Will Soviet 'Fiat' reach US?

Will the Lada, the Russian "rehash" of the old Fiat 124 sedan, ever be sold in the United States? "Absolutely," says Agop Chalekian, president of the Soviet-American Trade Association (SATRA), the company he set up 25 years ago to import goods from the Soviet Union and sell them in the West.

Nonetheless, the Lada is already running two to three years behind schedule and there is still no firm date for its introduction into the US traffic stream. A couple of years ago there was a lot of talk about the imminent arrival of the Soviet-built automobile, but nothing has come of if so far.

SATRA, however, sold 37,000 Ladas in Britain (200 dealers) and West Germany ( 400 dealers) in 1979 and figures it will sell the same number this year, too. Yet, if the US and the Soviet Union head into a time of worsened relations as a result of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the car could be delayed far beyond even Mr. Chalekian's expectations. Still, he recalls that "even during the cold war of the 1950s we bought and we sold."

Emissions standards are blamed for the US delay. While the car finished the 1979 exhaust test last August, it now must meet the far-tougher 1980 standards, which will take six months.

"We're planning to begin the testing for both 1980 and '81 in another month," the executive says. "We cannot start marketing the car before the first half of 1981, at the earliest," he adds with some degree of confidence.

His company owns a 20-acre tract in Atlanta where it expects to put a plant for receiving and preparing the Soviet cars if they ever reach the US shore.

AvtoExport, which handles the sale of Russian automobiles outside the USSR, also wants to ship the Lada to the US.

Asked if the delay could stretch much further into the future, Mr. Chalekian said: "Yes, depending on whether or not we have a problem with the emission."

Is there a possibility that it won't ever be sold in the US? "I don't believe that at all," he responded. "Dropping the whole idea is out of the question. The Lada will be sold here and we shall sell it."

"We really never expected we would be able to sell the car in the US in 1977 or '78, anyway," he adds, "but we had to be in the market and keep on moving. The time will be just right in a year or year and a half."

How large is the market? "I think we'll sell around 25,000 or 30,000 cars a year," he replied.

He says he has a file of about 1,000 car dealers who would like to take on the Lada.

The Lada, sold as the Zhiguli in the USSR, is a copy of the old Fiat 124 that was adapted for the harsher driving environment on the Soviet road system, cold weather, and a poor quality of gasoline. In other words, the sheet metal is thicker, the car structure tougher, and the road clearance higher.

The importer expects to sell only the 4- door sedan in the US at first, although it will add a 4-wheel-drive model, the Neva, later. The Neva, which already is being sold in some Western markets, will be sold in Canada sometime this year.

The US price is expected to be around $5,000 -- which brings up an interesting question. The cheapest Zhiguli costs more than $16,000 in the USSR, says Wade Hoyt, president of the International Motor Press Association. If the Lada is just an export name for the Zhiguli, why does it sell "back home" for some three times its projected price in the US?

In England, the Lada 1200 goes for $4,000- plus and the Lada 1300 for $4,700 -plus. Neither price includes Britain's 18 percent sales tax. The Fiat Mirafiori 1300, which replaced the 124, goes for around $6,000.

Why? Mr. Hoyt asks insistently.

Meanwhile, the giant Volga Auto Works in Togliatti, USSR, built by Fiat, is planning two new Lada models, including an all-new front- wheel-drive subcompact , which are expected to go on sale over the next three years.

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