If you are mean, you may picture your archetype Phnom Penh luxury car driver getting into his car in a mall parking lot somewhat like this:
An above middle-aged, corpulent man with toothpick in his mouth who is leisurely striding across the parking lot with his bare belly sticking out who sluggishly falls into the seats of a tank-sized Japanese luxury SUV that occupies a parking spot and a half. The man then disappears behind the car door with tinted windows and speeds into dense traffic forcing dozens of motorbikes into full braking
It doesn’t really matter if this cliché driver of Cambodia’s most-popular SUV brand, according to a custom internal car import record from the first half of 2014 the Post has obtained, is accurate or fair.
What matters is that people have clichés of car brands in their heads. With a changing Zeitgeist and increased supply available they start to buy new, still cliché-free cars that better represent new beats they want to identify with.
The trend in cars is leaning towards towards German car brand BMW as the numbers from the custom document prove. Within a year after starting business in Cambodia, BMW has gained a 25 per cent market share in the segment for new luxury cars.
Peter Brongers, general manager of BMW in Cambodia, tells us that it’s the young business owners of Phnom Penh who are buying BMWs – especially popular is the German premium auto manufacturer’s compact SUV X3 and the regular SUV model X5.
What does this say about the changing Zeitgeist?
Drivers, who include a young founder of a popular Cambodian chain of coffee shops, for example, represent Cambodians who are thought to be the first to adapt to foreign ideas and lifestyles in a Cambodia that is opening up to the world. In other words: the upper end of the up-and-coming, young, urban middle class.
Peter Brongers explains how the young achievers’ self-awareness is represented in the cars he sells:
“BMWs are technologically sophisticated, with a strong integration of mechanics and electronics. For many they show a cool understated sense of comfort and luxury. They embody driving pleasure.”
It is a positive image BMW has established through advertising. In all countries where BMW has opened a licensed dealership, the idea of “driving pleasure” has been successfully marketed through the “Ultimate Driving Machine” campaign dating back to the mid-’70s and which hasn’t changed much due to its success that continues today. Apart from comfort and luxury BMW has emphasised the brand’s sharp and sporty qualities, which has ever since been appealing to young, dynamic drivers.
With very young demographics and a fast economic growth BMW can look into a bright future in Cambodia – one might wonder however why bulky, and less-sophisticated cars have dominated the picture of Cambodia’s street for so long.
An unusual history of post-war car taste
Brongers, who has regularly come to Cambodia since the early ’90s, believes that the taste for cars has been shaped by UNTAC and NGOs. Foreign- aid forces brought in big functional off-road vehicles into a car-less Cambodia. Soon after the only cars owned by locals in the wild Cambodia of the ’90s were also big Japanese SUVs. They sped down the nearly empty unpaved dirt roads flanked by body guards on motorcycles.
But things are changing. “Cambodia is not an NGO- driven country anymore. It is much more becoming a developing country. Of course it is relatively poor, but the development is going fast and it will not be poor forever,” Brongers says.
The young successful business owners who embrace the Cambodia that is opening up to the world also make a statement by buying cars that are new to the country, Brongers believes.
“Young, dynamic people drive BMWs, also because they don’t want to drive the same large boxy cars as their fathers.”