MOSCOW — TO read the level of prosperity in this town these days, watch the road. Call it the Zhiguli Index - the accelerating number of cars on Russian streets.
Muscovites detest the traffic, recalling the quieter days when Moscow's broad boulevards were sparsely traveled by any except foreign diplomats and party officials.
Yet a growing number are throttling around the rugged streets with that humble staple of the Russian road, the Zhiguli - close cousin to an ancient model of Fiat.
Since 1993, the ranks of car owners in Moscow have been swelling by more than 20 percent per year. This is all the more remarkable in a country where official statistics show seriously declining incomes and rising prices.
''The number of Russian families is growing that can afford a car,'' says economist Nikolai Lvov. He now estimates that about 15 percent of Moscow families have incomes high enough to buy a simple, used Zhiguli.
Not all these families will buy a car, of course. Moscow still has one of the most timely, cheap, and architecturally impressive subway systems in the world. But in a city where it still is not considered ''normal'' to have one's own set of wheels, it is becoming more and more possible.
The Moscow barometer
Moscow is where the money is in Russia, so in the country overall, fewer than 1 in 10 families can afford a car, according to Dr. Lvov. But the car-buying trend is spreading nationwide: Goskomstat, the state statistical commission, estimates there are nearly 13 million cars in Russia, a 10 percent jump over last year.
''I'm astonished that despite the complications of modern Russian life and falling standards of living, Russians had three times the new Russian cars and foreign cars last year that they had in the late 1980s,'' says Sergei Radovsky, head of the Automobile Laboratory of the Institute for Scientific Research.
The Russian economy began a tectonic shift in 1992 with privatizing property and other reforms, and shock waves are still hitting Russian families. Average incomes are not close to their purchasing power of 1991. But if Russians overall have lost economic ground, some are doing very well.
''Incomes are being polarized,'' says Lvov, the deputy director of the Reforma Foundation, a Moscow economic think tank. In 1980, the richest 10 percent of Soviets had 3.2 times the income of the poorest 10 percent, he says. The latest Goskomstat figures show that ratio up to 13.3 to 1. These statistics highlight the growth in the number of wealthy ''new Russian'' biznyesmyen and others, many operating outside the law. But that is not the whole story.
The rise of the Zhiguli shows the expansion of a humbler but growing middle class. Zhigulis consistently make up more than 40 percent of all cars in Moscow, even though the rich favor flashier BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Jeep Cherokees. While foreign cars are the most sought-after in Russia - more than twice as many cars from outside the former Soviet Union are registered in Moscow as there were two years ago - that is still only 1 car for every 12 in the capital.
Russian car-buyers are not picky by Western standards. At a car lot recently, a fresh-from-the-factory Niva - a small sport-utility vehicle - was missing handle-covers from the door latches on the inside of the car. Black trash bags were taped down instead of flooring for the front compartment.
Russians shrug. ''Those things are not important,'' says auto industry researcher Sergei Radovsky. What matters is whether the engine parts are there, or whether the transmission seizes up after a few months.
At another lot, a test drive was delayed because the car would not start until it got a fresh battery from another car. Once started, the car was blocked because the car ahead of it would not start either. The sellers deal with these inconveniences without embarrassment or apology.
The quality of Russian cars was better five to 10 years ago, says Radovsky, before the massive industry was unsettled by economic restructuring. Now obtaining parts and financing to keep production high has become much harder.
Customs duties will slow the expansion of foreign cars into the Russian market. But what planners call the ''automobilization'' of the country is forecast to roar ahead. Moscow planners project the number of cars in the city to increase another 42 percent in the next five years.
Watching the Joneses
Kolya Kachurin, who writes a regular column on cars and driving in the Moscow Times, says the city estimate is far too conservative.
In recent months, he conducted his own observation of the way families are adding cars in his own, not-wealthy neighborhood; the way lines form at gas stations the instant they are open; the way small kiosk owners are buying small Russian Okas; and the way new businesses are buying company cars.
Mr. Kachurin says the purchase of private cars in Moscow is moving into high gear. His guess is that their ranks will grow by a half million next year, or about 35 percent.
Meanwhile, prices on the Russian underground, often a faster way to get around town now that traffic jams the streets, just rose to 20 cents per trip.