Chips off the old Bloc

Lo-tech Ladas, Skodas and Yugos are dirt cheap but, as James Ruppert found out when he bought into the bargain basement, they're still overpriced

What was so special about 25 November 1996? It's a date that may well go down in history as the last time a Lada was imported into Britain. Presumably, they got sick and tired of all those lame Lada jokes. Owner: I just got a new windscreen wiper for my Lada. Friend: Sounds like a fair swap to me... boom, boom.

Yet the Great British car-buying public has always been strangely partial to new cars built in the former Eastern Bloc countries, and some third- world locations. These cars which have just one redeeming feature: they're dirt cheap. Otherwise there was not much to recommend them.

Apart from a temptingly low price what all these cars have in common, be they Russian Ladas, former Yugoslavian Yugos, Korean Kias, or Malaysian Protons, is out-of-date technology bought wholesale from the West or Japan, with a reasonable level of standard equipment. After just a few years many of these cars are almost worthless, which should mean that the canny used-car buyer with a tiny budget can pick up a bargain. But would that be wise?

The facts are in black and white in the CAP Black Book. This is a price guide published exclusively and confidentially for the motor trade and the figures for these automotive orphans are very revealing. A Lada Samara 1300L bought new in 1988 for pounds 4,295 is now worth just pounds 30 as a bottom trade price. A 1992 Yugo Sana, which cost pounds 5,790 new, might be bought from a sobbing owner for a paltry pounds 70. These are the extremes, but they underline the point.

I can own up to having direct, depressing experience of a Polish-built FSO, a close relative of the Lada but worse. Then, for the purposes of research, I bought an pounds 80 car a few years ago to see what it would be like. The experience was dreadful: a catalogue of rust and breakdowns, which proved that bottom of the price barrel purchases are pointless when buying old commies.

Up that two-digit budget to a four-figure one and things start to get interesting. I answered a private ad for a Lada Riva Estate. It cost pounds 5,000 when the old couple bought it back in 1993. A dealer had offered them no more than pounds 1,000, but they would take an unlucky pounds 1,300. It was immaculate, having been garaged, regularly waxed and the seats protected for posterity with awful furry covers. It may have been showroom condition, but a drive around the (eastern) block soon reminded me of the car's drawback: it's a fossilised Sixities Fiat. Heavy steering, sluggish engine and all-round crudity are seriously off putting. As a tidy, absurdly cheap workhorse that could be run into the ground and then thrown away, it had to be contender, but this was not be a comfortable motoring companion.

It pays to look further east for the real second-hand bargains. Now it is the emerging tiger economies of Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia which satisfy the strong demand for cheap, well-equipped and reliable cars - just like Japan did back in the Seventies. They are using the same technology, too - old Japanese cars, rebadged and relaunched in Europe. And after a few years they are still very much intact.

The original Proton saloons and hatchbacks were actually well proven Mitsubishi Lancers, but built in Malaysia. For about pounds 2,000 it is possible to buy early Nineties 1.5 models which have power steering. Find an SE model Iike I did in the local paper's classified ads and it even has air conditioning, which works. There may have been 80,000 miles on the clock, but the car was in excellent condition and felt as if it would last another 80,000 miles.

If I wanted a small-town car, a Korean-built Kia Pride might be the answer. I looked at a 1992 car on a dealer's forecourt for pounds 2,000. You would pay more than pounds l,300 more for a less well equipped 1992 Ford Fiesta. The Kia is actually a rebadged Mazda 121 and although it now looks a bit dated, the package is practical and hard to fault at this price.

Of the cars from the former Eastern Bloc, I could not recommend a Lada, FSO, or Yugo to anyone. But Skodas have always been good - the Favorit in particular is worth buying. Yet what the Far Eastern cars have over their bleak East European counterparts is more modern Eighties technology, a reassuring dullness and utter reliability. Just the qualities you need in a cheap, second-hand car That's why I would have no hesitation in buying a Kia Pride, Proton or Hyundai X2.

Meanwhile, the fate of Lada hangs in the balance. Within the next few days a decision will be made as to whether imports recommence. Apparently, and this is no joke, a company is interested in buying the Lada concession.

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