km warranty, whichever comes first.
"I've never had a problem with it," said Jeddah resident Imad al Bringi of his 1986 Lincoln Town Car. He shipped it to Saudi Arabia from Canada 10 years ago, he said. "It still has all the original equipment." Most new car models are built with the chassis and body integrated into what is known as a unibody construction. The Crown Victoria and Town Car use old-fashioned body-on-frame construction in which the body fits over a rigid, steel chassis.
"They feel safer," said Mr Galan, even though the unibody is just as safe or safer. Body-on-frame cars are also easier to repair after fender benders - the body can be pulled back into shape without having to straighten the chassis. Judging from the number of dented cars careening down the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah, this is a valuable attribute. Some say value is the ultimate consideration for Ford buyers, illustrating one way the Saudi economy differs from its smaller Gulf neighbours to the east. "The gap between rich and middle class is very wide in Saudi," said Khalid bin Sonbol, a Riyadh resident and Town Car owner. The per capita GDP in Saudi Arabia is roughly US$15,400 (Dh55,095). "Those who can afford a European car can afford not just one."
Those who can afford just one are taking notice of the "big three's" troubles back in the US and holding off on new purchases, said Anwar Mubarak, who sells Fords in Riyadh at its distributor-dealer, Al Jazirah Vehicles. "These days customers think prices will go down," he said. "They've heard about the problems at GM and Ford in the US." Will they be back? Some Saudis say they will keep buying the Fords as long as they are made, that there is no better choice for long Saudi drives, such as the 846km, seven-hour drive separating Riyadh from Jeddah. "American cars are more comfortable for long trips across Saudi," said Riyadh resident Essam Bukhamseen of his own cross-country commutes. "When you sit in an American car you feel like you're sitting at home."