Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is travelling in a Volga car along the Volga river to take a snapshot of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the presidential election looms. This is his second piece, from the city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Rupert waxed lyrical about Volgas - before actually driving one.

I am going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction. Russia's indigenous car industry is finished. It may take many more years to finally die, but die it will.
The reason is simple - Russian cars are awful. The worst car I have ever driven, by a long, long way, is a Lada I had the misfortune to try out shortly after arriving in Russia a year-and-a-half ago. I should have learned my lesson. But no.

Now I am preparing to depart on a 1,000-mile (1,609km) road journey, in the middle of the Russian winter, in another horror of Soviet engineering - the Volga. In my first diary entry I waxed lyrical about how the Volga was the Mercedes, Rover, or Buick of the Russian car industry. That was before I had driven one. Even the new production line is ancient, one car expert admits.

I have now taken delivery of an eight-year-old 1.5-tonne black monster. A day of driving it around the snowbound streets of Nizhny Novgorod, and I think I can safely say it has gone straight in at No.2 in my all time worst car list. The Volga was, possibly, an OK car when it first came out. But that was in 1970.

My Volga was made 30 years later, and it is essentially exactly the same car. And they are still making them today! Its the equivalent of Ford still building Cortinas, or Vauxhall still making Vivas!

I went to the Volga factory on Tuesday.It is suitably vast. The whole south-west district of Nizhny Novgorod is simply called "Car Factory" - mile after mile of ugly grey apartment buildings and hulking factory sheds. The factory gate is equally vast: five storeys of grey marble, topped off with a hammer and sickle and not one, but two, reliefs of Lenin.

You would never guess it from the gate furniture, but the Volga car plant is now a private company, part of the brave new world of Russian capitalism. It was bought in 2001 by one of Russia richest men - 40-year-old aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska. If there is one thing Russia's young oligarchs have learned fast from their Western brethren, it is the art of spin.

I was met at the gate by a young, slick, English-speaking team straight out of a Moscow PR agency. I was immediately dragged off for an interview with the equally young and also fluent English-speaking director of the car division. It was very clear the last thing Leonid wanted to talk about was Volgas. Instead, I was pummelled with the business school jargon of "just-in-time" production. "Toyota is our model," Leonid told me, with not even the slightest hint of irony. "Car making is a global industry, and we're going to have to learn to compete if we are to succeed."

Brave words, but how?

The answer is to go on a shopping spree, a very big shopping spree. I was taken to a vast hangar on the other side of the factory. Inside it was crammed with row upon row of bright orange robots, fresh out of their wooden crates from America. This whole robotic production line, hundreds of high tech machines, has been bought lock stock and barrel from Chrysler in the US.

Leonid and his PR team proudly showed me the attractive new model their robotic production line is about to start building. It is called the Siber and for the Russian car industry, it is a quantum leap forward in technology.

So what about my prediction of impending doom? Well, I hope I am wrong. But car making is a brutally relentless business. Market leaders like Toyota now change their model range every three to four years. Beneath its skin the shiny new Siber is actually an old Chrysler Sebring. It is what the British call "mutton dressed as lamb".

One of the Canadian engineers brought in to programme the robots told me quietly that, by North American standards, this production line is ancient. He described the robots as "dinosaurs". It reminded me of another former state-run car company that tried to compete by dressing up old technology in new clothes. That one was called British Leyland.



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