By 2015, it was almost 15 years since a new Lada Niva entered the UK, and for a time there was a time you could buy a new one from a chap in Kent called Mark Key.
That is not to say the Niva is dead. The Lada 4x4 still lives on in certain markets including the home market in Russia and Germany, and is available in two bodystyles and four trims. The Niva has been given a selection of improvements, though to claim that it has been modernised would be overstating the case considerably.
The 1.7-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine is now fitted with Bosch fuel injection and complies with Euro 5 emissions standards, the dashboard has been replaced with a new VDO instrument pack that looks only 15 years behind in design and the door mirrors are a bit bigger than they used to be. The Niva is now available in three- and five-door form, and in rugged and 'stylish' Urban models.
The Niva was never the best of road cars, but off road, with its minimal 1210kg weight, narrow tyres, low-ratio transfer gearbox and diff lock, it was formidable across the mucky stuff. And when you had got both it and yourself covered in mud and goo, you could fling open the doors and hose out the interior.
You can do the same today because the same plastic and rubber mats are used in the Niva. The trim plastics are ghastly, but the piglets or lambs in the back won’t mind and neither should you. Besides, the Niva is a cool-looking vehicle in a sort of Smeg fridge way. In 2016, Lada introduced the Niva Urban which equips the 4x4 with air conditioning, electric windows, heated and electrically folding wing mirrors, 16in alloy wheels and body coloured bumpers. Luxury personified clearly. The Russian manufacturer later in the year also modernised the suspension with improved bearings and gas shock absorbers
The rest of the Niva is reassuringly as it was several decades ago. It even smells the same.
Most modern cars are so quiet that all you can hear at speed is tyre noise. The Niva may also have noisy tyres, but you can’t tell because any road noise is drowned out by gearbox whine.
The engine itself is remarkably quiet. There’s sound insulation under the bonnet that looks like an add-on but cuts out a lot of noise. There’s plenty of squeaking and rattling from around the back that could be the retrofitted LPG tank moving on its mounting bracket.
Mark Key used to fit an LPG system for a remarkably cheap £535, but you lose most of the boot, so we wouldn’t bother. Save the money and buy the optional snow plough attachment. Yes, really.
The Niva seems at its most content at around 70mph on the motorway; above that speed, the mechanical noise gets a bit much.
There’s no radio, but you can sing Russian marching songs or ‘The Red Flag’ to keep yourself entertained.
A surprising number of young people look at the Niva, but it could be that they are young Russians wondering why on earth someone would want to drive a Niva when you can buy a third-hand E36 BMW M3 in the UK for less money.
As soon as the Niva’s Lada-made tyres touch mud, I get the thing stuck while attempting to show off its off-road ability for the photographer. Because the Niva is light, we are able to push it back onto firmer ground – something that would be difficult to do with a Range Rover.
The car we tried was Key’s only demo example, and since he was a one-man band it is imperative that I don’t damage it. With still-narrow mirrors and flat sides, it is easy to avoid catching the Niva’s sides on branches. Even if I do, the paint is a straight white and much easier to touch up than some candy apple flip-flop metallic chosen by Victoria Beckham.
Are you fed up yet with the underlying Luddite tone running through this feature? I’m sorry, but I can’t apologise. The Niva had practically no rivals. The Fiat Panda 4x4 hits the spot financially, but it isn’t as rugged and can only manage extreme postal deliveries in Scotland.
Other tough off-roaders are too expensive to abuse. Most will come with the option of Bluetooth connectivity but not with a snow plough. And few, I suspect, will have a handbook that declares that the vehicle is designed to operate between -40deg C and +45deg C temperatures, which is ideal for those who can buy one in the sub-zero areas of Russia through to the sweltering clims of South America.
In case you were interested the entry-level three-door model is available for 465,900 rubles (or £6463) and expect to part with 551,600 rubles (or £7652) for the five-door 'luxury' Urban edition.