Lebanon still lags behind when it comes to implementing eco-friendly solutions across the board. In the automotive industry this has meant little progress toward the adoption of electric vehicles, despite some positive movement this past year. In April 2018, the government announced under article 55 that those wishing to purchase a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) for private use would pay 20 percent customs for a vehicle of any value; those purchasing an HEV for public use pay 10 percent. Fully electric vehicles (EVs) were exempted from customs fees and mecanique fees (the first year) altogether. This was a move in the right direction, but much more needs to be done before electric vehicles will become affordable and practical options for Lebanese. Car importers and users need to have substantial privileges in importing, selling, and buying these cars.
A first recommendation would be to reduce the customs for HEVs to a lower rate than 20 percent to incentivize their purchase. At the moment, for more basic models, there can be little difference between the HEV and combustion engine—sometimes the advantage even goes to the latter. Currently, car buyers pay 20 percent customs duty on vehicles valued up to $13,333; for vehicles above $13,333 they pay 50 percent on each additional dollar; this means that for low-income Lebanese there is no financial advantage to buying a hybrid, given that the cheapest option in the market right now is $18,700, without registration. The batteries are also expensive—the average cost ranges between $7,000 and $8,000—and have to be replaced after the eight-year mark, making this a future cost that EV buyers must factor in.
The second recommendation would be to give a bonus, as European governments do, in the form of cash backs, lower insurance rates, or—in cooperation with fuel stations—the ability to recharge the car for free for a year.
The third—and most difficult to implement—recommendation would be to improve infrastructure in the country to accommodate HEVs and EVs, ensuring there is countrywide access to charging stations. Gasoline is still a smarter bet for the average Lebanese user, given that it costs roughly the same to fill a tank as it does to charge an electric battery, yet the former takes less than five minutes compared to an hour or more for the latter.
Promote it and they will buy
Despite these obstacles, the last three years have seen more efforts from car importers to promote hybrid and electric vehicles. At the e-MotorShow in Beirut this April, car importers showcased a range of electric cars from the most basic to high-end models.
Porsche Center Lebanon has an interesting lineup with two flagships HEVs: the Panamera Hybrid and the Cayenne Hybrid. Both cars have a plug-in hybrid system able to rely solely on the battery for a driving range of over 40 km. That means that any Porsche hybrid user would be able to commute in Beirut with zero emissions, zero consumption, and zero noise. Porsche Center Lebanon is also on the forefront of EV sales in Lebanon, with plans to import and sell the Taycan, a fully electric sedan by the beginning of 2020. The Taycan has a range of 450 km, meaning that any user could travel the length of Lebanon twice on a single battery charge.
Elsewhere in the German car segment, ETS F.A. Kettaneh S.A. has plans to import the Audi E-Tron, a luxury SUV with a range of over 400 km, by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020. T. Gargour et Fils, representatives of Daimler-Benz, are already selling plug-in hybrid vehicles like the E 350, the E 53 4M coupé and cabriolet, and seven-seaters like the GLE 450.
GAA & Co., the exclusive importer of Swedish car brands in Lebanon, are importing and selling two high-end Volvo hybrids. The XC90 and the S90 plug-in hybrid represent a serious alternative to German brands in terms of fuel-efficiency and eco-friendliness. In addition, Volvo Lebanon will also showcase a fully electric car in 2020, the Polestar 2.
In the British car lineup, starting this year, Saad & Trad have begun importing the Jaguar I-Pace, an electric SUV with a range of 470 km on a single charge.
The Japanese brand Toyota, represented in Lebanon by distributor BUMC, is a pioneer in HEVs. Toyota was the first manufacturer to mass produce a hybrid vehicle: the Toyota Prius. Today, Lebanese customers can buy the Toyota Prius but also the Rav 4 and Camry, both only available in their hybrid versions. Added to the entry level line in 2019, BUMC now imports the Lexus ES 300h and the RX 450h.
Korean brand, Hyundai, represented by Century Motor Company, was the first to import and showcase an alternative to the Toyota Prius—the Hyundai Ioniq. The Ioniq is an ideal car for taxis and private users, as it is not only fuel-efficient but also well-equipped. Century Motor Company has lately imported the Kona, a fully electric compact SUV with an impressive range of 450 km.
In the French car lineup, Renault country-representative, Bassoul-Hneiné, was the first to import an “affordable” EV, the Renault Twizy, available since 2017. At $18,700 the Twizy is the least expensive EV in Lebanon, but lacks in equipment and is designed for urban driving, with a limited range of 80 km. Following the Twizy, Bassoul-Hneiné imported the fully electric Renault Zoe in 2019, a higher-end vehicle and one of the only hatchback EVs available in Lebanon with a range of 210 km, capable of traveling the Lebanese coastline on a single charge.
Chinese brands sell cheaper than their peers. SIDIA, the representative of BYD in Lebanon, imports and sells the Yuan, a fully electric compact SUV available at a relatively affordable price starting at $34,410 (including VAT). Those Executive spoke to, indicated that Chinese brands were selling more and more in Lebanon; one possible reason for this increase is that these brands give Lebanese drivers the chance to have a well-equipped car at a competitive price. Chinese brands with hybrid and electric products have become game changers. A Yuan from BYD, for example, would cost 20 percent less than an American or a European alternative, like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, (albeit the latter’s range and quality would also be substantially higher).
Starting to take charge
Other car importers in Lebanon will not import electric vehicles, such as Gargour Automotive Company and GABS, which represent FCA and Suzuki respectively. This, however, is not specific to the Lebanese context but part of the strategy of their mother companies, which are not working aggressively on HEVs or EVs. Rymco will not import the Nissan LEAF because it is not yet available for the Middle East market. Similarly, A.N. Boukather will not consider importing hybrid or electric cars in 2019 for many reasons, including: the strategy of the car manufacturers (Mazda, Ford, and Opel), poor infrastructure in Lebanon, and limited incentives for users.
For more accessible options—the majority of the brands listed above do not represent the mass market section of electric vehicles—Hyundai, Toyota, Renault, and Chinese brands like Trumpchi, offer HEVs and EVs ranging between $20,000 and $35,000. This range is still expensive compared to combustion-engine options. To make it more appealing, BUMC and other car importers like Century Motor Company, Porsche Center Lebanon, and GAA & Co give the customer eight to nine years warranty on the battery.
From going nowhere to going somewhere, the private sector in Lebanon is beginning to take charge when it comes to electric vehicles. In the coming years, especially with car manufacturers complying with new emissions and noise pollution regulations worldwide, there will likely be increased imports of HEVs and EVs to Lebanon and the country will have to prepare its infrastructure accordingly. Lebanon has to follow the world in terms of mobility, regardless of its slow adoption.