The European auto market is forced to move at a fast pace to keep up with tough government regulations and ever-increasing consumer demands. Cars that fail to adapt to it are shown little mercy and rarely survive for very long once they have been declared outdated.
One car has weathered these conditions and managed to thrive in them: the Lada Niva, often nicknamed the Russian Land Rover. It is one of the oldest mass-produced cars available new in western Europe.
We can already hear Mercedes purists crying out, “what about the G-Wagen?!”
The first Mercedes-Benz Geländewagens were delivered to the army in 1975 and to Mercedes dealers for the general public in 1979, so one could argue that it is even more ancient than the Niva. Be that as it may, the Mercedes has sold out and become a luxury SUV packed with modern technology gizmos and price tag that sometimes falls north of $100,000. The Niva has barely evolved and has been serving the same customers for almost 35 years.
“Well, so has the Defender!”, you might say. The Defender traces its roots back to the original Land Rover of 1948, but the current model only goes back to 1983.
The Niva’s story starts in the early 1970s when Lada began the development of a Jeep-like vehicle that was supposed to be cheap to build, capable off road and easy to maintain. The first prototype was called the Krokodil and was inspired by the Jeep CJ and the Toyota FJ; they were convertibles with a soft top that could be removed entirely, used body-on-frame construction and were powered by a Fiat 124-sourced 1300cc four-cylinder.
These early prototypes were judged too rustic by the Soviet state and Lada engineers went back to the drawing board. A new prototype was designed (called project 2121 internally), and this time it was very close to the production Niva. It featured a fully closed cabin, a 1600cc engine and unibody construction.
Starting in 1974 Lada spent several years rigorously testing pre-series cars in the Uzbekistan desert and in the Ural Mountains. The production version of project 2121 was presented in the U.S.S.R. in 1976 and was given the name Niva, which means “wheat field” in Russian. The exterior was designed to look like a passenger car, not like a full-blown offroader. Lada designers described the Niva as resembling a “Renault 5 put on a Land Rover chassis.”
The first Niva came off of the Togliatti, Russia, assemby line on April 5th, 1977. Early cars were sold only in the U.S.S.R. and powered by a 72 horsepower 1600cc four-cylinder engine bolted to a four-speed manual transmission designed with input from Porsche. The brand soon started to export the Niva and eventually reached a point where 80% of production was sent outside of its home country. The first exports towards western Europe started in 1978 when the Niva was presented at the Paris Motor Show.
Comfort, safety, and performance were not part of the deal but they didn’t need to be. The Niva’s short wheelbase and its permanent four-wheel-drive system enabled it to climb a slope with a steepness of 58% and to drive through 3.2 feet of snow. These and other off-road capacities were the biggest attributes would-be Niva owners looked at when shopping.
The Niva’s only real competition in the late 1970s came from the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen and the Land Rover Series III, both bigger and already more expensive. It wasn’t until Fiat teamed up with Steyr-Puch to produce the Panda 4×4 that Lada had something to worry about.
Perhaps in response to the Panda 4×4, the Niva underwent a series of minor modifications in the 1980s, starting with rear seat belts in 1984. A year later the four-speed transmission was dropped and the five-speed that had been optional since its launch in Europe became standard. While on paper this might seem like a huge improvement, the four-speed was more solid than the five-speed and it was not unheard of for owners to retrofit four-speeds in post-1985 Nivas.
One of the Niva’s biggest shortcomings (especially when lined up against the Panda 4×4) was its large thirst for fuel. To remedy that, certain Lada importers in western Europe fitted Nivas with diesel engines borrowed from miscellaneous manufacturers. Lada caught on to the trend and fitted a Peugeot-sourced 1900cc XUD diesel to the Niva from 1993 to 1998.
Other Lada importers kept the original 1600cc engine but converted it to run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). While this didn’t do much to raise gas mileage, it made trips to the gas station less costly. This turned out to be the best solution to lower the Niva’s running costs and Lada themselves adopted it in 1988.
One of the biggest changes in the Niva’s production run came in 1995, when the carbureted 1600cc was dropped in favor of a 1700cc with a General Motors monopoint fuel injection system. Lada used the occasion to give the back of the Niva a slight redesign. Up until that point the hatch stopped at the horizontal taillights. From 1995 onward, the taillights were vertical and the hatch extended all the way down to the bumper, making it easier to load items into the trunk. The dashboard and seats were also modernized.
In the early 2000s the Niva gained power steering and a Bosch fuel injection system. The next major update in the Niva lineup came in 2009 with the introduction of the Niva M. The body and engine remained the same but Lada claims they made over 250 modifications to the Niva, including a slightly more modern seats, new shock absorbers, new gauges, more powerful brakes and a new clutch.
Today the base Niva retails for 11,990€ (approximately $16,400) and only has two options, a sunroof and alloy wheels. Several versions are available, including a popular factory LPG conversion, a funky-colored Paintball edition, and a version aimed squarely at hunters that features an optional gun rack.
Safety was never a priority and even the latest Niva doesn’t come with ABS or airbags, let alone traction control. In recent years Lada’s lackadaisical attitude towards passive safety has earned it a heavy load of criticism across Europe. It is true that just about all new cars are far safer than the Niva but that’s not the point; nobody has ever purchased a Niva on the basis of safety. It was designed almost forty years ago and cannot be compared to cars designed two or three years ago.
Instead of safety, consider this: Russia’s Bellingshausen research station is located on King George Island, in the ocean off of Antarctica. There are no roads and while climate-wise it is reputed as one of the coziest places in Antarctica, the temperature can drop down to -65 Fahrenheit. The station’s staff used a fleet of fully stock Lada Nivas for several years and they performed admirably.
Most any manufacturer today can build a safe car, but how many can build a car drivable in Antarctica without any modifications?