If your idea of Lada is a 1990s joke, think again: to­day, it’s a grow­ing global force with a bold vi­sion. James Attwood vis­its its HQ in Rus­sia

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

The Lada Riva was em­phat­i­cally not one of the finest cars of the 1990s. It was based on the plat­form of the Vaz 2101 from 1970, which was a re­worked ver­sion of 1966’s Fiat 124.

So when EU emis­sions reg­u­la­tions led to the Riva, along with the rest of Lada’s range, be­ing with­drawn from sale in the UK in 1997, the only peo­ple who mourned were those seek­ing a punch­line for jokes about bad cars.

But the story of Lada didn’t end in 1997. It was Rus­sia’s na­tional car brand and its age­ing mod­els – in­clud­ing the Riva – con­tin­ued to be hugely suc­cess­ful in its home coun­try. In fact, a Rus­sian fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 1998 sent the price of im­ported cars soar­ing and helped Lada in­crease its mar­ket dom­i­nance.

But its mar­ket lead slowly eroded over the next decade, de­spite a few new mod­els. In 2008, Re­nault bought a share in Lada’s par­ent com­pany, Av­to­vaz. Shortly af­ter, the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit Rus­sian firms par­tic­u­larly hard and Av­to­vaz re­quired a bailout from the Rus­sian govern­ment to sur­vive. Yet that low also led to Lada’s resur­gence.

The re­vival of the most Rus­sian of car brands has been led by the French. Re­nault helped Lada develop the Granta in 2011, a small car that quickly be­came Lada’s – and Rus­sia’s – best­seller. The fol­low­ing year, Re­nault took a con­trol­ling stake in Av­to­vaz, al­though the firm’s mar­ket share kept slip­ping as for­eign firms – led by Kia and Hyundai – closed in fast. Lada needed bold, new mod­els and a re­newed sense of pur­pose.

That came with the mid-sized Vesta in 2015 and the X-ray SUV – built on a Da­cia Duster plat­form – the fol­low­ing year. Both cars were the work of Bri­tish chief de­signer Steve Mat­tin and fea­tured bold styling with nu­mer­ous ‘X’ el­e­ments, first seen on the X-ray Con­cept in 2012. Lada’s mar­ket share has crept back up to around 20%, and by 2017 – when Re­nault took full own­er­ship – the firm was back in profit, helped con­sid­er­ably by the Rus­sian car mar­ket start­ing to grow again af­ter a long de­cline. The com­pany’s goal now is to shore up its po­si­tion. “When you have a strong mar­ket share, it’s dif­fi­cult just to keep it,” says Yves Cara­catza­nis, who took over as head of Av­to­vaz this year. “We are re­new­ing all our prod­ucts in keep­ing with the DNA of the brand: strong de­sign, con­fi­dence in re­li­a­bil­ity and value for money.”

Those traits are crit­i­cal to Lada’s suc­cess. The firm’s main cus­tomer base has never been in Rus­sia’s cities – “Rus­sia is not Moscow and St Petersburg,” says Cara­catza­nis – but out in the coun­try­side. The al­ter­ations made to the Fiat 124 to cre­ate Vaz 2101 were all to make it eas­ier for cus­tomers to main­tain it them­selves, given that many lived hours from their near­est deal­er­ship. To that end, Lada’s cur­rent range re­newal – eight new mod­els and nine facelifts are planned by 2026 – in­cludes SUVS such as the X-ray and jacked-up ‘Cross’ ver­sions of its saloons. In the bit­ter Rus­sian win­ter, hav­ing ex­tra ground clear­ance isn’t re­ally a life­style choice. They’re af­ford­able too: de­pend­ing on which way the rou­ble is blow­ing, an en­try-level Vesta will set you back around £4700.

Lada’s re­vival is about more than new cars, though. It wasn’t only the

firm’s cars that had fallen be­hind the times. Its fac­to­ries were much as they had been when Lada was founded in 1964, its net­work of deal­ers slip­ping be­low the stan­dards set by ri­vals. So, since 2012, Re­nault has in­vested more than £1.3 bil­lion in a vast mod­erni­sa­tion pro­gramme.

That’s best seen at the main Lada Togli­atti plant – a vast, sprawl­ing fa­cil­ity lo­cated in Sa­mara Oblast, 620 miles east of Moscow. You might have heard of Sa­mara: it was in the re­gion’s cap­i­tal city that Eng­land bat­tled Swe­den (and hordes of mos­qui­toes) in the World Cup quar­ter-fi­nals.

Togli­atti was for­merly known as Stavropol, al­though the orig­i­nal city is now un­der the reser­voir cre­ated by the Kuy­by­shev Dam in 1957. A new city was built nearby and re­named in 1964 af­ter Ital­ian com­mu­nist Palmiro Togli­atti, re­flect­ing Av­to­vaz’s early part­ner­ship with Fiat.

The part of Togli­atti built to house Lada work­ers is known as the ‘new city’, al­though it’s very def­i­nitely show­ing its age – a mix of con­crete tower blocks and straight roads and paths. It’s all very 1960s.

At its peak, more than 100,000 em­ploy­ees worked at the Togli­atti plant, which sprawls over nearly 1500 acres and more than 185 miles of pro­duc­tion lines, in­clud­ing sep­a­rate pow­er­train and com­po­nent lines, along with a wind tun­nel, test track and a car safety re­search cen­tre. To­day, 36,500 peo­ple work there. In 2017, 387,000 cars were built on its three pro­duc­tion lines, but it has the ca­pac­ity for 780,000 ve­hi­cles a year.

The main pro­duc­tion line runs vir­tu­ally the en­tire length of a 1400m-long build­ing and, since

No sign of Lada’s in­tent is more notable than the 4x4 Vi­sion un­veiled re­cently

The real story is not where Lada’s from but where it’s go­ing

2012, has been used to make mod­els built on the B0 plat­form – not just Lada’s X-ray and Lar­gus, but also the Re­nault/da­cia Lo­gan and San­dero and the Nis­san Almera.

That line has also been the sub­ject of a ma­jor mod­erni­sa­tion pro­gramme, with Re­nault work­ing to bring the plant in line with the stan­dards of other Re­nault-nis­san-mit­subishi fa­cil­i­ties.

“The al­liance has al­lowed us to speed up the trans­for­ma­tion much faster than Av­to­vaz could do alone,” says Ales Bra­toz, Av­to­vaz’s pro­duc­tion boss. “When we started to look in 2012, the gap from here to other al­liance plants was very big. To­day, we are ap­ply­ing and in­te­grat­ing pro­duc­tion stan­dards to reach the same level as other plants. We are trans­form­ing lines and im­prov­ing work­ing con­di­tions, qual­ity and ef­fi­ciency.”

Stand along­side that B0 pro­duc­tion line, mar­vel­ling at the stream of semi-fin­ished bodyshells stretch­ing out of sight in ei­ther di­rec­tion, and you will still see more man­ual labour than more modern car plants else­where in the world. But you can also see the mod­erni­sa­tion in ac­tion: new pro­cesses, equip­ment, ma­chines and robots.

You can also see Lada’s mod­erni­sa­tion at work on the roads around Togli­atti: the firm is in the process of re­vamp­ing and up­grad­ing its deal­er­ships, to make them more en­tic­ing and offer bet­ter cus­tomer ser­vice. That’s par­tic­u­larly vi­tal be­cause the un­ri­valled breadth of Lada’s dealer net­work is a key edge it has over its ri­vals, par­tic­u­larly bold, well-funded Chi­nese firms in­creas­ingly en­ter­ing the mar­ket. “To en­ter the Rus­sian mar­ket is not so easy,” says Cara­catza­nis. “You need a strong dealer net­work.”

And there’s still plenty of room to grow: only around 50% of Rus­sian fam­i­lies own a car. “If we can pro­vide them with af­ford­able, good-qual­ity, re­li­able cars, there’s a good mar­ket,” says Cara­catza­nis. “There’s po­ten­tial there.”

Lada is also aim­ing to grow else­where. Al­though leg­is­la­tion – and the pres­ence of Da­cia as Re­nault’s en­try-level brand – makes a re­turn to the UK un­likely, Lada ex­ports to 34 coun­tries in the Com­mon­wealth of In­de­pen­dent States, Asia and, start­ing re­cently, South Amer­ica.

But no sign of Lada’s in­tent was more notable than the 4x4 Vi­sion it un­veiled at the re­cent Moscow mo­tor show. It pre­views a re­place­ment, due in 2022, for its best-loved model and last real link to the bad old days: the Niva off-roader (now known as the 4x4 af­ter Lada sold the Niva name­plate to GM). Launched in 1977, the 4x4 is still be­ing built and sold in vir­tu­ally un­changed form. Cus­tomers in­clude pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. That Lada feels able to start work on re­plac­ing this model is a notable sym­bol of the com­pany’s bold step into the fu­ture.

An­other notable sym­bol is on the side of the 4x4 Vi­sion: a small Rus­sian flag mo­tif. “It’s im­por­tant not to lose where you’re com­ing from,” says Cara­catza­nis. “It’s like Re­nault: the DNA of the brand is French val­ues.”

Make no mis­take: even if it is now con­trolled by the French, Lada is firmly a Rus­sian com­pany. Cara­catza­nis likens the re­la­tion­ship to the orig­i­nal part­ner­ship be­tween Av­to­vaz and Fiat.

“Rus­sians are very na­tion­al­is­tic and the Lada brand is a Rus­sian brand,” he says. “It’s part of the his­tory of Rus­sia and it’s im­por­tant not to lose those roots. You have to be proud of where you’re from.”

The real story now is not where Lada’s from, but where it’s go­ing. Even if your per­cep­tions of Lada are stuck in the 1990s, the firm is fo­cused firmly on the fu­ture.

Vaz 2101, based on the 1966 Fiat 124, was a main­stay model and evolved into the Riva

Vesta (above) and X-ray SUV (right) em­body the new face – and am­bi­tion – of Lada

of Moscow Main plant is at Togli­atti, 620 miles east

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