Tiny, communist-era Ladas, chauffeured luxury cars dominate Russian roads

Recent travels have provided me the opportunity to observe car cultures from around the world. Of all of them, I'd have to say that a recent trip across the planet to Russia has been the most interesting.

I was there with my Russian fiancé, Ilya, so I was getting a genuine glimpse and history lesson on what vehicles mean to the people there.

Before arriving in Moscow, Ilya told me stories of his life growing up in communist Russia. His father, a physicist who worked for the government, was on a waiting list for 15 years for a car, not getting one until he was 44. And this car was no Toyota Camry or Dodge Charger, but rather a Lada that was valued at the time at about $500 and had little more horsepower than a riding lawnmower. There are a plethora of these cars that resemble boxes on wheels with absolutely no design, painted in drab, faded colors. I am told these cars have not changed in 20 years; they just looked more weathered and rusted. Ilya's father said that while they have little to offer in the way of style or performance, Ladas are quite reliable and cheap to repair. That would make sense given the sheer number that have been sold.

Throughout Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia and India, the theme seems to be an appreciation for compact vehicles. That makes sense seeing as they are more affordable, economical and easier to park in big cities. In Russia, the same is true and it's easy to see traces of a former communist country and the division between rich and poor. People who cannot afford a nicer ride are still driving the small, basic cars they received years ago or compact Fords, Hyundais, Hondas and Renaults. Minivans and sport utility vehicles are definitely the minority.

Those who have money in Russia are not modest as they are in say, Tel Aviv, Israel, where your financial status is kept private and it is embarrassing and unacceptable to flaunt your wealth. In Russia, status means a great deal and if you have the ability to live an affluent life, you're proud to show it and embrace the flash. Sound familiar? There are an abundance of Mercedes, BMWs and Audis, and it is unheard of to own one of these rides and not have a driver. Nobody drives a high-end vehicle himself. That's a bit of a bummer. Sorry, but I'm driving my own car.

And because crime is prevalent in Russia, and there is a vivid separation of classes, those with fancy cars must be cautious about theft. To prevent theft, nicer cars have a device that will not allow the vehicle to turn on, even with a key, until the satellite security service has been notified and given the code. There is also an emergency button inside the vehicle to alert them of any problem. Although it is a bit of a pain to have to wait two or three minutes before the car starts, it's worth it to keep your car in your possession.

The design of Moscow is large circles, one within the other, and the 12 million souls living there are treated to roads that have five lanes on each side. The drivers are pretty aggressive, constantly changing lanes. Riding with Ilya is not so much leisurely as it feels as though we are constantly on a mission. The public-transportation system is made up of mostly electric buses and an efficient and sophisticated subway system that transports about 9 million passengers a day.

The most fascinating fact to me about city transportation is that in lieu of taxis (I saw two cabs), people hitchhike. Although I was afraid to try this, Ilya assured me it is the common practice and is safe. On our way to dinner one evening we stood on a corner for only a couple of minutes before someone picked us up and took us to our destination a few miles away. We gave him the equivalent of $10 for the trip. In a way, it's sort of an unofficial taxi system.

It's enlightening to see the way cars affect the lives of people in other countries, the vehicles that dominate their roads and how the highway infrastructure and methods of driving and public transportation work for and appeal to them. It is fascinating how it is usually quite different from what we are accustomed to in North America. Travels recently took me to London, Paris and Tel Aviv as well, so stay tuned for more on car culture from around the world.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of "Garage Girl's Guide," the host of Spike TV's "PowerBlock," the former host of TLC's "Overhaulin'" and a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.