How Bad Was The Lada Niva, The Ultra-Cheap Alternative Russian 4X4?
For most of the 80s and early 90s the Soviet Union mounted a sneak attack on American off-roaders. Entering stealthily through the undefended border between the U.S. and Canada, a handful of Lada Nivas crept into the grey market dreams of free-thinking 4x4 fans seeking the best SUV experience that the Eastern Bloc had to offer.
Small, underpowered, and the butt of a thousand jokes regarding the production quality of a vehicle built behind the Iron Curtain, the Lada Niva nevertheless established a firm beachhead worldwide, and not just with Canadians, but budget-minded truck fans across the globe took a chance on a cheap four-wheel drive rig that quickly developed a reputation for being unstoppable off the beaten path.
Of course, that's not the only rep that the Lada Niva enjoyed. With the Cold War a distant memory, more and more American SUV fans are starting to discover the thrills and agonies of Lada ownership through this versatile, and occasionally troubled, trucklet.
Purpose Built, For A Price
The Niva went on sale in 1977, and to describe it as 'modest' in its creature comforts is truly over-selling its charms. Corporate parent AutoVAZ had been given the responsibility by the Communist Party of Russia to create a vehicle that would be useful for farmers, hunters, and peasants living far outside the Soviet Union's limited infrastructure, yet still cheap enough for this same target demographic to own and operate.
The end result was a Fiat-inspired two-door hatchback body shape that was lifted to fit a VAZ-designed four-wheel drive system. After several years of prototyping and testing, including back-to-back comparisons with Russian military models as well as imported Land Rovers, AutoVAZ declared 'mission accomplished,' gave the design to its Lada subsidiary, and then essentially didn't touch it for the next two decades.
The mechanical package was dead simple. The Lada Niva featured a 1.6L four-cylinder engine good for 76hp and 93 lb-ft of torque, and its original transmission featured four forward gears (later upgraded to a five-speed). A locking center differential (controllable by the driver) conspired with low-range gearing to make the short-wheelbase SUV a veritable billy goat when tackling boulders, mud, steep inclines, and snow. The Niva's suspension offered coil springs front and rear, with a stick axle out back and an independent setup at the front.
Inside it was as basic as one could get. Volkswagen Golf-levels of cargo space could be had by folding the rear seats forward, but if you reclined the fronts, too, you could actually sleep in the Niva by linking with the back cushions to create a sort of in-truck bunk.
Few other creature comforts could be found—remember, this was a purpose-built vehicle for the agricultural class—but its feature set was similar to American SUVs like the larger International-Harvester Scout.
Off-Road Good, On-Road…Not So Good
Spend any time inside the Niva and it's clear that VAZ focused almost entirely on all-terrain performance and paid only casual attention to how the truck drove on smooth pavement. On a rutted road, across broken asphalt, or when climbing across a wash the Lada is in its element, perfectly parsing harsh chassis inputs with surprising grace.
On the highway, however, the Niva is a nightmare of random suspension responses harried by high speeds and very narrow tires. Even newer versions with slightly more horsepower than the original edition tend to have difficulty keeping up with traffic around them.
Throw in its overpoweringly loud engine note and ergonomics that will have you pulling off the road every hour or so to stretch every part of your cramped body (due to the Lada's weirdly-angled driving position), and it's a vehicle whose frozen evolution is readily apparent.
Starting To Catch On?
For all of its faults, and despite being dramatically out-of-step with the demands of modern motoring, the Lada Niva has endured. Part of this is a testament to its mechanical simplicity, which makes the SUV hard to kill even as interior bits fall apart and rust eats massive holes through the sheet metal (the Niva's one true weakness).
More importantly, however, the Lada has found a true community of owners who understand and even celebrate the single-mindedness of its design spec. Think of the truck as a tractor with doors (one of the most common back-handed compliments paid to the Niva), and you've got a solid idea of the kind of backwoods fun it has to offer.
For those eager to take the plunge, there are a surprising number of Lada parts dealers willing to service the United States. Considering that the Niva is still being built, relatively unchanged, as a new vehicle (dubbed the 4X4), upgrades and online maintenance knowledge is also readily available. If you're willing to brave the wilds of weird 4x4 fun, the time is now to jump on this Russian take on the same cute-ute concept before collectors start to take notice.
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