Russian jeep gears up for U.S. sales

March 24, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- It can climb the highest mountain, ford any stream and, with a little tinkering, probably clear tall buildings in a single bound.

Russia's toughest car -- so ugly they're beautiful -- is on its way to America. And, all building-jumping exaggeration aside, the importers are hoping the feisty four-wheel drive vehicle will ZTC become the next U.S. super car.

"I fell in love with them," said William Anderson Jr., a Reston, Va., resident who is importing the car. "They're rugged, and they have a sort of classic look."

The vehicle weighs 5,181 pounds, measures 158 by 76 by 78 inches and drives like a tank. Its name roars off the tongue.

It's called an UAZ, the Russian initials for Ulyanovsk Automobile Factory, and it's pronounced "OoohAahhzz."

Perhaps the name doesn't gracefully leap into an advertising jingle, but Mr. Anderson says it only needs a little practice.

"It's a little hard at first," he conceded, "but when people say it a few times it gets catchy."

Mr. Anderson, who previously owned two computer companies, formed a joint venture with the factory here in Ulyanovsk, a city on the Volga River better known as Vladimir I. Lenin's hometown.

The utility vehicle will be officially introduced to Americans at the New York City Auto Show on April 2.

Mr. Anderson is working out the logistics of adjusting models of the jeep to meet U.S. safety and pollution standards. He is hoping to bring the cars in through the Port of Baltimore, where they would be refitted with snappy General Motors engines to conform to U.S. mileage and pollution standards.

While Mr. Anderson said that the UAZ will be a natural in America, most Russians find the idea amazing: One of the most popular cars in Moscow is the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Mr. Anderson said the UAZ will appeal to buyers who want to go back to basics.

"It can go anywhere, and it's very easy to repair," he said. "When you want to wash it, you can open a door and turn on the garden hose."

And the price will be low, probably around $13,000. "It's kind of like the 1960s Land Rover," he said. A similar Land Rover now, he said, starts at $34,000.

The UAZ, he said, is much bigger and heavier than many of the other four-wheel drive vehicles so popular now. It can seat seven. It can handle virtually any terrain.

Mr. Anderson tested it in the worst ice of the past winter in Virginia and Maryland and found that it zipped up the slickest, steepest hills.

"It was designed for battlefield conditions," he said. "It had to be able to go wherever a tank could go. You don't need to worry about it: You jump in it and it goes and goes and goes."

In Russia, most customers get a choice of two colors: military green or desert tan. Those sent to the United States, however, will be painted bright colors and get a few stylish features, such as leather steering wheels and comfortable seats.

"We have one painted Ferrari red and one a golden yellow with a black top," Mr. Anderson said. "It's real sharp looking."

Last year, the factory produced 115,000 UAZs, which have changed little since 1972 and are bought mostly by the police and military.

The factory managers hope that they will eventually reach 50,000 sales per year in America.

Vladimir A. Antonov, director of foreign trade for the factory, said it was well known that Russians can build everything except roads. Indeed, most roads have more potholes than pavement.

The UAZ, he said, cruises the Russian roads as if on air.

"And these roads are the most famous in the world," he said, famous as the very worst in the world.

Mr. Antonov said the company has been thinking about a name change to improve marketability. "We're thinking of something like Tundra or Taiga," he said.

Already, he said, the UAZ has gotten great word-of-mouth advertising.

"It's the favorite car of the Colombia Mafia," he said. "You can't catch them in the mountains."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.