Chinese cars? Sanctions leave Russians no choice

STORY: Russian car buyers have some new brand names to get their heads around.

Chinese makers have rushed in to fill the gap left by Western firms that have pulled out.

That leaves shoppers to learn about companies like Haval and Geely.

So far, the welcome is wary at best.

Car buyers Reuters spoke to were unsure about the quality of the new offerings.

At the price they’re charging, the plastics look cheap, says one man.

Auto journalist Sergey Aslanyan says that reflects a Russian perception that Chinese products are downmarket:

“If a person in Russia wants to put somebody down, they will say that ‘Hey, you have a Chinese phone or your car is Chinese.’ At the moment people are not that hungry to show demand for Chinese products. We need to end up like Cuba first - to turn into pedestrians over the years - and then maybe we will lower the expectations enough for Chinese cars.”

Sales figures tell a different story though.

Chinese brands now have almost 40% of Russia’s car market, up from less than 10% early last year.

The main driver may be the simple fact of availability.

In the eastern city of Vladivostok, Vladimir Shestak sells Western and Chinese brands:

“In light of all the recent events we mostly rely on Geely sales now. But we continue to sell Mercedes cars. Some of them are bought via parallel import, some are leftover stock from before.”

Russians increasingly have little choice, with most Western brands already gone.

Volkswagen's Skoda unit is currently in the final stages of negotiating a deal to sell its assets.

The departure of such firms was one factor in a near-60% slump in total car sales last year.

For many buyers, that means it may soon be a case of go Chinese, or catch the bus.