How can a 4x4 that costs £11,000 new be anything more than adequate in all areas? And yes, when you step out from behind the wheel of the Lada Niva you do so with the suspicion that the company has taken out a colossal non-compete agreement with the rest of the automotive industry.
The engine, surprisingly muted at idle, is inaudible once you're underway, though not reassuringly so as it's drowned out by the grating whine of a transmission that appears to have been benchmarked for NVH against some of the more outrageous episodes of the hit youtube series Will It Blend?
There's no iPod connection, no CD player, no DAB radio, no radio, even. The steering column doesn't move. Well, it does flex around in your hands, but it doesn't adjust. Despite the gear stick being considerably longer than the other two levers (low range and diff lock), it's also mounted further away, and swings so far that you have to lean forward off the seat to put it into third or fifth. And the cabin heater output seems to be directly linked to the engine temperature gauge, whose needle darted around like a crazed French farm dog.
At this point there will probably be quite a few Land Rover and Toyota owners who are thinking, 'Why not buy second-hand?' But that would be to completely miss this car's greatest asset: it's got charm by the bucketload. In an era when it's a talking point to be able to see enough out of the rear window to park without using reversing cameras, it's liberating (and very relaxing) to drive through town with an unimpeded 360deg view. The pillars are so narrow that it makes even a Defender feel slightly claustrophobic.
The list continues. The ride, although under-damped for Western tastes, is pleasantly absorbent, and the steering, which I'd expected to be a UN-administered disaster zone, is excellent, with no play at straight ahead, sensible weight and good, linear response. There are plenty of 4x4s on sale today that could learn something here. And while the engine isn't that smooth, it's refreshing to drive something without lag (unusually, it's petrol not diesel) and with enough low-end torque to get its minimalist 1200kg moving without effort. Even the 'glad I can't quite place it' cabin odour has a certain retro appeal.
And that's all without trying the optional snow plough or taking it off-road, which is something I didn't have time for, although Autocar stalwart Colin Goodwin gave it a very favourable review.
Yes, in a purely rational world packed with competitor feature sets, Excel spreadsheets, new vs old comparisons and contract hire rates the Lada Niva feels like a dinosaur, but the whole experience says 'FUN' in capital letters and you can't say that enough nowadays.