Read Chas Hallett's full Moscow show report
27 August 2008

Russia is on track to become Europe’s biggest car market this year, and this week’s Moscow motor show proves it.

Sales in the country are expected to top three million units, easily outstripping Germany’s total, and with a population of 150m everyone reckons we’ve only just seen the start of Russia’s incredible car boom; sales will be nudging six million in a few years’ time.

The growth of the Moscow show is just as impressive. Several years ago it was a backwater event; now it’s major news and will get 1.5m visitors this time round, or three times the figure that visited the London show.

So car makers are piling in, none more so than Mazda, which had the star of this show in the Kamazai concept. It looks terrific, too – bold and dynamic. And if design boss Laurens van den Acker gets his way, it won’t look a million miles from this when it finally makes production in 2011 as the CX-5.

Van den Acker is quickly personifying Mazda’s new-found confidence. “We don’t want to make an SUV like everyone else’s,” he told me. “Let others do practicality, we’ll do desirability.”

Another Mazda high-up admitted that that the firm is even considering making a three-door version, just like the show car. You can see it fitting right in on the streets of Moscow - or London, for that matter.

In the meantime Mazda also took the opportunity to announce that the US-market CX-9 SUV is going to go on sale here straight away. It’s deemed too big for us in the UK (it only comes with a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine anyway, and there’s no plans for a diesel) but that makes it just right for Russia.

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Jaguar and Land Rover were out in force at the show too, and both of them are cashing in considerably on Russia’s boom. Landie is especially active; it showed off the LRX here for the first time, on the back of booming sales figures.

In 2001 Land Rover sold 430 cars in Russia, but this year it plans on flogging 21,000, meaning it will outsell Audi, Mercedes and BMW. And you can’t go too far in Moscow without a black Range Rover Sport hammering past you.

The Jaguar XF is looking like a Russian hit too, according to boss Mike O’Driscoll, who was visiting the show for the first time. “We’ve doubled our sales without even trying,” he told me. The implication is ‘Think what we could do with more marketing and more dealers…’

None of them can outstrip Volvo, though; the Swedish brand is the top premium manufacturer in Russia. Judging by the reception that the XC60 received on its Moscow debut, that situation is going to last for some time.

But these cars are still the preserve of the rich. Russia’s best-seller is currently the Ford Focus saloon, closely followed by the Renault Logan. And the French company had the world debut here of the Logan’s big brother, the new Clio Symbol.

This is a Turkish-built small notchback, designed for Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In truth it looks well made and spacious, but depressingly dowdy. You know that you’re in trouble when a ‘big boot’ is one of the key selling points on the press release…

The home-grown manufacturers are struggling in the face of all this imported competition but some are holding their own. Volga had a new version of the Siber saloon on display, a clever reworking of the old Chrysler Sebring. In fact it looks a lot more attractive than the new Chrysler Sebring. Good news on the Lada stand too, where for once the best thing about the exhibits was not the incredibly pretty girls (standing next to incredibly ugly cars) but the C-Cross concept, a tidy small SUV that should be put into production straight away.

The rest of the offerings were miserable, though; Lada still commands a fifth of the Russian car market, but you wonder how long it can cling onto that share.

Lada’s biggest threat could well come from Chinese makers who, judging by their massive presence here, look set for an imminent Russian invasion. Litan, Dong-Feng, Chery, BYD and Geely all had sizeable stands.

Most of their cars were bad, but there were a few flourishes - notably the Great Wall Florid, which was an homage to the Toyota Yaris but looked good nevertheless. Great Wall also had a stretched version of its Hover SUV on display; it looked a lot like a stretched Hummer and no doubt is planned for Shanghai hen parties.

Other notable debuts were the all-wheel-drive version of the Lexus LS460, the facelifted Audi A6 and the world’s first showing of the RS6 saloon. But none of these really set the room on fire.

What’s certain, though, is that lots of car makers are telling us that the bi-annual Moscow show could easily become the most important car show in Europe. On this evidence, I agree with them.

Chas Hallett

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