The jeeps are great, but you may still wish to use your own vehicle if you live in a secluded area, take frequent trips to the countryside, or carry a lot of luggage around.
Theoretically, you could, I suppose, ship your own car over in a container. But you'll be paying a helluva lot for the freight, taxes, expenses and bribes. In fact, shipping used vehicles to the Philippines is now illegal, by recent executive order of the president. Of course, a lot of importers in the used car business still do it, but they have years of experience at that sort of thing. Your learning curve will be pretty steep. You'll be forking out cash probably far in excess of the market value of the car, you won't have access to your car for weeks while documents are processed, and you run the risk of having your car impounded, confiscated, or stolen. Bringing your own car to Cebu is not a realistic option. (It wasn't a realistic option even when I was silly enough to bring my car over, back when it was still legal.)
So you're stuck with procuring a vehicle locally. There are a lot of used cars on the market, but - if you're an immigrant fresh off the boat - the easiest if most costly option would be to get a brand-new one from a dealership. You'll have enough issues to worry about and deal with as it is; getting a new car will mean that you can be sure you won't get overcharged, sold a lemon or a hot car, or be otherwise duped. The dealership will take of the paperwork and recommend an affiliated insurance company.
The Japanese big four - Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi - as well as Isuzu, Suzuki, Ford, General Motors (Opel, Chevrolet, Subaru), Volkswagen/Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Hyundai, and Kia all have dealerships in Cebu. The Ferrari dealership is still in the pipeline.
If you, however, decide to economize and opt for the challenge of getting a used car, you may find the following primer useful.
Know the Cars of Cebu
It should be noted that automobiles are one of the commodities that are more expensive in Cebu than most other countries. In comparison to the USA, for instance, market values are roughly double. Because of this, and because income levels are lower in the Philippines, most cars on the road are what would be low-end models in the industrialized world. Yes, there are BMW's and other luxury vehicles on the road, but as a Cebuano you have to be insanely wealthy to afford one.
Consequently, late model luxury vehicles are hard to come by. Usually it takes several years for the latest luxury vehicle to hit the road in Cebu, though there are exceptions. For instance, someone in Maria Luisa Estate Park started tooling around in a Porsche Cayenne only a few months after that model was released in Europe. A black one, if I remember correctly.
The good majority of the cars on the road in Cebu are low-end Japanese cars assembled in the Luzon region: the Toyota Corolla (recently replaced by the fairly decent Corolla Altis), the Nissan Sentra, the Mitsubishi Lancer, and the Honda Civic. None have automatic transmission; a car with A/T is already considered to be an unnecessary extravagance, because cars with automatic transmission consume more fuel than cars with manual transmission. Anything with an automatic transmission - even the lowly Suzuki Sidekick, known as the Vitara in the Philippines - is considered to be a luxury ride. The Toyota Camry, while a middle class ride in most other markets, is a superluxury sedan on par with a Mercedes-Benz in Cebu, used by presidents of major corporations. Meanwhile, a real Mercedes is on the same level as a Bentley in the US, and many wealthy Cebuanos are content to drive around - or be driven around - in a 15-year-old Mercedes.
There are two classes of car in Cebu not found in the developed world. One is the Jiffy, a local car assembled using a Japanese engine and various bits and pieces, often at home by the owner. The Jiffy is usually two-wheel drive and runs on gasoline, not diesel, but is open like a jeep. You'd need to have a mechanic in the family to get one of these.
The other is the AUV, or Asian Utility Vehicle. An AUV is a boxy car designed to be economical to purchase and run, capable of carrying large families (thanks to jump seats in the baggage compartment), and fairly rugged so as to withstand the bumpy and unpaved roads common in this part of the world. The AUV may or may not have four-wheel drive but it will usually run on the cheaper diesel fuel. Confusingly, Cebuanos - not too familiar with the luxury vehicles of the West - will often refer to their AUV as an SUV. True, the shapes are vaguely similar. However, the interior, the quality of the suspension, the craftsmanship, and the design of an AUV is a far cry from a real SUV. It must be said, however, that the AUV's have been slightly improving in recent years; some of the higher-end models even come with leather interiors. Who knows, in 25 years time, the AUV may have finally caught up with the SUV.
The most common Asian Utility Vehicles on the road in Cebu are the Toyota Revo (erswhile known as the Tamaraw, after the dwarf water buffalo indigenous to the Philippines), the Mitsubishi Adventure, and the Isuzu Crosswind. They all retail for around a million pesos for the basic model.
Check the OR/CR
Vehicles are registered with the LTO (Land Transportation Office). To transfer the ownership of a vehicle, you essentially need a deed of sale - about five copies - and what is known as the OR/CR. The OR refers to the Official Receipt issued by the LTO for the processing fees of the previous registration. The CR is the Certificate of Registration, also issued by the LTO.
In addition to the deeds of sale plus the OR/CR, you'll also need stencils of the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and the Engine Number, duly checked by the police. In case of a luxury car, you may also need a CP (Certificate of Payment), issued by Customs, to prove that the car wasn't smuggled.
So apart from checking the vehicle itself - very, very carefully - you need to have the OR/CR checked. Most Cebuanos keep photocopies in the glove compartment, along with the insurance documents, and the originals in a safe at home. When checking out a used car, ask for a photocopy of the OR/CR to take with you, and have someobody make sure that: the OR/CR haven't been forged (this does happen), that the car is registered with an LTO somewhere in Cebu (not elsewhere in the country), and that the car isn't on a list of stolen cars. Stolen cars from Manila are often shipped to Cebu, and if you get caught with one - even if you purchased it unwittingly - you'll get busted, hard. Car theft - known as carnapping in the Philippines - is almost unheard of on this island, but cars carnapped in Manila often do end up in Cebu.
If the person selling you the car starts making excuses about the OR/CR - "It's with my sister who is Manila on business but she'll be back on Monday" - drop that option like a hot potato and run. If you insist on viewing the original OR/CR despite all the excuses, you'll probably end up with an expert forgery.
Check the Plate
As a precaution, you may wish to - like most Cebuanos - make sure your car is a "Cebu unit", in other words, that it was originally registered in Cebu, not Manila. All Cebu - Region 7 - registrations result in a license plate that begins with G. License plates are comprised of three letters and three numbers. GDF 123 is a Cebuano license plate; WXY 456 is a Manila license plate. You can get a custom license plate if you fork over a hefty sum - I think about 20,000 pesos - but the plate will still not be as personalized as in the US. It will still consist of three letters and three numbers; you will merely have a say regarding which letters and numbers. Popular choices for the numbers are 888, since 8 is an auspicious number in China - a superstition that Filipinos have adopted and made their own.
The last digit of all license plates indicates the month the registration will expire. For instance, GDF 123 expires in March. "0" stands for October. LTO registrations need to be renewed yearly. Upon renewal you get two little green stickers, showing the last two digits of the year, which you are supposed to attach to your number plates [depicted at right]. Supposedly you get busted by CITOM if your number plates don't bear these stickers. You also get a large, ugly sticker which goes on the windshield (I just keep this in the glove compartment). Some cars also bear large, bright red "conduction stickers" which are issued prior to the initial LTO registration and pasted on the windshield and back window. The conduction stickers allow a new car to be driven to the dealership and by yourself until the dealership processes the registration. My advice: Peel these off as soon as possible; once exposed to the sun for a few months, they are a devil to get off.
Where's the Owner?
One other thing you need to check is that the car is owned by whoever is selling it to you, or that the owner is at least available to sign the deeds of sale; if he or she is abroad, you'll never get the car registered in your name. Also make sure the owner signed the CR; some owners think ahead and sign a few blank deeds of sale, which they entrust to the dealership, but forget to sign the CR. Remember, the name on the CR must be the same as that of the Vendor in the deeds of sale.
Often, the guy offering you the car doesn't actually own the car. Even if he does own the car, it may still be in the name of the previous owner. So always make sure that you know who the owner is - not because it may be stolen (though it may well be) but because you'll never be able to get it registered without the owner around.
Checking the Service Record
You probably know how to check a used vehicle (tires, brakes, engine, etc.) so I won't go into that. Note, however, that odometers are often wound back; the only way to check this is to get in touch with the previous owner, or, if the car is fairly new, check the service history (in which the mileage at the time of servicing is recorded) with the dealership.
Buying a used car the right way will take at least a few days, so don't show up at the dealership with a suitcase full of cash. The dealer will always try to tell you that someone else is interested and that you'd better hurry, but this is usually just sales talk - better be safe and have the details checked and double-checked.
One other peculiarity about Cebu is that, because we drive on the right and all cars designed for driving on the left (with the steering wheel on the right) are banned, the vehicle may have been converted to left-hand drive (LHD) from right-hand drive (RHD). This is especially common with Japanese sport-utility vehicles and vans, such as Mitsubishi Pajeros, Toyota Landcruisers, Isuzu Troopers (called Big Horns in Japan), and Nissan Pathfinders (called Terranos in Japan). Such used, converted vehicles from Japan are euphemistically called "surplus" vehicles. Look for Japanese-language stickers in the engine compartment and ask to see the manual to find out whether the car in question is a surplus vehicle.
If the vehicle has been inexpertly converted, it may handle funny in turns. Even the best conversions totally mess up the crumple zone, and are probably death traps in case of a serious collision. Another potential problem is that the date of initial registration of a converted car is usually the date of conversion, not the date the car was first manufactured in Japan, which could have been a decade beforehad. Lastly, most insurance companies don't provide comprehensive coverage for converted vehicles. It may be tempting to get a converted car because they are as much as 500,000 pesos cheaper than a local - i.e., originally LHD - model, but you'll be spending a lot for towing, repairs and taxis because converted cars break down all the time. My advice would be to avoid surplus vehicles if at all possible, even if they give you a warranty of a few months. Here's some more information about conversions, as well as some photos.
Registering the Car
Once you have your car, the OR/CR, the deeds of sale, and proof of insurance, proceed to Camp Sotero police station on Gorordo Avenue to get a stencil of the vehicle numbers (VIN and Engine Number). This should take around half a day. If I'm not mistaken you can have your NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) clearance processed simultaneously. Got all your paperwork? Proceed to the LTO on Bacalso, or, better yet, send a lackey - the LTO is one of the worst places to spend your precious living moments on this planet. The actual car itself does not have to be presented at the LTO for a registration change.
Good and Bad Dealers
As you can see, the process of buying a used car is not for the faint of heart. The exception, of course, is if you know the dealer. There is only one used car dealer I can recommend with certainty: Jimmy Gomez, a Tagalog expat who runs G-Trix, next to the Petron gas station across the Gaisano Country Mall. I'd trust Jimmy with my daughter, if I had one. Well, maybe not. But I do trust him as far as used cars are concerned; if Jimmy is the seller you can just hand over the cash, grab the keys, and wait for the documents to arrive by courier a few days later.
There are two dealers that I suspect are crooked: Hermes, who runs Joscar at the crossing of Arch Reyes and Gorordo, and Melman, on F Cabahug Street. I forgot the name of the guy who runs it, but he tried to sell me a hot Accord. Another place to avoid is Kimrich, further down F Cabahug Street. I won't go into details but just trust me on that one.