HAVANA (Reuters) - After three decades as the favored car of Cuban nomenklatura, the austere, Russian-built Lada has spotted a Chinese rival in its rear-view mirror.
Ministers, communist officials and police are switching their Ladas, with its stiff manual steering, for the smooth hydraulics of the Chinese-made Geely CK, a modern sedan that symbolizes the island's new alliance with Beijing.
China, now Cuba's second-largest trading partner behind only Venezuela, has shown an ability to quickly penetrate and dominate markets around the world with many of its products.
But Cubans say their love for Ladas, which are probably the most visible legacy of the country's Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union, will keep the cars on Cuban roads.
"I do not think it will be easy to displace the Lada," said David Pena, a 39-year old mechanic who recently founded Cuba's Russian Automobile Club. "For us this car is like a family member."
Cuba is well known for the vintage American cars that prowl its streets, relics of pre-revolutionary Cuba and rolling tributes to the islanders' mechanical inventiveness.
But the truth is they are greatly outnumbered by Ladas, of which there are an estimated 100,000 in Cuba, compared to somewhere around 60,000 of the old U.S. cars.
The Geelys, based on a Daewoo design and powered by a 1.5-liter engine licensed from Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), have begun showing up with increasing frequency on Havana streets.
They have a sleek and stylish look and come with air conditioning, electric windows and CD players.
The Chinese cars are so far showing up in very limited numbers, as government vehicles and rental cars, but their ranks are expected to increase in a sign of China's growing economic relationship with Cuba and business interests on the island.
Geely, China's biggest privately owned car maker whose worldwide strategy has been founded on exporting low-cost vehicles, shipped more than 1,500 cars to Cuba this year through June, the Miami Herald reported on its website.
But the no-frills Lada, based on the Fiat FIA.MI 124 from the 1960s, has become a cult object in Cuba for both its utility and its enduring presence.
Pena and dozens of other Lada die-hards gather every month in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana to talk about and show off their cars.
The Soviet Union took Cuba under its wing in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro rose to power in a 1959 revolution, and until its implosion in 1991 showered the communist-led island with billions of dollars in subsidies and goods, including the Lada.
From the time it arrived in the 1970s, the car, so spartan it does not even have hubcaps, was a good fit for economically challenged Cuba.
It was inexpensive, and earned a reputation as a durable car that, when repairs were needed, was easy to repair.
"Anyone can fix it with just a piece of wire," said Carlos, a veteran mechanic in Havana. "If you ask a Cuban he will tell you he does not want to exchange his Lada for anything in the world."
There are those who doubt that the new Geelys, flashier but not imbued with the Lada's image of tank-like solidity, will last as long on Cuba's pot-holed streets.
"They are changing (our Ladas for Geelys) but I don't think the Chinese cars will be as resistant as the Lada," said a police officer leaning against his white Lada patrol car along Havana's sea wall. "Only time will tell."
Cars tend to be cherished in countries where they are not easy to get, which is the case in Cuba.
A government minister must give approval for someone to buy a car legally, and in most cases even when it is purchased, it still belongs to the state.
Only people who bought a car before the revolution or those who afterward were granted the right to purchase one for personal or political achievements actually own their vehicles.
For those who get permission, a new, basic Lada can be bought for the equivalent of about $5,000 U.S. A black market exists, where the purchaser buys the car for about three times the normal price, but it remains registered in the name of the original owner.
Cubans show their love for Ladas by making them a showcase for creativity.
Some have covered their dashboards with precious woods, installed powerful engines with souped-up carburetors or even reinvented the original Soviet design by welding together two cars to build an improbable Lada limo.
"Our wives often complain because we dedicate so much time and money to our Ladas," said Manuel Ares, who is vice president of the Russian Automobile Club.
The cars on Cuban streets reflect Cuba's political history, with the long Soviet presence, a lingering American influence and, currently, growing ties with China.
Russia and Cuba have been warming their old friendship, which may soon show up on Cuban roads.
Russia has talked about building a Lada plant in Cuba to sell cars throughout Latin America, but the project has been put on hold by the global recession.
In the meantime, there are plans to import thousands of new Ladas to Cuba, the Russians have said.
For Carlos the mechanic, that only confirms what he already believes.
"The Lada will never die (in Cuba)," he said, "It has become a classic."
Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman