Russia has a substantial auto industry: ranked 13th in the world, with more than 1.7-million cars produced in 2019. And Russian cars have traditionally been exported widely, including to Canada and the UK. Yet Russian vehicles were never officially imported into the U.S. – until now. California-based company Bremach – the surviving American arm of the defunct Italian truck manufacturer – is now taking pre-orders for a re-badged 2022 model-year SUV made by Russia’s UAZ. Re-badged as the 2022 Bremach SUV, this rugged, body-on-frame 4×4 is set to sell here for $26,400.
But before we get into that, a little Russian car history.
Soviet Era Vehicles
The Soviet Union, of which Russia was part, started manufacturing cars in 1927. Two years later, in cooperation with Ford, it established GAZ, which later produced the sturdy Moskvitch economy cars which were also exported to European countries.
But the most successful Soviet brand, and the best-selling Russian car since the fall of the Soviet Union, is Lada. Made by AutoVAZ, a collaboration between Italy’s Fiat and the Soviet Department of Foreign Trade, Lada initially built simplified versions of the Fiat 124. These had strengthened components suitable for the Soviet Union’s crude roads and harsh winters.
“The idea was to make sure that the car could be repaired on the side of the road, because [the Soviet state] definitely did not want to spend much money or resources on building service stations,” said Simon Ross, who founded the first Soviet car museum in America near Seattle.
Ladas sold in vast numbers, with more than 60% exported. The manufacturer made more than 2 million VAZ-2105 models alone. Growing up in the UK in the 1980s, my dad owned a series of their spartan but super-affordable sedans and wagons.
“They are really reliable. Because the parts are simple, the designs are simple,” said Ross, who emigrated from the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan in 1992. “They were overbuilt, because in Soviet-times economics, they did not count money. They were just trying to do a good job at building something, and they did not care about the bottom line.”
The U.S. remained the only large market not to import Ladas, or indeed any other Soviet Union products, due to trade sanctions slapped on Moscow’s communist regime.
In 1977, AutoVAZ launched its first clean-sheet design, the famously durable Lada Niva 4×4 — the longest-running SUV still in production in its original form. But by the turn of the 1990s, Soviet instability combined with tightening emissions and safety legislation overseas saw the rudimentary Ladas disappearing from most Western markets.
Yet a handful of Soviet-era cars have made it stateside. Ross sells a limited selection of street-legal Soviet cars from his collection, which is the largest outside of Europe.
“Some of [my customers] are using them as daily drivers,” he said. “It’s way more fun than it seems. Because … generally they always exceed expectations.”
There is even a store in Miami specializing in Lada parts. Run by Moscow-born, Cuban-raised “Lada whisperer” Fabian Zakharov, it caters chiefly to ex-pat Cubans but also ships online orders worldwide.
While Soviet-made cars were almost the only option for its citizens until the early 1990s, the domestic market expanded exponentially due to drastic cuts on import duties following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Within two years, foreign-made cars constituted nearly half of domestic sales. Russian automakers struggled with increased competition and reduced state support in the new market economy.
“Their current philosophy is to produce vehicles that are affordable,” said Ross, who belongs to America’s largest Soviet car club. “The average income of a family [in Russia] is one-tenth what it is in the U.S. or one-eighth.”
Russian automakers adapted fast and are now making vehicles that look much more like their Western and Asian counterparts, like the best-selling Lada Granta and Vesta. But these are still generally small, utilitarian, and minimalist by American standards. Although widely available in former Soviet countries and across the European Union, most Russian vehicles would require substantial modification to meet U.S. homologation requirements.
“The majority of people [in Russia] don’t really care about the vehicle,” said Ross. “Safety features were not high on the priority list. I think only now have people started to pay more attention to how sturdy the car is because there are a lot of bigger vehicles on the road there.”
UAZ Enters the U.S. With the 2022 Bremach SUV
The vehicles that Bremach is bringing into the US are built by UAZ, which has been making off-road vehicles, buses, and trucks in Ulyanovsk, Russia since 1941. Bremach initially called its boxy SUV the Taos but, perhaps to avoid confusion with the pre-existing VW Taos crossover, now lists it simply as the 2022 Bremach SUV.
Bremach’s SUV is based on the UAZ Patriot, which has been around since 2005 and was also marketed under other names in Mexico, South America, and Europe. But Bremach describes its version as, “specially engineered for, and only available in, America.”
The U.S. model boasts a GM-designed 6-speed automatic transmission married to a 150-hp inline-4 engine. It features Bosch computer electronics and safety systems and “advanced electronic 4×4” with a two-speed transfer case. Bremach is backing it with a 5 year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, plus a 10 year, 120,000-mile powertrain coverage.
With solid axles front and rear, the vaguely Suzuki Vitara-like Bremach appears genuinely off-road capable. But launching an unfamiliar marque in a super-competitive American market with deep-seated brand loyalties will be a challenge. Especially as its $26,405 MSRP puts it in a bracket saturated with ostensibly similar Japanese, Korean, and American models, including the long-established Jeep Cherokee (which starts at $27,890).
The 2022 Bremach SUV’s pickup counterpart, dubbed the Brio and listed at $27,882 MSRP, is apparently still undergoing final homologation. Bremach is currently accepting $100 refundable pre-order deposits for its SUV, but no U.S. dealerships were listed at the time of writing.