In Jamaica, Toyota rules the road -- ruts and all

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When I arrived in Jamaica this month for a weeklong holiday, I realized pretty quickly that one automotive brand rules the landscape: Toyota.

Like Japan and the United Kingdom, among other places, Jamaica is a country where they drive on the left with the steering wheel on the right. Many cars come direct from Japan to Jamaica unmodified.

Before I rented a car to tour around on my own, I decided to hire a driver for a day trip into Kingston -- regarded as a dangerous city -- to see some of the sites associated with one of my musical heroes, reggae star Bob Marley.

My driver owned a spiffy, squarish subcompact Toyota wagon called the Summit. I wish carmakers offered small, sensible wagons like the Summit here. One common vehicle is the Toyota Hiace van, ubiquitous on the fixed route taxi lines that serve as public transport.

Guidebooks to the country advise visitors to consider renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle because of the condition of the roadways. Jamaican roads, particularly in the picturesque Blue Mountains, are excruciatingly, appallingly atrocious -- some of the worst I've ever driven.

The Toyota Yaris sedan -- an unconventional rental -- from inside a typical pothole on the "lonely road" to Alligator Hole, Manchester Parish, Jamaica.

Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE

There are places where the entire roadway is a pothole. Road repairs consist of patches on top of patches on top of more patches. Therefore sturdiness is a must, and Toyotas certainly fill that bill.

Since rental rates in Jamaica are high and I was trying to save a little money, I decided to skip the guidebook's advice on 4wd and rented a tiny Toyota Yaris sedan instead.

Had I chosen 4wd, I'd have likely ended up with a Suzuki Vitara. One travel narrative referred to this as a "Japanese jeep," using the lower-case letter "j." I did not see a single real Jeep. And I did not see many other American cars. The most common American vehicle is the Ford F-150 pickup, which looks luxurious and enormous on these narrow roads. The steering wheels on the trucks I saw were on the left.

There aren't many European cars around either. The BMW 3 series is probably the most common. There might be an explanation for that. Bob Marley, who is a secular saint here, owned a BMW.

Marley, who rose from abject poverty in the Kingston slums to global stardom, once explained somewhat apologetically that he chose a BMW for no other reason than BMW also happened to be the initials for his band: Bob Marley and the Wailers.

But whatever its recent troubles in the United States or Europe, Toyota remains king of the road here.

I asked a fellow at the Island Car Rentals to explain Toyota's dominance. They don't break, he explained, adding in his lilting accent: "You can get Toyota parts in a rum bar, mon."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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