Final Inspection

So Far and Yet So Near

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Roughly 5,000 miles apart, there’s a lot of Detroit in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod, where local auto maker GAZ kicked off assembly of Chevrolet Aveos this week.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia – It’s a long way from Detroit to Nizhny Novgorod, but in many ways it is not that far at all.

Roughly 5,000 miles (8,000 km) apart, flying time to the town once known as Gorky is about 11 hours. That is if you don’t count layovers and delays due to snowstorms like the one that held us hostage in Moscow on the way to witness the birth of Chevrolet Aveo production at auto maker GAZ’s massive operations here.

Nizhny Novgorod, a closed city pre-Perestroika, is a gritty, company town that like Detroit is clawing its way back from the devastating effects of the 2009 global economic crash. Its problems have been compounded by the remnants of Soviet-era bloat that saw too many workers producing too few vehicles and parts at key employer GAZ.

Some 250 miles (400 km) due east of the Russian capital, temperatures this time of year are on par with Detroit’s – cold, made even colder by knife-sharp winds. Dirty snow blankets the ground and largely goes un-shoveled along the walkways around GAZ’s city within a city – a factory complex best described as Ford’s Rouge on steroids.

Brows furrow when executives and other GAZ employees mention 2009’s crash, in which some 50,000 workers were cut from the auto maker’s rolls and the town’s future seemed darkest. That was the same time the American auto industry was suffering through a similar-sized restructuring and two of Detroit’s own were being walked quickly through bankruptcy by the U.S. government.

Ironically, General Motors executives in Detroit look forward to getting out from under the government control that resulted from the Great Recession of 2009, whereas GAZ shed its state-owned label under a wave of post-Soviet privatization reform in the early 1990s.

Like Detroiters, people here are beginning to find reason for optimism. “We have not completely recovered,” notes Natalya Kolesnikova, director of the GAZ auto museum located on factory grounds. “But it is getting better.”

Both Nizhny and GAZ do appear to be bouncing back. In addition to launching a contract-assembly business that led to the Aveo Job One this week at a plant that once built Ford Model AA trucks and cars based on old-generation Chrysler Sebrings, the Russian auto maker is poised to roll out a revamped version of its most important product, the GAZelle light-commercial vehicle.

It also is expected to report a profit for 2012, its third-straight year of black ink, and workers here later this month will divvy up a bonus pie totaling some $60 million.

Some talk wistfully of GAZ’s defunct Volga car brand that, like Pontiac or Plymouth in the U.S., fell victim to an influx of better competitors that arrived as import barriers came down along with the Iron Curtain.

GAZ even operates an in-house classic-car operation that has well-heeled collectors writing blank checks for restored or hand-fabricated recreations of Volga models from bygone eras, and although unlikely, visitors get the sense nothing would make long-time workers more proud than a revival of the brand.

There’s a familiar face here, too: Former General Motors purchasing chief Bo Andersson, a media-savvy top executive who runs GAZ with a firm hand.

After engineering the massive job cuts in his first two years on the ground, Andersson now is the mastermind behind the small renaissance that is seeing the commercial-vehicle-focused GAZ build cars once again – this time with models badged Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Skoda and Mercedes.

As a bonus, all this is making travel to Nizhny a little easier for some. Thanks in part to the VW project to assemble Jetta, Yeti and Octavia sedans, there’s now a direct flight from Frankfurt to Nizhny Novgorod’s small airport just a few minutes’ drive from GAZ’s automotive compound.

But an even surer connection is the one between Nizhny and Detroit.

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