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Saturday, June 20, 1998 Published at 19:39 GMT 20:39 UK

World: Europe

Russia's road revolution

Russia's racers are turning to Ladas

The collapse of Soviet communism has heralded an era of conspicuous consumerism in Russia.

Nowhere is it more obvious than on the streets of Moscow, where luxury American and European cars are now as common a sight as Russian-made Ladas.

[ image: Russian plants are enjoying injections of foreign investment]
Russian plants are enjoying injections of foreign investment
For many Soviet people, car ownership used to be just a dream. In the west, the cars built by Lada, Skoda, and other manufacturers became the butt of jokes.

But now the Lada is fighting back. As motor racing becomes a serious business, souped-up Ladas are the car of choice for Russia's racers.

But Russia has years of catching up to do. The motor industry is having to swap an obsession with quantity for one with quality, speed and reliability.

"The Lada has come a long way since last year. Some of them come over to England and look at the way we design," says Ian Parry of Pro-Drive, a racing company in the UK.

The tricks used to improve technology for racing cars will slowly filter through to ordinary Russian cars.

[ image: An early Russian attempt at the land speed record]
An early Russian attempt at the land speed record
It is a far cry from earlier Russian efforts to keep motor technology up with the west.

Russia made many attempts at the land speed record in the early days of automobiles. And Russia's elite have always ridden in smooth limousines.

But the masses were always offered the cheapest and shoddiest cars, and decades of cost-cutting and under-investment have taken their toll.

But there is a new problem. Why buy Russian when the market is flooded with foreign models.

They are more prestigious, more reliable, and despite hefty import tax, better value - Russia's cars cost a lot to repair and do not conform to any safety standards.

But Russia's motor industry is suddenly attracting foreign investors. Renault, for example has made a deal to assemble its cars in a Russian factory.

Foreign companies are eager to get a bigger slice of Russia's potentially huge domestic market. Russia is happy to encourage investment and technology in return.

If all goes well, Moscow could soon have its own F1 track, and then maybe all the jokes about Russian cars will go out of fashion.

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