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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Braving Pitfalls of City's Auto Market

Looking admiringly at his shiny Volga, Valery Maslennikov brims with pleasure.

"In Soviet times, the Volga was a symbol of prestige and a dream car that was absolutely unaffordable," said Maslennikov, 52. "I was happy to finally buy one last year."

Whether eyeing a prestigious Volga or a solid Volvo, shoppers in the growing car market confront no end of choices.

But buying an inexpensive car is not for the faint hearted. Getting behind the wheel means risking frequent breakdowns, high service fees and harassment from traffic police.

A new set of wheels made locally costs the same as many foreign cars do used. But in terms of reliability, design and comfort, domestically produced cars can’t compete with Western makes, even with older models.

Prices for local cars never fully recovered from their 1998 post-crisis nosedive. The VAZ 2110, the fanciest and most expensive of the Zhiguli family, sells at around $5,480, compared to the pre-crisis price of $10,000. Older Zhiguli models cost $2,720.

At the same time, paying an extra 63 percent in tariffs and sales taxes make high-performance foreign cars prohibitively expensive in the capital. When the engines run under 2.5 liters, the tax still adds up to an impressive 53 percent.

Some foreign automakers, such as Renault, BMW and General Motors, have managed to cut into import duties by setting up joint ventures and domestic manufacturing of selected models. Nevertheless, domestic car sales far outstripped imports in 1999 by 960,000 to 43,400. Although the latter should be doubled to account for foreign cars sold without proper documents, said Alexander Agibalov, an auto-industry analyst with Aton brokerage. He added that there are no figures for used-car sales.

The used-car market is, however, booming at the city’s many outdoor markets, like Solntsevsky, Mitinsky or Luberetsky. And thousands of cars are advertised in newspapers such as Iz Ruk v Ruki. The danger to shoppers is that markets and classifieds sometimes hawk stolen cars with forged documents, cars with customs-related problems or just lemons.

But driving home a new Niva or a used Jeep, either way the car’s going to need work. And again, homemade parts are cheaper.

"You can drive your inomarka [foreign model] for several years with no problem, but if something goes wrong, you are trapped," said Sergei, who drives a 1998 Volkswagen Passat and asked that his last name be withheld.

Russian-manufactured cars are mechanically simpler than imported ones and "do not require delicate handling," said Vladimir Semyonov, manager of a service station in eastern Moscow specializing in both domestic and imported cars.

"But theoretically, for a qualified mechanic there is no big difference which model is being fixed — a Zhiguli or a Ford," Semyonov added.

But Russian cars are not always cheaper to maintain in the long run. "Buying a Russian car is always a lottery," said Andrei Osipov, an automotive specialist at Expert Auto magazine.

"First of all, you should have no illusion that you will buy a [domestic] car and be able to drive it immediately," Osipov said. "You will have to replace or fix something in it. How much or how often is a matter of luck."

Osipov added that according to a survey, the overall cost of maintaining a VAZ 2110 is similar to that of a foreign car.

The city has grown friendlier to foreign cars in recent years with the arrival of dozens of service stations. Spare parts, which only several years ago took weeks to arrive from abroad, now present less of a problem. Big-name manufacturers like Renault, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen stock local warehouses with their parts. Ordering from abroad is generally needed only for bad accidents and for old or rare models.

Russian automakers lag well behind their Western counterparts in their efforts to create more environmentally friendly cars, but they have made some progress. Fuel-injected models of the Volga, the VAZ 2109 and the VAZ 2110 are now produced with catalytic converters, as are the Svyatogor cars assembled with Renault engines at the Moskvich factory.

But domestic car owners may have the last laugh.

Foreign cars become objects of special interest for the traffic police for money-extorting purposes.

The drivers of high-end models say they feel like hunted animals.

"In terms of speed and comfort, I would not trade my car for anything," said Andrei, who owns a new Audi. "But when I get stopped four to six times on my way home, I miss the good old days when I had a vosmyorka [VAZ 2108] and gaishniki [the traffic police] virtually ignored me."