By Chris Wright ST PETERSBURG. There is one small but highly significant difference between the Ford Focus you buy in Russia and the one you buy in Britain – a cold start system.

Not surprising when winter temperatures drop to something like minus 40 degrees. There are other differences, beefier suspension to cope with Russia’s notoriously bad roads and engine management tweaks to take care of fuel quality.

Apart from these, the Focus built at Ford’s newest factory in St Petersburg, is pretty much the same as those that come out of its long-established plants in Saarlouis, Germany and Valencia, Spain.

And plant manager, Australian Murray Gilbert, is proud to say that his line workers are as good as any robots anywhere. Unusually for a modern car factory, there are no robots at St Petersburg.

"Robots are usually used to reduce labour and increase accuracy. The quality of our Focus models is as good as any of the other Ford factories."

Labour costs are low in Russia and Gilbert acknowledges that the number of vehicles being produced do not currently justify the installation of robots.

Things could change pretty soon, though. Within a few months of opening at the end of last summer the St Petersburg factory was struggling to keep up with demand in Russia.

The order backlog reached 8,000 and a second shift was added to the factory in April to help clear it. This year the plant will produce 25,000 Focus models and there are plans to increase output soon to 37,000 vehicles a year.

With Russians enjoying a fifth straight year of growth following the economic crash of 1998, consumers are out buying cars and other luxury goods – and they are they are looking at cars like the Focus instead of the cheap, low-tech Ladas they have been living with for years.

Gilbert believes the St Petersburg factory will one day be producing 200,000 cars a year, all for the Russia market.

Ford invested £100 million in the plant and further investment will be required to lift production into six figures.

Ford took the decision to build the plant in 1995 and followed the plan through even during the economic crisis which hit Russia in 1998. Construction at St Petersburg began in 2000.

Published : 31/08/03 Author : Melanie Carter

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