Renault Prescribes Self-Improvement Course to Cure Lada’s Ills
By Andy Bannister
Renault has revealed its master plan to help save troubled Russian car maker Lada – simply improve the current product.
The French giant already has a 25% stake in Avtovaz, the company that owns the Lada brand, but is resisting calls to invest more in the Russian firm, which has been badly hit by the near-collapse in domestic car sales and the global recession.
Plans for a modern Lada range based on Renault-Nissan platforms have been shelved for now, including a five-door Focus-sized hatchback which was to have been based on the Project C concept shown last year.
Instead, according to British motoring magazine, Autocar, Renault plans to take the approach Volkswagen pioneered when it took the reins at once-ramshackle Czech car maker, Skoda.
This means Renault will concentrate on trying to make Lada’s relatively modern Kalina front-wheel-drive small car more saleable on a global stage by helping the Russians to drive up quality standards, attention to detail and thus the car’s buyer-appeal.
A classic front-wheel-drive “supermini”, the Kalina has 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre petrol engines. It is available as a five-door hatchback (the 1119), four-door saloon (1118) and five-door estate (1117), but is only sold in a limited number of export markets.
It is much nimbler and more modern than previous Ladas, although that is not saying a lot. Launched in 2004, the Kalina suffers from that typical Russian trait – going back to the bad old days of the USSR – of far-too-long a gestation period from drawing board to showroom.
As a result, it seems elderly before its time, and has ended up with styling not unlike the 1993-vintage Opel Corsa, a pretty good car at launch, but replaced twice over since then.
Despite this, one of the western markets the Kalina has been a modest success in is Germany, where the brand’s presence has long outlived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sales have picked up this year helped by the German government’s car scrappage scheme, which has encouraged sales of cheap new cars.
Ironically, the Kalina’s main rival is the Romanian Dacia Logan, another Renault group product. Some analysts have queried Renault’s logic in investing in Lada and ending up with two budget brands with slightly dodgy images.
Perhaps that is where the Skoda analogy comes in. Up until the end of the 1980s, Skoda was best-known in the west for selling very cheap but old-fashioned rear-engined cars which were the butt of many a comedian’s jokes.
Under Volkswagen’s protective wing after the Velvet Revolution which brought capitalism to Prague, Skoda’s last communist-era product – a slightly gawky front-drive hatchback called the Favorit – gained better engines, a new higher quality interior and smoothed-out styling, and was rechristened the Felicia.
This respectable, if unremarkable, car – which still manages today to look like a contemporary of the decade-newer Lada – proved Skodas could compete in the world marketplace.
It paved the way for the current line of VW-based Skoda models – the Fabia, Roomster, Yeti, Octavia and Superb – which have well and truly left those tired old jokes behind.
Until recently Russia was one of the strong emerging markets every ambitious auto company wanted a slice of, and for Renault to hang on in there during these tough times makes sense.
Russia’s government, anxious to avoid major redundancies at Avtovaz, has also stumped up state aid for the company’s giant factory at Togliatti on the Volga River, and though it may grumble at Renault’s cautious approach it isn’t going to want to alienate its western partner at a time like this.
All being well, the new higher quality Kalinas – hopefully with a decent facelift – should be rolling off the line and perhaps into a wider range of markets in a fairly short time.
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