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15 Jul, 2009 08:07

Germans take a new look at Russian cars amid economic downturn

Russian cars have long been the butt of jokes, and a target for unpopular measures from the government to boost sales.

That doesn't stop some people becoming devoted fans, even outside Russian borders.

If you ask a Westerner about Russian cars, you will most likely hear a joke, like "Lada engineers suggested a new anti-theft device – making the logo bigger."

Indeed, Russia has a proven record of high-tech achievements in various spheres – be it space, weapons or science, but when it comes to cars, a typical reaction might be like that seen on British car show Top Gear:

"Well, they're back again …with this!!! It costs just three grand, all of which you will lose the moment you buy the car. So, Top Gear top tip – AVOID!"

The British nation may be skeptical about Russia's automotive achievements, but the practical Germans seem to be more forgiving of the product.

In this crisis year, legendary car-makers such as BMW, Porsche and Audi are pulling out all the stops to boost demand at home. But Russian made Nivas and Ladas, whose sales have accelerated some 40% since last year, are leaving behind Land Rover and Jaguar.

"We in Germany sell so many of them – 20-25% more each year, because the brand has built a good reputation. We stress it – the car IS made in Russia. And this concept is aimed at a certain group of customers," said Dieter Trzaska, Director of Lada Automobile GmbH.

That certain group of customers is scattered all over Germany. They unite in fan clubs and meet for races and family picnics.

Christian Goossen, from the small town of Borken, is the leader of the biggest Lada fan club. He has 23 cars in his collection and he's not stopping yet.

"For sure I can buy Mercedes or BMW or something like this, but I don’t like too much technic. I like to drive… I don’t like to become driven," said Goossen.

Christian and his friends love their Ladas and Nivas because they're cheap to run, easy to fix and have all mod-cons, despite their looks.

"Few people know that the 8th model of Russian Lada was constructed together with Porsche. The steering wheel, engine, transmission are similar," said Lada fan Danil Muravyev-Kister.

Similar to Porsche or not, when Christian and his friends parade through their hometown, it's a head-turning event for the locals. Some of the cars can only be seen in old Soviet movies and are hard to come by even in Russia.

From up close, Russian-made cars lack the shine and refinement which European car makers – like BMW or Mercedes – boast, but when driven on German roads they perform much better than believed. Maybe Russian car makers should blame their bad reputation on the bad roads at home.

In neighboring Hamburg, people generally have good opinions of the Lada.

"Practical, cost-efficient and money saving," said one passerby.

Another said: "The car for 10,000 euros is cheap and spacious. It could be used as a taxi."

However, there were of course the skeptics.

"Lada?! I had it when I lived in East Germany. And it was sh*t!!! I'm sorry, but it's not a car!" said one man.

But the director of the German Lada center is convinced that even the last skeptics will change their minds soon.

Few cars on the market cost as little as 7,000 euros. Plus, the government offers compensation of 2,500 euros if the car falls into that price category.

So, what for some in Germany is just a love match, for others may soon become a marriage of convenience.