THEN AND NOW: RUSSIA'S 4X4 CELEBRATES 40 YEARS
to the 4x4 world celebrates 40 years
It is perhaps one of the great ironies in automobile history that one of the precursors of the compact SUV/ crossover was a vehicle manufactured 40 years ago on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. In April, 1977 the VAZ-2121 Lada Niva rolled off assembly lines at the Volga Associated Automobile Works (AvtoVAZ) in Tolyatti, Russia. Still in production today, the Niva outlived the Soviet system that conceived it, and became not only one of the most successful Russianmade vehicles but also one of the best-selling 4WDs in Europe. Famously described by AvtoVAZ designers a “Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis,” the Niva is said to be one of the first SUVs built with a unibody frame. Today, the unibody compact crossover is an auto industry mainstay.
A product of Soviet-era proletarian functionality, the Niva was manufactured to be a low-maintenance workhorse that could negotiate the USSR’s formidable geography -- from the remoteness of the Eurasian steppe and the Siberian taiga, to the mountainous terrain of the Urals and the deserts of Central Asia.
The vehicle was named “Niva” (“field” in Russian) to identify it as an off-road vehicle. But like the KHL hockey team named after a farm equipment factory (Traktor Chelyabinsk) and ubiquitous depictions of ears of wheat and hardscrabble sickle-wielding peasants in Soviet art and propaganda, the name ‘Niva” was probably also a reflection of the Soviet enthusiasm for collectivized farming.
Outside Russia, the Niva was a regular -and a winner -- at off-road rallies. It was used
as a fleet vehicle at the Russian Bellingshausen research station in Antarctica and for a time held the record for altitude climbed by a vehicle after ascending Mount Everest.
The Niva has a 1.7 litre, four cylinder engine, a five-speed manual transmission, an inter-axle locking differential and two gear ranges. In 40 years, AvtoVAZ has made few modifications to the original design. Some notable changes include the introduction of the five-speed transmission in the 1980s, a fuel injection system in the 1990s and powersteering after 2006. The exterior design has scarcely changed at all since 1977. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the larger vertical tail lights that adorn later models. In April of this year, AvtoVAZ announced a limited production run of 1977 units to commemorate the vehicle’s 40th anniversary.
Lada first entered the Canadian car market in the 1970s, during a period of EastWest thaw, with its 4-door sedan, the VAZ 2107. A modified Fiat 124, the VAZ 2107 is the automobile most Canadians associate with the Lada brand. The car was sold in Canada as the Lada Signet, the namesake of vehicle importer Dennis Signet. The Signet’s presence in Canada was enough to earn it passing mention in former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s reminiscences on Canada’s trade relations with Soviet Russia. A “low-price, no-frills family automobile,” he called it, noting the “mixed reviews” it received from drivers in Canada. By the 1990s, Canada would receive its first import of the Lada Niva. Although Lada Canada is no more, a few Nivas can still be seen on Canadian roads and every now and then, somewhere in Canada, a Niva goes on sale online.
The Niva I own was one such online purchase. I first came across the Niva in my international travels and wanted one of my own. For me, the vehicle’s appeal rested in its rudimentary design and its dowdy interior features. BBC’s Top Gear put it perfectly when it spoke of the Niva’s appeal being its “anti-hero attraction.” A lime green ’97 Niva, it’s free of modifications to date, save a pair of 4x4 fog lights.
What is it like to drive one? The Niva is not a vehicle for 4x4 enthusiasts looking for the comfort and ease of a convenient crossover, a daily drive that happens to be a four-wheel drive. Behind the wheel, the Niva owner must develop the automotive acumen of a clutch-whisperer. Amid the din of engine noise on a paved highway you can almost hear the vehicle groaning Nyet! Transferring from smooth asphalt to a potholed dirtand-gravel road in Ontario cottage country, the Niva rediscovers familiar ground and is in its element as the dacha jeep AvtoVAZ designers envisaged it to be. Jerky steering and ungainliness give way to clunky agility. High clearance and short overhangs facilitate the Niva’s ability to climb and descend challenging terrain, while independent front suspension and a lightweight body with a curb weight of a mere 1210 kg aid off-road vehicle traction where larger, heavier 4WDs may falter.
While OEM parts are not easy to find locally, after-market parts are available from suppliers in Europe and occasionally in North America. In an age when 4WDs are kitted out with driver assistance technologies even Nivas fresh off the assembly line are spartan by comparison. Like the socialist society that designed it 40 years ago, the Niva is a long-running make-work project -- it’s no accident that the Niva comes with an owner’s tool set!