New Zealand is a car-country. Public transportation options are at a very minimum and by no means comparable to European standards. Distances are large, so neither walking nor cycling are serious alternatives to having a car.
New Zealand is car museum
For a typical Central European citizen, New Zealand looks like a giant car museum that has all sorts of cars from the last century on display, except those from the last 10 years. For the average New Zealander, a car is a tool to get you from A to B, nothing more. Quite different to Europeans, who tend to love their car and spend enormous amounts of money on their rolling living room/office. New Zealanders don’t care whether their car is old or new, scratched, or falling apart – as long as it runs and does its job. Not many new cars are sold in this country. Most car businesses focus on selling second hand cars, averaging about 10 years old, for $8,000-$10,000. Many import traders buy used cars in Japan and resell them in NZ. Some car dealers specialise in older cars with prices $3000-$5000.
Despite the typically very low speed limits (100 km/h on highways, 50 km/h in settlements) and the lack of traffic (except in Auckland!), New Zealand’s roads are considered relatively dangerous and annual death toll is higher than in many countries with significantly higher population density. We believe that a number of reasons are responsible for that:
- Quality of roads is bad: State highways (SH) along the main routes are usually well maintained, but lesser known roads can be very bumpy at times. Many sharp corners, ripples along corners, and bad slippery surface make them dangerous at higher speeds (>80 km/h). We rarely see any people driving faster than the allowed speeds (fines are pretty high).
- Quality of cars is questionable: The average car is about 20 years old and was a cheap model with few safety features when sold in the first place. Anything older will not have airbags, no ESP, no ABS, no quality tires and poor suspension. Cars need to pass an annual Warranty of Fitness test (like TÜV in Germany), but with much lower requirements. We’ve heard people saying “If the car managed to drive to the testing station, it’ll probably go for another year and get the WOF sticker.”.
- Bad drivers: Most New Zealanders learn to drive from their parents at the age of 16. Requirements to pass a driving test are low. We’ve also noticed a higher number of seriously old people still driving, even if they clearly have eye-sight problems and can’t visually distinguish between a parking car and a car waiting at an intersection (well, we had a little accident in that regards).
Living in a rural area on the South Island it means that you probably don’t get in touch with any traffic jams at all. Even on our ‘rush hour’-drive to school in the mornings we barely see cars in front of us or back of us. In Motueka we also don’t have any intersections with traffic lights, which makes driving a quite relaxed action in general (it’s awesome!).
Which type of car?
When considering a car, collect your requirements first. We almost bought a too small car (Ford Focus) on our first trip. It’s really difficult to get 4 large suitcases, 4 handbags and 4 people in a small car. We ended up having a huge stack of bags in the middle of the back seat row. The children were not particularly happy about it, but at least that separation wall of bags kept them from fighting during the long rides. 😉
We would recommend you to go for a spacious SUV. Not only to have enough space for bags, but also to be able to drive longer gravel roads with massive pot holes without any issues. During our ‘exploration’ holiday trips we often found ourselves driving 30km or more in once piece on gravel roads.
Rent or buy?
Buy! Simple answer. Rental cars are much more expensive for longer periods of time. Even if you get a really bad price when you must sell the car at departure in a hurry, we’re sure it will still be cheaper than any rental car available in the country.
Option A: Buy a used car at arrival
If you like the adventure, wait with your car purchase until you arrived in New Zealand. You may want to use Trademe to make a selection of interesting options available in the city and spend a few days finding a good one. Reserve at least 2 days, compare offerings and don’t take the first best option.
Once you have found a great car, insist on a Pre Purchase Car Inspection to be done, ideally by the seller. That will tell you if there is something wrong with the car, and can usually be arranged within a day at almost all AA offices ($169) or VTNZ stations ($149).
Depending on your available budget we would recommend you to go for a Japanese import car as they usually are of high quality. At our latest arrival, we’ve bought a 3-year old Toyota SUV with 57,000 km that looked like it was never driven a single kilometer. Expect that cars will lose quite some value over the year, but it is still by far cheaper than renting a car for such a long period.
Option B: Buy a new car in advance
On our first long-term stay in New Zealand we wanted to play it safe and arranged the car purchase in advance over the Internet. As we didn’t want to take any risks, we decided to buy a new display-car from a major Ford dealer in Christchurch. As it was on display for quite some time and they needed it gone, the price was acceptable for us. Not sure if we would do it again though. We would probably prefer the used-car option and buy after arrival.
Exotic diesel cars
In Europe, the majority of cars run on diesel fuel. Tax benefits, higher efficiency and more power made diesel cars the main choice in the Old World over the past decades. In New Zealand diesel is mainly used for farming, trucks and boats. Diesel is available at all fuel stations and the nozzles usually have warning signs to prevent customers from accidentally filling with the wrong fuel.
On a first sight, diesel fuel seems to be ridiculously cheap compared to petrol (diesel: $1.20, petrol: $1.90, May 2016), but there is a pitfall: Diesel cars are subject to Road User Charges (RUC). A tax that needs to be paid in advance based on kilometers driven and type of vehicle. For an average car, that tax currently is $62 per 1000 km. That means for a vehicle that takes 7l/100 km on average, the real costs for diesel fuel are about $2.10 per litre, which is about the same as for petrol. We would therefore recommend you to go for a petrol car/SUV, they are easier to sell when you leave.
Number plates are usually bound to the car, except when you have a custom plate. You only need to go to any of the numerous registration offices (mostly AA offices – Automobile Association), pay a small fee and get your car registered on your name. Car dealers can do that for you if you feel uncomfortable with the procedures.
The “Rego” is an annual fee that acts as a kind of vehicle tax. A few hundred dollars depending on the type of car. Check the NZTA website for details. That can all be done and paid online within a few minutes. New Zealand’s state organizations are surprisingly well organized with their IT stuff.
If you’re staying no longer than 12 months, you can use the driving license of your home country. You can either use an international driving license if you have, or if your license is not in English language, carry a translation from an approved translator with your original. If you want to stay longer than a year in New Zealand, you have to convert your license to a New Zealand Driving License, which is usually a quick procedure.