By Gleb Stolyarov and Roman Churikov
MOSCOW (Reuters) – As the exodus of Western automakers narrows options for Russian consumers, Chinese automakers are filling the void, forcing Russians to overcome their reticence towards Chinese brands and accept higher prices.
Chinese brands like Haval, Chery and Geely now account for nearly 40% of Russia’s new car sales, data from analytics agency Autostat and consultancy PPK showed, up from less than 10% in January-February 2022, seizing the remaining opportunity as firms exit like Renault, Nissan and Mercedes.
But there are teething problems. Reuters spoke to several Russian car buyers — individuals and dealers — who felt the quality of some Chinese cars was inferior to Western competitors, and industry experts said Chinese manufacturers need to improve their reputation even as their market share increases.
Among those who need convincing is 28-year-old Stepan, who has increasingly driven Chinese cars when using car-sharing services. His complaints included the smooth running.
“I managed to buy a Skoda in 2022. If you want my honest opinion, the difference (to Chinese cars) is huge,” he told Reuters at Moscow’s Favorit Motors dealership.
Czech automaker Skoda Auto, part of Volkswagen Group and one of several Western automakers with local car production, is in the final stages of a deal to sell its Russian assets amid Western sanctions after Moscow deployed troops to Ukraine last February.
When buying his new Chinese car, Alexander, 74, looked for one with Swedish engineering.
“I think reliability will improve over time,” he said. “For example, I know that (Geely) Tugella has a Volvo engine. That’s what sold me this car.”
Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday after a visit to China in December that cooperation with Chinese manufacturers is good and consumer perceptions are outdated.
“We used to laugh at some of their designs, but I’ve ridden in a local car and looked at others,” he said. “I’ll say it quite frankly: the car I drove was certainly no worse than a Mercedes.”
THE COMPETITION LOSS
Most Western automakers, which have been battling domestic automakers for market share since they began building plants in Russia in the early 2000s, ceased operations last spring.
“We’ve been focusing on European, Japanese and American brands all our lives and haven’t paid much attention to the Chinese market, which … has been developing at an incredible speed,” said Vladimir Shestak, general director of Altair-Auto in Vladivostok, its dealership the Mercedes-Benz and Geely brands.
Although the majority of foreign firms have left Russia or are in the process of leaving Russia, lingering inventories and parallel imports mean some companies’ cars are up for sale for the time being.
The Lada brand from the domestic manufacturer Avtovaz is the most popular in Russia. Renault, through its previous majority stake in Avtovaz, had the highest market share among foreign manufacturers before Russia began its so-called “military special operation” in Ukraine.
As Chinese cars increasingly fill the gap, the lack of reputation remains a problem, said auto industry expert Sergey Aslanyan.
“Yes, they have almost no competition here anymore,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean people will change their minds anytime soon.”
The market share of Chinese brands reached 37.15% in January-February, up from 9.48% a year earlier, data from Autostat and PPK showed. Sales of the exiting European, Japanese and Korean brands fell from 70% to 22.6%.
The sharp rebound, however, comes amid the slump in new car sales, which fell 58.8% in 2022 as lower living standards and the desire for Western-made vehicles led people to cut spending and buy more used cars.
In a sign of growing collaboration, Haval in China now produces cars locally, while in Moscow the revived Soviet-era Moskvich uses engine parts, design and engineering from China’s JAC.
But another gripe for consumers is the price. Even Medvedev said the price of the Moskvich was a bit high. The Model 3 costs around 2 million rubles ($26,195). Prices for the Lada Granta, Russia’s best-selling car, start at around 680,000 rubles.
“(The Chinese) bring in a lot of cars, but if we talk about price, not quality, there are no cheap cars at all,” said Maxim Kadakov, editor-in-chief of Behind the Wheel magazine.
($1 = 76.3500 rubles)
(Reported by Reuters; Letter by Alexander Marrow; Edited by Elaine Hardcastle)