What to Drive in Sochi
Last week, the world turned its attention to the resort city of Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast for the 2014 Winter Olympics. While television has showed endless montages of athletes winning gold medals, people enjoying the sights and sounds of Sochi, and breathtaking shots of the seemingly endless Caucasus Mountains, one integral part of Russian life has thus far been left out: cars.
Cars have become more and more important in Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This rings especially true in cities like Moscow, where a sizable middle class (and the Russian elite) has been buying loads of cars to get around, despite the city’s excellent public transportation system. So what kinds of cars do Russians like to buy? Well, that depends on where in the country you go. In the center of Moscow, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a car that doesn’t carry a BMW or Mercedes-Benz badge. Maybachs, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are pretty common sights as well.
Venture out of central Moscow, however, and you’ll see a picture that looks similar to, but a bit different from, what we have here in the United States. In Russia, AvtoVAZ (better known as Lada) reigns supreme. Of the top car brands in Russia, Lada outsold its closest competitor, French carmaker Renault, by more than a two-to-one margin last year. So what exactly is similar? A lot. Of the 25 most popular cars in Russia, 10 are available in the United States. Keep reading to find out what to buy if you want to fit in with the Russians during these Winter Olympics.
10. Whether you’re looking to do a little mushroom hunting (a popular pastime in Russia) or need to survive the New England winter, the Kia Sportage will help you do just that. Put into production in 1993, the Sportage has become a staple among compact SUVs in both the U.S. and Russia. In the U.S., the car is one of the best deals around, offering alloy wheels, phone connectivity and satellite radio in its cheapest form. Step up to the all-wheel-drive version and you’ll never have a problem with winter. That being said, the Sportage is still small—very small—which could prove a disadvantage to some. However, for those in the world’s most congested city (Moscow), the Sportage is a great choice for zipping around in traffic on a cold winter’s day.
9. Although it is far more popular with Americans than Russians, the Toyota Corolla still makes it on both countries’ top-25 lists. Loved and loathed, the Corolla knows controversy. According to fans, the Corolla is one of the longest-lasting, most-dependable cars on the road. “It’s cheap, it’ll always get you there, and you’ll be safe on the way there,” they reason. Detractors, on the other hand, cite the lack of soul they feel in the Corolla, often calling it “an appliance.” Whatever your feelings on the Corolla are, thousands of Russians and Americans have sided with the fans and deemed the Corolla worthy.
8. Up next is a car born in Wayne, Michigan—make that Vsevolozhsk, Russia. Built all over the world, the Ford Focus is a European car made by an American company. Launched by Ford of Europe in 1998, the Focus quickly showed off its global appeal and made its way across the pond in 1999 as a 2000 model. Famous for being one of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road (largely due to its precise handling), the Focus has been a favorite of driving fans for years. Things only got better when Ford introduced the Focus ST, which links a crisp 6-speed manual to an impressive 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder churning out 252 hp. Couple that with the car’s good looks, and it’s easy to see why the Focus is an international best-seller.
7. The Saturn Astra never really took off in the United States. An attempt by General Motors to sell its wildly popular Opel Astra (as the car is known in Russia) in the U.S., the Saturn Astra came to the market at about the worst possible time: 2008. Not only was the American economy just entering a financial crisis, but GM was in turmoil and on the verge of filing for Chapter 11. When the smoke cleared in 2010, Saturn got the axe. Despite lackluster sales under the Saturn name, the car was reintroduced as the Buick Verano for 2012. Since then, sales have been strong in both the U.S. and Russia, with many buyers choosing the car due to its pleasant-yet-sporty demeanor.
6. The Nissan Rogue may not be available in Russia, but its sibling, the Nissan Qashqai, sure is. Sitting on the same platform and similar in many ways, the Rogue and Qashqai are two of the most popular crossovers in both the American and Russian markets. While the Rogue is a bit bigger than the Qashqai, the cars have similar looks and can be hard to distinguish to the untrained eye. A Rogue should definitely help you blend in in Sochi.
5. If you’re looking for a tried-and-true small SUV, do as the Russians do and take a look at the Toyota RAV4. Originally based on the Corolla platform, the RAV4 seems to have always had a winning formula. That being said, the car was redesigned for 2013, and the new model is a huge improvement. Gone is the old tailgate that swung out to accommodate the spare tire, and in its place is a modern, roof-hinged rear hatch. Also, that crazy third row no one could fit in? Toyota did away with that, too. Toyota also ditched the old 6-cylinder engine in favor of a more fuel-efficient 4-cylinder. Adding to all of this, Toyota made a backup camera standard and upgraded the car to a 6-speed automatic transmission. These changes proved worthwhile: RAV4 sales have more than doubled in Russia, and RAV4 sales in the U.S. are stronger than ever.
4. If you want a small SUV, but still aren’t completely sold on the RAV4, check out the Hyundai Tucson. Known as the Hyundai ix35 in Russia, the Tucson is a crossover based on the same platform as Hyundai’s highly successful Elantra. If you’re looking for style, the Tucson is one of your best choices among compact SUVs. Hyundai took great care to make the car one of the most appealing on the road, and it shows. That style comes with a bit of a drawback, though; the Tucson has a fairly small cargo compartment and a cramped rear seat. That being said, the Tucson is still a great choice if you don’t need to haul too much but want to look good while doing it.
3. What do Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Lordstown, Ohio, have in common? Both are hometowns of the Chevrolet Cruze. Chevy’s increasingly popular compact car, the Cruze has gained loyal fans in both the United States and Russian Federation. Designed as a replacement for the lackluster Chevrolet Cobalt, the Cruze hit showroom floors in 2010 and was an instant hit. Unlike its predecessor, the Cruze is fun to drive, looks great and is even decently roomy inside. While performance is nothing to brag about, the Cruze does hold its own, and the optional turbocharged 4-cylinder engine actually makes for a pretty competitive ride. With great looks, great fun and a great price (the Cruze starts at $18,345 in the U.S.), it’s clear why Russia and America are in love with this car.
2. Moving up to our number-2 spot we finally crack Russia’s top 10 with the Kia Rio. The fourth-most popular car in Russia, the Rio came onto the world stage in 2000 and has made a big impact ever since. When the Rio hit roads in 2000, it was the least expensive car you could buy in the U.S. (now it’s fifth). As Kia has gained more and more reputation over the years as a carmaker, the Rio has become an even more attractive option for those looking to save a few bucks on a reliable ride. With a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty standard, the Rio offers a lot for its $13,900 sticker price. An ever-improving car, the Rio seems to get markedly better with each model year. If you’re looking for a good, economical car, follow Russian buyers and look at the Rio, a great car that has still yet to break into America’s top 100.
1. So what is the most popular car in Russia that you can buy in the United States? The Hyundai Accent. Known by Russians as the Hyundai Solaris, the Accent is a close second for Russia’s most popular car. Like its cousin, the Kia Rio, the Accent has undergone considerable changes over the years and is now considered one of the best subcompacts on the road. Also like the Rio, the Accent comes with an impressive 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty standard. Putting up an impressive 40 mpg on the highway and boasting a surprisingly roomy, well-finished interior, the Accent is currently one of the best cars in its class (and all for $14,465). While the car hasn’t quite caught on in America yet, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the giants of the Russian market.
Honorable Mention: In case you were wondering, Russia’s best-selling car is the Lada Granta, which starts at 279,000 rubles (just over $8,000). Since going on sale in 2011, sales have been up and down for the Granta, which has been in a tight heat with the Hyundai Solaris and Renault Duster in its bid to remain Russia’s most popular car. Unlike the Solaris and Duster, the Granta had a huge backer from the start: Russia’s then-Prime Minister (now President) Vladimir Putin tested the car in 2011 and liked it so much he recommended it to Russians. While there are currently no plans to make the car available in the United States, AvtoVAZ did start exporting the Granta to select countries in Europe and the Caucasus. Alas, if you really want to feel like a Russian during these Olympic Games, you’ll have to settle for Russia’s second choice, the excellent Hyundai Accent. That or simply cheer for Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Which of Russia’s favorite cars do you like best?