... Russians buying 2.65 million new cars and light vehicles in 2011.
Improvement though this may be, it's still a long way short of the three million cars sold at the peak of the nation's market in 2008. In 2009 sales crashed to 1.5 million and have been slowly recovering since.
Thomas, however, remains optimistic. The market, he predicts, could now hit the much-vaunted 4-million unit mark "maybe in 2014, maybe by 2017," he said. "We might have expected two million or 2.25 million a year ago — so the pace of growth has been faster than expected."
Lada's Kalina, Priora and Samara models remain the most popular in the country. The brand sold 578,387 new cars in 2011 — up 11 percent from last year. The Avtovaz-Renault-Nissan alliance, which owns Lada, said earlier this week that global sales leapt 10 percent to a record 8.03 million.
The most popular foreign brand was General Motors' Chevrolet, which sold 173,484 new cars, up 49 percent from 116,223 last year.
Another big winner was Volkswagen, whose Kaluga production plant hit full capacity, with round-the-clock production for the first time this year. The group, which includes the Volkswagen, Skoda and Audi brands, saw sales jump 74 percent. Volkswagen sales alone doubled, from 58,989 to 118,003 last year.
Marcus Osegowitsch, general director of the Volkswagen group in Russia, put it down to "having the right product" — specifically the Polo sedan, designed especially for the Russian and Indian markets, and the Tiguan SUV.
Most executives remain bullish on the Russian market, pointing to Russia's relatively low level of car ownership, high average age of cars currently on the road, and expansion of networks in the regions that continues to open up new opportunities away from saturated markets like Moscow and St Petersburg.
"The general outlook is perfect," says VW's Osegowitsch. "The question is what happens between here and there."