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Aurus and Nobe: Reinventing the Post-Soviet Automotive Business

One builds Russian limos, the other retro electric three-wheelers from Estonia.

Nobe’s stand at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show has no turntable, no lights, no lounge, and no stacks of sales brochures or thumb drives. It’s not even really a stand so much as an expanse of carpet in front of a ceiling support, located in the shadow of the brightly lit Aurus stand.  The sole car on display Nobe 100 GT is a midcentury-modern-styled three-wheel-drive electric bubble car, eligible for licensing as a motorcycle in California according to CEO Roman Muljar. He expects to deliver his first cars there in the second half of 2020, with plans to expand later throughout the rest of the U.S.

Nobe has sold 10 hand-built 100s, and number 11 is available, but the company’s prospects for exporting more EV cars from Tallin, Estonia, to California where it would take only the addition of a center headlight in the middle of the grille to qualify as a cycle, will increase exponentially if Muljar can snag the $9 million USD investment he needs to build a small factory capable of 2,000 units per year.

Like Nobe, Aurus is an upstart at this most major of international auto shows, although it does have a factory in Elabuga, Tatarstan, Russia, which will be able to build 5,000 units per shift (two and a half shifts are the maximum) once it opens in late 2020. Aurus—the name combines “aura” with “rus,” for Russia—has received a €110 million investment (about $124 million) from Tawazun, of Abu Dhabi, in exchange for a 36 percent stake. The Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute (NAMI), formerly the Tractor Research Institute, owns the remaining 64 percent and designed the cars. Aurus is happy to take on more investors, but NAMI will always maintain more than 50 percent of the company says the automaker’s CEO, Franz Gerhard Hilgert.

NAMI-Avto was established in 2013 to design the new Russian luxury brand’s Unified Modular Platform for armored and conventional cars. The company became Aurus in late 2017 and has built about 60 cars so far, not including prototypes.

On May 7, 2018, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin rode in an Aurus Senat L700 armored limousine during his inauguration. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s a client,” Hilgert (a native of Germany who once worked for DaimlerChrysler) says. Newly minted Aurus didn’t seek publicity for its parade route car, which may have detracted from its most important client’s day, and instead presented its business plans more than two weeks later. The Senat L700 and Senat L600 sedan made their debuts at the Moscow International Auto Show in August of last year.

NAMI has designed a V-12, which is for special-order only (“The time of 12 cylinders is over,” Hilbert says), plus the 4.4-liter mild-hybrid V-8 in the two display cars and a four-cylinder engine that NAMI will license to other Russian automakers or use in a midsize SUV it might build itself—but not with the Aurus luxury brand name. This brand is the post-Soviet ZIL. Aurus also has plans to roll out an SUV, a van, a coupe, and a convertible, all on the Unified Modular platform and all arriving between 2020 and 2024.

At the risk of belaboring this armchair comparison, the contrast between Aurus and Nobe stretches to geopolitics, well beyond the typical eclectic nature of the Geneva International Motor Show, where 1,500-plus-hp supercars are vying for attention along with all manner of cheap, fun, and wild electric vehicles. Nobe’s native country, Estonia, became free of the Soviet Union during the latter’s collapse in the early 1990s. Since then, Estonia has become the most progressive country among the Baltic States, even one of the most progressive in all of Europe. It’s “the most digital country” in the world according to The Lonely Planet travel guide, having declared internet access a human right.

With a population of about 1.4 million, Estonia also has become a sort of incubator for high-tech companies like Nobe. The country’s president, Kersti Kalijulaid, is the first woman elected leader of Estonia, and was its youngest president in history when she was inaugurated in 2016.

Nearby Russia is, well, Russia.

Aurus expects to expand into the Middle East, as well as the rest of Europe and China, though not North America, Hilgert says. The automaker compares itself, favorably, with established luxury brands like Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Mercedes-Benz. The Unified Modular Platform was designed from the get-go to serve in both armored and non-armored capacities, so the body’s “security cage” is naturally integrated.

The 4.4-liter gas V-8 is rated for 598 horsepower and 649 lb-ft of torque, while the electric motor makes 62 horses and 295 lb-ft of its own. It sits between the engine and the industrial-grade clutch-in-gearbox, no-torque converter nine-speed automatic transmission. Most parts and components are Russian-made, though Aurus consulted with Porsche Engineering for help calibrating and adapting the engine and hybrid motor to the transmission. Like the Nobe 100, both Aurus models come with full-time all-wheel drive.

The armored Aurus Senat L700 limousine’s heft is apparent in its rear passenger-side door, which I close after Hilgert moves to the driver’s-side rear seat, and our design editor Robert Cumberford fits himself into the rear-facing jump seat opposite me. The door probably weighs more than the 33-pound backup battery pack you can bring along in a suitcase for the Nobe 100. Just plug it into the Nobe’s 20.0-kWh (base) or 26.0-kWh (GT model) lithium-ion battery pack to extend the range past 124 (base) or 162 (GT) miles.