The growing popularity of soft, urban SUV models has practically killed the classic, rugged off-road vehicles of yesteryear. These days, there are literally hundreds of SUVs in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges, but there are only a handful of real off-road models on the market. After the discontinuation of the Land Rover Defender, the only serious off-road cars left are the Mercedes G-Class, Jeep Wrangler or Suzuki Jimny. What do you do if you need something that is rugged, capable, and affordable? How about buying a Lada Niva? If you’ve never considered it, here are 5 reasons why you should.
The Niva (or VAZ 2121 as it was originally called) is a classic Russian 4×4 vehicle introduced in 1977 and still produced today! It was designed as a capable, modern and affordable off-road vehicle for civilian use, unlike many other Russian all-terrain models which were all basically military vehicles. That is why the Niva was more comfortable, modern-looking, and easier to use than the GAZ 469, for example.
Since the state-owned VAZ company had a partnership with Fiat back in the early `70s, the Lada Niva had a very similar engine and some mechanical bits from contemporary Fiats which made early models relatively modern cars by late `70s standards. The cool thing about Nivas is the fact that they are typical Russian cars which managed to survive the fall of communism and be well accepted and sold all over the world.
If you want to make a durable, sturdy, and dependable go-anywhere vehicle, the key is simplicity, and that is exactly what the comrades behind the Niva project thought. When you look at the Lada Niva, you will see mid-century technology, design, and solutions which are a world apart from today`s highly-sophisticated systems. For a long time, Nivas had carburettors instead of fuel injection, brakes were drums all around, and there were no power options, traction aids or climate control No power windows meant rolling your windows down manually was required, but in the depths of Russian winters, I doubt that would be very often! This simplicity of construction is a refreshing change when compared to modern vehicles and it’s kind of reassuring knowing that everything can be fixed with regular tools and cheapo parts.
Let`s be honest; nobody buys the Lada Niva for its beauty and style, but its extraordinary off-road capabilities are unparalleled. The Niva was designed to be basic transportation for people living in unforgiving Russian rural areas and it was made to be at home on muddy roads, snowy mountains and even in central Asia deserts. The underpinnings are very rugged and basic, but it does have independent front suspension and a five-link rear axle.
The Niva also has full-time four-wheel drive with three differentials (front, centre, and rear) and a five-speed manual transmission. Not bad! Despite only having a 1.7-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 83 horsepower, it’s a proper beast off-road. The secret is its weight, or lack of it, with the Lada Niva only weighing around 2700 pounds or 1.2 tons. Nothing compared to similar off-road vehicles which are usually extremely heavy. For example, the current G-Class is almost 2.5 tons!
As you might expect, the Niva is a very affordable car in every sense. If you live in a country where you can buy them new, the prices are around $15,000 or pounds, which is extremely inexpensive for an almost classic car with unparalleled off-road usability. In the UK, you can find them for five to six thousand pounds, and even though it is a substantial sum for a slow and rugged vehicle, you won’t be able to find anything like it for that kind of money. (the cool factor does add to the price in Western markets!) The other important thing to note is the running costs. The Niva, despite being old doesn’t really consume an enormous amount of fuel thanks to its 1.7-litre engine, and spare parts are very cheap.
One exciting aspect of owning a Lada Niva is the DIY nature of this model. Back when the Niva was designed, the Russian design doctrine was to make cars easily serviceable in harsh conditions. This was done out of necessity since in those days there weren’t many service stations or technicians, especially in remote parts of the Soviet Union. That is why all classic Russian cars are easy to tinker with, modify, and service.
The Niva is no exception. It’s a perfect DIY car if you are an amateur mechanic or you want to become one. Simple construction, accessible components, and cheap parts are excellent for all weekend mechanics. Also, Niva can be easily modified if you want to go that route. This is refreshing; these days modern cars are almost impossible to service on your own. The Niva can usually be fixed with a hammer and some duct tape! Of course, it’s not modern but the fact that you can still purchase it new is a testament to how long the design has lasted!