This isn’t a review, which is handy, because it means I can get one slightly awkward truth out of the way straight off the bat: the Lada Niva is not – objectively and with full view of today’s automotive market – an easy car to recommend to anyone.
That might not surprise you, given it has been on sale mostly unaltered since 1977 and its positioning as a no-frills workhorse means it has never, nor will ever be, the recipient of the efficiency-enhancing and refinement-boosting upgrades that we’ve long taken for granted on new cars across the board. It trades instead mostly (and to great effect) on its affordability, durability and unstoppability.
But time marches on, and now, almost half a century since the final Niva prototype was deemed ready for production, a date has been set for the end of production. Which is why we find ourselves here, penning the latest in a series of heartfelt automotive eulogies, instalments in which most recently bade farewell to such segment-shakers as the BMW i8, McLaren 570S and Toyota GT86. That’s odd company for this no-nonsense, agricultural 4x4 (which, let’s remember, hasn’t been sold officially in the UK since 1996) to keep. But in terms of its potential endurance in collective memory, the Niva arguably stands head and shoulders above those more covetable contemporaries.
For starters, there’s the age thing. When the Niva was first shown to the Western public at the 1978 Paris motor show, Milton Keynes was only around a decade old, Abba were battling the cast of Grease for the top spot in the pop music charts and its country of origin would still be the Soviet Union for another 13 years. Not that modernity is or has ever been of much relevance to the Niva’s target market. It’s a purely functional off-roader with minimal concessions to such trivialities as driver pleasure, fuel economy or straight-line pace.
The Niva, then, was designed to be as comfortable churning through the frosty mud of a Siberian wheat field as it would be scaling a rocky outcrop on the edge of a Brazilian plain. So you will be unsurprised, again, to hear that its rugged charm doesn’t stand up to extended use on urban arteries, motorways or high streets.