After 30 years as the favoured new car import on the auto-restricted island of Cuba, Russia’s Lada is facing competition from the more modern, power steered, air conditioned Geely CK with its electric windows and other mod cons but may yet fight back.

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, Reuters reported from the island.

The Ladas are arguably the most visible legacy of the country’s Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union.

“I do not think it will be easy to displace the Lada,” David Pena, a 39-year old mechanic who recently founded Cuba’s Russian Automobile Club, told the news agency. “For us this car is like a family member.”

Cuba is also well known for the vintage [up to 1959] American cars that prowl its streets, relics of a pre-revolutionary Cuba and rolling tributes to the islanders’ mechanical inventiveness – most have since had at least one new engine, sometimes donated by a junked Lada.

But, according to Reuters, Ladas outnumber the ancient American autos 100,000 to 60,000.

The Chinese cars – based on a Daewoo design with a 1.5-litre Toyota engine, both used by Geely under licence – have so far appeared 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, Reuters said.

Geely shipped 1,500 cars to Cuba in the first half of this year, the Miami Herald said.

The Ladas appeared in Cuba because 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 cars which were originally based on Fiat’s 124.

The spartan Ladas are cheap, last well and are easy to fix.

“They are changing [our Ladas for Geelys] but I don’t think the Chinese cars will be as resistant as the Lada,” a Havana police officer told the news agency. “Only time will tell.”

New cars are very hard to buy 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 afterwards were granted the right to purchase one for personal or political achievements actually own their vehicles, the report said.

For those who get permission, a new, basic Lada can be bought for the equivalent of about US$5,000. 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.

According to Reuters, Russia and Cuba have been rekindling their old friendship and Russia has talked about building a Lada plant in Cuba to sell cars throughout Latin America, though the project has been put on hold by the global recession.

In the meantime, there are plans to export thousands of new Ladas to Cuba, the Russians have said.