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The Lada: The little car that couldn't

The Lada, once emblematic of Soviet independence, is now a symbol of Russia's economic difficulties.

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The wheels haven’t quite come off—but the airbags, seat belt pretensioners, and numerous other standard car safety features have.

More than six months into the Ukraine war, Russia insists that western sanctions cannot faze it. But Lada, an iconic, half-century-old car brand owned by the state-run AvtoVAZ, tells a different story. Once a symbol of the Soviet drive to be independent of Western manufacturing, the Lada has become a very similar symbol again for Russia. Except now, it’s proving far harder for Russia to extricate itself from the tightly knit global economy.

Earlier this year, unable to source spare parts because of sanctions, AvtoVAZ was forced to halt its production lines, placing much of its workforce on furlough for three months. The Russian McDonald’s menu may have been swapped out by Vkusno & Tochka, but cars are harder to nationalize. More than 20% of the parts AvtoVAZ needs for its cars are imports.

In June, AvtoVAZ finally resumed some of its operations, but the new cars rolling off its production line had been stripped back. They no longer carried standard safety equipment such as seat belt pretensioners, which lock seat belts in the event of a crash; anti-lock braking systems; electronic stability controls; and emergency signal systems. This was only made possible by quick moves from Russian regulators to relax safety and emissions standards.

Still, Maksim Sokolov, the president of AvtoVAZ, toed Russian president Vladimir Putin’s line, insisting that the company was self-sufficient. “Today, after a long stop, Avtovaz resumed car production,” Sokolov said in June. “Ensuring the personnel employment of the car plant is one of the top priorities we have. And, of course, we have to further produce the most popular and affordable cars of the Russian market, which do not depend on the imported components’ shortage.”


THE BACKSTORY

AvtoVAZ was founded in 1966, and the first cars under the Lada marquee appeared in 1973. The Ladas were boxier versions of already-boxy Fiat models, but they were made at home—a point of pride for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As a result, AvtoVAZ holds an outsized symbolic importance for Russians, in much the same way that General Motors does for Americans or Toyota for the Japanese. Although Ladas were known for their bare-bones designs, they were consistently top sellers and even exported overseas. It wasn’t until 2014, in fact, that a car that wasn’t a Lada became the best-selling car in Russia.

In 2008, Renault bought a 25% stake in AvtoVAZ, in a billion-dollar deal, to cash in on the Russian car market, which at the time was growing 34% year over year. Over time, the French automaker gradually increased its stake to 68%, but when the Ukraine war broke out, Renault sold the business, valued at 2.2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in May, to a Russian state-owned entity for the symbolic sum of 1 ruble. Renault has the option to buy it back for the next six years.


BY THE NUMBERS

32,500: Number of employees at Lada, as of March

400,000: Number of workers in the Russian auto industry, with roughly 10 times as many workers again depending indirectly on the sector

46 million: Number of cars in Russia, each on average close to 15 years old

21%: Lada’s share of all new cars sold in Russia last year

50%: The expected drop in Russian car sales this year

9,000: In rubles, the cost of a Lada car in 1988

675,900: In rubles, the cost of the Lada Granta Classic 2022, made only of components made by Russia and her allies—the cheapest car on the Russian market, its price roughly equivalent to $11,200


Putin and the Lada

An old Russian joke goes thus:

Question: “What do you call a Lada with brakes?”

Answer: “Customized.”

The Lada may have been an easy car to love, but it wasn’t always an easy car to trust. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin thought so. While he has frequently posed for photos with Ladas to support Russian manufacturing, he also didn’t hide that he swapped out the engine of his Lada Niva, a forerunner to the SUV and one of Lada’s bestselling models, for a German Opel engine.

Things also went a little awry when Putin was invited to take a spin in the Lada Granta sedan when it first debuted in 2011. The new model was touted as Europe’s cheapest car, with a sticker price of just $7,100. But Putin was filmed struggling to get the car going, trying the ignition five times before it worked.

In another bid to boost sales for the company, Putin once drove a Lada Kalina across 2,000 km in Siberia, praising the car as reliable. But a bystander video that went viral showed that Putin’s motorcade included three identical yellow Kalinas, ostensibly as replacements in case the one he was driving broke down.


ONE 🚗 THING

Half a world away from Moscow, the Lada still rules hearts and minds in Cuba. After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the only people who had cars were those who’d managed to hang on to their American Chevys and Fords. But then the Soviet Union shipped over Ladas through the 1970s and 1980s, and the government gave them “to doctors, people working on the sugar farms, athletes, engineers, scientists,” a motor enthusiast told the Guardian in 2020. There are still 250,000 or so Ladas in Cuba, some of them serving as taxis, police cars, or ambulances. A well-maintained Lada can sell for the price of a small house.


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Have an easy-driving weekend,

— Tiffany Ap, Quartz’s How We Spend reporter

Additional contributions by Alex Citrin-Safadi and Samanth Subramanian

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