What cars do embassies use?

What cars do embassies use?
Image: Quartz/Bárbara Abbês
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The fleet of diplomatic cars driven in the US has its quirks:

  • There are two Teslas registered to the Hungarian diplomatic mission, one for their embassy in Washington and another for their consulate in New York. They are the only diplomatic mission to have even one of the costly electric cars.
  • The Embassy of Lebanon has the only registered Hummer.
  • North Korea is one of six countries to have registered a stretch limousine. The others are Barbados, Egypt, India, Kuwait, and Vietnam.
  • Only nine of the 174 diplomatic missions registered a hybrid vehicle. With five of it’s 31 cars as hybrids, Canada was the most likely to register a car that didn’t just rely solely on fossil fuels engine.

All of these cars have distinctive blue and red license plates issued by the US Department of State, which has an office charged with registering and maintaining records on the cars—in other words, a DMV for the diplomats. Through a public records request, Quartz obtained the list of vehicles and trailers registered between May 2014 and August 2018 by diplomatic missions in the US. It included approximately 2,220 cars registered to diplomatic outposts from 174 countries.

We digitized the data from an 146-page printed spreadsheet the State Department sent us in the mail using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Converting a spreadsheet from digital to print to digital again can insert errors into all of that data. We wrote software to clean and verify the information where possible. Our analysis here excludes vehicles registered to individual diplomats because they are only listed under a State Department ID number, not a country.

While there are some unusual cars registered to diplomatic missions, our analysis finds that most of the vehicles used are practical. Over 60% of the registered cars were made by Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Honda. Cars from high-end manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are in the minority.

More than one third of registered vehicles cars come from Toyota alone, and by far the most common model of car is the brand’s minivan, the Toyota Sienna. Seating at least seven, it’s a practical car for escorting gaggles of diplomats to meetings around town. There are 92 different countries with at least one Toyota Sienna registered to a mission.

With just over 300 vehicles, no country registered more vehicles to their mission than Mexico for the time period we have data. 74 of these cars are Nissan Armadas. No other country has as many of any one car—though the Russians are close with 71 Toyota Camrys.

What is the top car registered by each country from 2015 to 2018*

*Country has at least ten of a specific make and model of car

The majority of the most popular cars-country pairs are relatively inexpensive vehicles. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those two countries both registered ten Mercedes-Benz S-Classes—a 2019 version of the car usually costs at least $90,000 according to US News and World Report.

The use of such high-end cars is not unusual for these countries. Almost 20 of the 29 cars registered by Qatar are from high-end manufacturers (Acura, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Cadillac, Genesis, Hummer, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Maybach, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla). The only countries with a higher share of high-end cars are Kuwait (15 out of 20) and Bahrain (9 of 13). In contrast, not one of the ten cars registered by diplomatic missions from Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Israel or Spain were from these manufacturers.

For the analysis above, we excluded cars that were made by manufacturers based in the country that registered the vehicle. Otherwise, Germany would have topped the list. The majority of cars registered to the German mission are BMWs. It is not unusual for missions to prefer a home-country brand. 37 of the 38 cars registered by the Japanese missions were made by a Japanese-based company—the exception is a Ford E-450 registered to its US embassy.

Which countries registered cars made by companies based in their country?

Though nearly all of the cars Japan registered are from Japanese based companies, that doesn’t mean that most of those cars were made in Japan. Far from it. According to our data, 26 of those 37 were made in a plant in the US. In fact, cars on non-US brands were actually more likely to have been made in a US factory than “American” cars.

Car manufacturing plant location of registered cars