In 2005, I made my first visit to Tahiti and Bora Bora, and the first thing that struck me, as a motorhead, was how French the place was. Never mind that this is administratively part of France, with the same police force and street signs. The first thing any car enthusiast will have noticed in 2005 was how Peugeot, Renault and Citroën dominated the market. There were plenty of Peugeot 206s about, and I spotted people driving the same car as me—a Renault Mégane I coupé. What was chiefly different about a Tahitian street scene was why there were coconut trees all over the place when everything else was a replica of la République?
On my return there in 2017, my first sight was comforting: the Renault Trafic police van outside Tahiti Faa’a airport. But the more I looked, the less French it all was. In fact, it looked pretty much like my own home in New Zealand: Japanese and Korean pick-up trucks and SUVs everywhere, old Hyundai Clicks (badged Getz here, as in New Zealand) taking the place of all those old 206s, and plenty of buyers opting for German—Volkswagen Polos, for instance—and the well-to-do buying BMWs and Porsche Cayennes. In fact, Tahiti has the greatest number of Porsche Cayennes per capita in the world.
There were still some signs that this was part of France. Dacia had come a long way: Logans, Sanderos and Dusters were popular choices. Hire car companies had Renault Twingos, and civilian buyers chose them, too. Renault–Nissan had a large dealership in downtown Papeete—from what I could make out it was the largest in town—but globalization had taken place here. The Tahitian market was open, no longer beholden to its masters on another hemisphere.
We were ferried around, in Papeete at least, in Renault Masters and Toyota Hiaces from the tour company. This could have been anywhere: both vans are available back home. On Taha’a, where we headed to on our holiday, Aro, our local guide, met us in a Mazda B-series pick-up, with seats added to the back. The poshest passenger car there, where the island has one main, paved road, was a facelifted Renault Clio III. There were Peugeot 206 hulls in front yards, the cars expired and wheel-less. After seeing a couple of Mahindras, I asked Aro his thoughts. He didn’t like them and preferred the Mazda. Fair enough: I’d have chosen the same out of the two brands.
Visiting our new friends Linda and Teva at their home on Taha’a, I spied their new Ford Everest in the driveway, the Thai-built truck that’s aimed at Asian and Pacific buyers. And that could have been the flashest motor, bar none, on the island.
Back on Papeete, I asked our driver, Mana, what happened to all the Peugeots. I could have sworn this was the number-one brand all those years ago. A young 20-something with Chinese Hakka heritage, he told me that the Peugeots wound up suffering in the Tahitian heat. They never lasted. It explained the dead 206s on Taha’a: once popular, they had died, and Peugeot’s reputation with them.
In a country where wages are so low that it takes some buyers eight years to pay off a car’s financing, short vehicle lifespans are simply not acceptable to the Tahitian buyer. There simply weren’t many 207s and 208s now, though I did spy a 301, a tiny dent in the Dacia Logan market, but not one which will give Renault a sleepness night.
The French still have a foothold, but not in as great a fashion. I didn’t find myself grabbing my phone to shoot photos of something Gallic and special. As they’re so commonplace at home, there wasn’t any point photographing a Hyundai Tucson or Kia Sportage. About the only concession to Tahitian tastes was the choice of white as the standard colour, rather than silver or black. In hot weather, you want a colour that reflects light.
But one car stood out during the trip: someone had parked their Tesla Model S in the parking lot of one of the hotels we stayed at. I had to snap something, and it might as well be this.