My rental Peugeot Pars near Mount Damavand, Tehran Province.
Iran regularly makes headlines for all the wrong reasons – religious extremism, nuclear threats and thunderous ayatollahs – yet almost every visitor returns enchanted. The contrast is such that I felt I had to see it for myself to make up my own opinion. The plan is to rent a car and embark on an adventure around the country, trying to visit as many locations as possible in two weeks. A teaser of this adventure has already been published in the June 2019 issue of French monthly L’Automobile Magazine, so this is the full-length version, split into 5 Parts. And my first impressions are rather surreal…
Iran location in the worldTehran and Mount Damavand location in Iran
As early as in the underground parking lot of the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran (IKIA for friends and family), the Iranian car landscape feels like time-travelling 30 years ago to the late 1980s. Or rather, a Peugeot fan’s fantasy world of that time. It’s one thing to follow the Iranian market every Quarter and see such antiquated models as the 1987 Peugeot 405/Pars and 1998 Peugeot 206, still produced here, sell over 100,000 units annually, but it’s another to actually witness it in the metal. Hordes of Peugeots that would have been scrapped at least a decade ago in Europe continue to fill the streets of Tehran, but also a lot of them shining new. It’s a shocking sight to say the least, one that wouldn’t have been possible even in France at the time of launch as the Peugeot 405 never reached there the market shares it has been enjoying in Iran for the past two decades: 12% to 15% here vs. a peak of 7.6% in May 1989 in France. This added to a constant flow of 1984 Saipa Pride and you get the ultimate time-travelling experience, potentially only bettered in Cuba.
Azadi Tower and Golestan Palace, Tehran
Home to 8.43 million inhabitants (almost as many as Paris or London), Tehran is a huge metropolis hugging the supposedly stunning and snowcapped Alborz Mountains which I never got to see clearly because of the constant fog of pollution enveloping the city. Tehran has the Azadi Tower and the Golestan Palace but in terms of sights these are topped many times over by the mosques we would see later on in this trip. To me the most thought-provoking “attraction” in town is the street art, and notably the anti-USA propaganda art, such as the famous Stars and Stripes mural (2nd picture below) and the wall fronting the former US Embassy (1st and 3rd picture below) which, combined with the flow of indifferent local passers-by makes for pretty striking photos. There are also countless stories-tall portraits of Ayatollahs Khomeini (the previous one) and Khamenei (the current one) as well as martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.
Anti-American street art near the former US Embassy, Tehran
But the most eye-opening experience I had in Tehran was my interactions with the locals. Like so many Westerners who had only peeked into Iran through the narrow lens of global media coverage, I had anticipated a guarded – sad? – population enduring the wrath of strict religious laws. Instead, I got to experience a much more relaxed vibe. Prior to my arrival, hotel staff got in touch through WhatsApp (the most common way to communicate with foreigners) and once arrived, it’s women who take charge and handle all communication with every guest of the hotel, all smiles. The scarf is mandatory for them (and shorts forbidden for men) but is sometimes worn nonchalantly, especially in the posher neighbourhoods, casually letting free a few strands of styled hair. Make-up is generously applied and nails are bedazzled to the extreme. Talking of which, flashing here bright pink and diamond-encrusted nails, the receptionist got straight to serious business on the first morning: :”DO NOT exchange currency in banks at official rates as it is 3 times more expensive that the true rate at exchange bureaus.” At the time of visit in October 2018, that rate was 1€ = 150,000 Rials (and not 50,000 as displayed on all exchange rate apps). Already very cheap, all my expected expenses for the trip had suddenly become 3 times cheaper. Way to start a touristic exploration of the country!
Friendly Tehran policeman, Road sign in Persian script, religious and military street art.
A few hours later, as I was relentlessly bombarding a busy crossroad with dozens of car snaps, a policeman on a motorbike entered my field of vision as I continued to take pictures, not realising at first it was the police. My heart jumped all the way up to the back of my throat as I did – most countries consider sensitive pictures of their police force a borderline crime – but he broke into a big laugh and asked with a smile where I was from. I did not expect that, but it would be a constant feat of this exploration: the police are actually very nice in Iran. It’s a country of contradictions: the religious constraints are not a myth, with alcohol banned and clothing strictly regimented as we saw above. But the Whatsapp profile pictures of the female hotel staff featured no scarfs at all, and soccer (featuring… gasp – men in shorts) is broadcast seemingly 24/7 on every TV screen in town. Facebook and Twitter are banned but the Ayatollah has his own active accounts and most Iranians bypass the ban with VPN software downloaded onto their phone. Far from hiding, they were happily strolling through their Facebook updates while sat next to me on the subway. Lastly, the violently belligerent anti-American street art contrasts with the kindness of the country’s inhabitants, such as the youth rushing to offer their subway seat to the elderly.
Renting a car in Iran
I waited until the end of my stay in Tehran to pick up my rental car as the locals’ driving style is horrifying at best. The subway is the best way to move around town and only costs 10.000 rials per trip, that’s roughly 0.07€. But after 3 days spent in the capital, it’s now time to start exploring the rest of the country. I chose Saadat Car Rental based on their raving Trip Advisor reviews and drastically cheaper rates than Europcar, the only global rental company operating in Iran. The theocratic regime takes centre stage on the rental contract, every page starting with the words “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful” (see picture above). Saadat delivers the car to my hotel and hands me a welcome kit including a basic English-Iranian translation cheat sheet, a list of food specialties for each city and – the cherry on top – a music CD featuring local talent! I feel loved already. Plus, I get upgraded from my original choice, an Iran Khodro Samand, to a 2017 Peugeot Pars (meaning Persian), a posh version of the Peugeot 405 produced locally with specific headlights and grille. Even though it’s only one-and-something year-old, the odo already indicates 96.868 km… Another contradiction: there is no GPS navigation because of US economic sanctions resulting in US companies unable to do business in the country. However, bizarrely the Waze app works perfectly and will be our guide throughout this trip. But before we embark on our exploration, let’s get a feel for the Tehran car landscape. We’ll start with a few videos:
Going from Southern to Central then Northern Tehran, we progressively reach wealthier neighbourhoods and this is reflected in the car landscape.
Peugeot 405 taxis are everywhere in Tehran.
The first striking observation of the Tehran car landscape is the omnipresence of Peugeot 405 yellow and green taxis. They are literally everywhere, and it’s not rare to see a group of a dozen taxis solely composed of Peugeot 405. The largest taxi station in town is near the Azadi Tower and it was a Peugeot 405 feast only sparsely interrupted by a few Iran Khodro Samand (see bottom picture above). Based on my observations in Tehran, it would appear the 405 is more suited for taxi companies whereas the posher Pars is favoured by private buyers.
Saipa Pride in Tehran
The Saipa Pride, in fact a simple 1984 Kia Pride sedan, confirms the title of best-selling vehicle in the country it has held for the past decade or so up until last year when it was toppled by the Saipa Tiba/Saina. Tehran streets are full of them, including many examples of its latest iteration baptised 131. I only saw a couple of 111 hatches. The previous best-seller, the Paykan sedan, estimated to have topped the local sales charts for 35 years from 1967 to the early 2000s, is shockingly rare: I only saw one in 3 days in the whole of Tehran, however the pickup variant which was produced until 2016, remains very frequent.
Saipa Tiba and Tiba 2 in Tehran
The Saipa Tiba is also very frequent, including its hatchback variant called Tiba 2 and justifying the title of overall best-seller in 2018. Any upsets resulting from the fact that Saipa chose to add together sales of the Tiba and its most recent sedan the Taina, and therefore toppling the traditional leader the Pride, needn’t be. I indeed saw no Saina at all during my stay in Tehran, so it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of Tiba/Saina sales (168.637) come from the Tiba, perhaps to such an extent that it would still remain #1 above the Pride (166.054) even when Saina sales are deducted.
Iran Khodro Samand in Tehran
The Iran Khodro Samand is logically strong in Tehran, both as taxis and private cars, as is the carmaker’s more recent offer the Dena, and you can spot a couple of them in the Tehran videos I posted above.
Chery Tiggo 3X, Borgward BX7, Brilliance H230, Geely Emgrand EC7, Chery A5, FAW Besturn B50 and B30 in Tehran.
Another element of the Tehran car landscape that was to be expected given the production figures we publish quarterly but takes another dimension when witnessed in the real world is the prevalence and diversity of Chinese cars. There are now just under 20 Chinese brands assembled locally in Iranian, accounting for 17.2% of the country’s light vehicle production in 2018 vs. 14.2% in 2017. And it shows. No one models stands out but instead it’s the list of Chinese fares streaming Tehran streets that is quite impressive. Among them, Brilliance, Chery, JAC and Dongfeng are well represented, but also FAW and to a lesser extent Geely. I even spotted one Chery Tiggo 8, also rare in China, and one Borgward BX7, one of only two imported into Iran in 2018!
Zamyad Z24, Renault Tondar, Bahman/Mazda Cara, Paykan and Toyota Hilux pickups in and near Tehran.
Even though we are definitely in an urban environment, pickup trucks are still popular in Tehran, notably the segment’s best-seller, the Zamyad Z24, a 1970 Nissan Junior still in production in Iran and almost exclusively sold in blue. The Bahman/Mazda Cara comes in 2nd, with the Paykan Pickup also a favourite, a reasonable amount of Renault Tondar (aka Dacia Logan) showing their bonnet and the Toyota Hilux a clear Police choice outside of town.
Renault Tondar 90 and Koleos in Tehran
Renault has found success recently in Iran with the Tondar 90 aka Logan first generation. Famously, 100,000 of them were ordered during the first month of production in 2007, making it one of the fastest success in the history of automobile. The Tondar 90, as well as the first generation Sandero also produced here, is indeed very frequent in Tehran streets where you can distinguish the two versions produced by Iran Khodro (top left in first picture above) and Pars Khodro (bottom). A large batch of Renault Koleos and Talisman were imported into the country in 2018 and I indeed spotted a few of them.
Almost absent in Tehran, the Paykan survives in the countryside.A very rare non-blue Zamyad Z24! Venturing towards Mount Damavand with my rental Peugeot Pars
We can now leave Tehran’s crazy traffic behind to reach Mount Damavand, 80km east of town. At 5,609 m (18,403 ft) high, Mount Damavand is the highest volcanic mountain in Asia but it’s almost impossible to get a good view as its conic top is almost perpetually shrouded in clouds. It’s an opportunity to test the Peugeot Pars’ handling in windy, narrow and steep mountains roads. So far, so good. The car landscape here changes slightly, with a lot more Paykan sedans – they had all been sacrificed in Tehran – a few examples of the imported Ssangyong Tivoli and Renault Koleos (more than in 3 days in Tehran) and more Chinese cars including one MG3 and a Lifan 820. After our Mount Damavand detour we retrace our steps back to Tehran to then head towards Isfahan, 450km south of the capital. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this exploration coming shortly!
Toyota Prius in Tehran and Mercedes truck near Mount Damavand