Russian Lada cars to make debut
Moscow, Apr 27 : Russia's cheap and cramped Lada cars have such a bad reputation that they have their own category of jokes, but the car maker is out to wipe the smile off critics' faces by competing in a world-class race.
This year, Lada will make its debut in the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) -- a sister competition to the Formula One series that features souped-up versions of ordinary cars.
It is a bold move that sums up Russia's new national mood.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and years of economic chaos, Russia is booming mainly thanks to high prices for its oil exports and it wants to project its new-found confidence on the world stage.
''They are looking at (this competition) as putting them in among the world's greatest brands and competing ... head to head,'' said Brian Mackey, a U.S. consultant who is marketing the Lada entry. ''We are very excited about it.'' But like Russia's national resurgence, Lada's foray into the WTCC has not been without hiccups.
The Lada team did not compete in the first race of the season, at Italy's Monza circuit this month, because engineers were still working on the car. And the team has yet to announce drivers for its two cars.
When the cars do join the race, they will be competing against teams from BMW, Alfa Romeo and Chevrolet.
''It won't be easy for them,'' said Marcello Lotti, general manager of KSO, which promotes the WTCC.
Most Lada models are primitive by modern standards -- one of the many Lada jokes goes ''How do you double a Lada's value? Fill up the fuel tank''. After buying a Lada, many Russians strip it down and rebuild it to fix what they say is shoddy work at the assembly plant.
AvtoVaz , the state-controlled company that makes the Lada and Russia's top car maker, says that reputation is out of date and that its latest models are a huge improvement.
In motorsports, most of Lada's previous international experience has been in rally races, or racing other Warsaw Pact countries before the Berlin Wall came down.
The Lada was created in the late 1960s to provide a car for the masses -- a Russian version of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Millions were produced and the original boxy design is still the most common sight on Russian roads.
But Russians today, wealthier and more choosy about what they drive, have been abandoning their Ladas in favour of foreign models. Sales at AvtoVaz have stagnated and the company's market share has shrunk amid severe competition between foreign and Russian car makers in a growing market.
President Vladimir Putin has made restoring national pride a priority and says he wants to reverse the decline of Russia's car industry. He wants to turn AvtoVaz into the car-making equivalent of Russia's gas giant Gazprom -- a prestigious national champion that will win markets overseas.
This month, the car company said it had clinched a strategic partnership deal with the country's second largest bank to implement an ambitious billion project to produce new engines and new cars.
Alexander Nikonenko, head of sports competitions at AvtoVaz, said the Lada team should be ready for its first WTCC race by the middle of this year.
The team will use its first year to learn the ropes before competing in earnest in 2007.
''It is probably not worth kidding ourselves that we will win immediately. But nonetheless, we have a realistic chance, even a very good chance (of winning),'' Nikonenko told Reuters.
Lada owners with horror stories about their cars might find that hard to believe.
''I drove my new Lada 2115 to Belarus at the New Year. On the way back the engine started playing up,'' said Andrei from St.
Petersburg, writing on the www.auto.ru Internet forum.
''Now I am being advised to strip down the engine, or replace it with a new one.
''The car is one-month-old and I am already thinking about how I can get rid of it. I think for some time to come I am going to wince whenever I hear the word 'AvtoVaz'.''