Russian supercar Marussia challenges Ferrari and Lamborghini
- 23 December 2010
- From the section Business
Parked in an old Soviet-era factory in northern Moscow, the ultra-sleek supercars seem oddly out of place.
The cars' bright colours and shiny exteriors contrast sharply with the rusty water pipes and the paint peeling from the grey buildings surrounding them.
Modern cars are no longer rare in Moscow.
In the streets outside the old plant, the traffic is heavy with Western models that are vastly superior to the Ladas of the past.
But none of them is as striking as the sportscars hidden behind the factory gates.
The cars are made by Marussia Motors, a small company that employs fewer than 300 people.
It is run by Russian showman-turned-racing-driver-turned-entrepreneur, Nikolai Fomenko.
With a price tag of about £86,000, Marussia is the first luxury sportscar produced in Russia.
The company likes to think of Ferrari and Lamborghini as its rivals.
Beyond the shapely curves of the cars, Marussia Motors has also taken on a similar swagger to that of the Italian sportscar companies.
In early November, it acquired a controlling stake in the Virgin Racing Formula 1 team, a move it hopes will help promote its brand and drum up business for its two models, B1 and B2.
It is a bold move for sure, though industry observers, both in Russia and abroad, remain unconvinced Marussia Motors is commercially viable.
"We still don't have much information about the cost effectiveness, sales and production costs of the company," says Oleg Datskiv, head of the the Russian motoring website Autodealer.ru.
"Nor do we have transparency about real and prospective buyers."
Climbing into a shiny blue Marussia, Mr Fomenko brushes off such criticism.
"Being spontaneous is crucial," he grins as he turns the ignition key.
"Right now, everything's looking great," he shouts over the roar of the engine.
"We already have a lot of orders; a lot more than the 300 cars we're planning to produce over the next year."
Luxury and sports
Without further notice, the car leaps forwards, quickly gaining speed.
"We can get up to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds," he boasts loudly.
"You want 300 kilometres an hour? No problem. How about 340 kilometres?"
Mr Fomenko is clearly proud of the car, not least because all of it - except for the British-built Cosworth engine - has been designed and is being built in Russia.
Good aerodynamic qualities and extreme speed are among Marussia's key attributes. Even door handles have been left out, as well as exterior mirrors on one of the models, to help reduce drag.
Instead of mirrors, the car is kitted out with outside video cameras that transmit directly to the LCD screens inside the car.
Mr Fomenko insists Marussia is perfectly safe, as it has been made from three detachable parts, just like an F1 car.
But comfort and luxury are vital too, says Mr Fomenko.
"I am not sure that you can sit in a traffic jam in a Ferrari Enzo or Lamborghini Murcielago, but in our car you can," he says, pointing to the car's entertainment system, which is equipped with music and film selection, a web browser, Bluetooth and Skype.
Marussia Motors has ambitious plans for the near future.
"In three years, we would like to produce about 1,500-2,000 of these cars a year," says Mr Fomenko.
"Soon other models will appear as well.
"In March, there will be a seven-seat sports utility vehicle (SUV), and [at some point] there will also be an electric car."
A step forward?
Nikolai Kachurin, editor-in-chief of Top Gear Russia, says the project has a lot of potential, being strikingly different from all other Russian-made cars.
"We're all used to making fun of the Russian automotive industry, calling our Ladas unappealing names," he says.
"But the appearance of a good, expensive Russian supercar is a great step forward.
"At least now we can show that we're capable of making good cars."
The car already seems to be generating a lot of interest.
The company's showroom in central Moscow is buzzing with prospective buyers.
The place is rather small, but classy. With just the right lighting, you can spot the shiny red Marussia on display from the other side of the busy street.
"Until very recently, the phrase 'Russian supercar' seemed completely absurd," says a young bank worker, Artyom, as he circles around the car, almost predatory.
"But here we see a beautiful Russian-made car. As a consumer, I am always glad to see such products on the domestic market.
"It's heart-warming that the Russians are capable of producing something that nice."
This is a niche business, with buyers eager to show off their wealth and glamorous lifestyle, so in some ways making this venture a success might be easier than running a giant car firm such as AvtoVaz.
But even low-volume niche carmakers have to sell their cars.
For that, smart advertising is key.
Mr Datskiv from Autodealer.ru says Mr Fomenko's former career as a singer and actor has equipped him with just the right combination of talents and contacts to promote his company.
For instance, Marussia Motors' recent acquisition of a controlling stake in Richard Branson's Virgin Racing Formula 1 team was probably about more than just racing enthusiasm, he reasons.
"It is incredibly expensive to advertise the car in every single country of the world," he says.
"The F1 deal solves this problem perfectly.
"There are people all over the world who love racing and who will be sitting in front of the TV watching a Grand Prix, seeing Marussia Motors' logo on the racing car and listening to TV commentators mention Marussia Virgin, from Russia.
"It is not even that important whether the team wins or not, as the primary goal is to publicise the brand to find potential buyers for the car."
The move into F1 racing could also be seen as a political one, aimed at creating a Russian team ahead of the first ever Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in 2014.
And then, of course, there is the so-called "Russia factor" that could play in Mr Fomenko's favour.
"Marussia could appeal to people who buy sportscars to be unique," says Mr Datskiv.
"For them, Marussia, with its Russian-sounding name, is just like all the other well-known Russian things; the balalaika, matryoshkas, vodka and caviar."
So will Marussia lead the way and result in more Russian carmakers emerging?
"I really hope there will be other companies," Mr Fomenko says.
"We really need it. We need competitors. It's not easy [to get there], it's not quick, but we're doing our best.
"Here at Marussia Motors, there are only Russian employees, young people with ambition.
"So I'm sure Russia will get there in the end."