I photographed this Niva in a small town in France a couple years ago, but then sort of forgot about it. And that’s a damn shame. Because although the Lada Niva was always quite popular in France and is still a relatively common sight, it’s still a pretty exceptional vehicle for a number of reasons.
The Lada Niva is the Russian marque’s surprise hit. The ubiquitous Fiat 124-derived Lada saloons were designed to be a hit, but the Niva was not. Back in the early ‘70s, VAZ were not destined to be anything but the makers of the Eastern Bloc’s mid-level form of transportation – above ZAZ or Trabant, but below Volga or Tatra. However, the need for a cheap 4×4 was pretty clear, especially in the vast expanse of the Soviet hinterland. Soviet product planners therefore asked VAZ, AZLK (Moskvich) and IZh to design a “people’s 4×4” for civilian use.
The engineers at Togliattigrad had only one car to base their new model on, so they had to be inventive. The chassis and unit body would be designed completely in-house, but the engine was to be the Fiat-derived 1.6 that powered the VAZ Zhiguli, as the Lada saloon was known in the USSR. Transmission- and suspension-wise, the VAZ folks had to use as much of the saloon’s underpinnings and thus broke all the rules then in common use for AWD vehicles (save the Range Rover): coils all around and independent in front.
This unusual set of parameters was tested out on a bizarre-looking prototype in 1972, which showed promise. Compared to the UAZ or Moskvich 4x4s that were then in production, the VAZ was more comfortably sprung and lighter to drive. The engineers knew they were on to something fairly user-friendly. The only thing that could change the new vehicle dramatically was the styling: the Soviet product planners refused to consider the VAZ prototype due to its canvas top: only a fully-enclosed body would do.
Fortunately again, the design team headed by Valeri Pavlovich Semuchkin came up with a simple yet effective solution. This is one of the handful of prototypes VAZ made in 1973, taking into account the need for a hard roof. The front fascia was still a little rough around the edges, but all the elements of the finalized design are there. The model name Niva was already chosen by this point, as well. The prototypes fielded by Moskvich and IZh were deemed inferior, so VAZ were given additional resources to further develop their Niva.
From then on, the Niva was refined through a lengthy period of tests. The model was officially green-lit for production, given a four-digit numeral (VAZ 2121) and presented to the top brass in Moscow in the summer of 1975. A batch of fifty handmade pre-series cars was extensively field-tested around the USSR in 1976 and production started in April 1977. The initial evaluation from the Soviet planners was 25,000 units per year, with almost all production slated to stay within the country’s borders. The car was deemed too rough to be exported widely, unlike the Zhiguli.
However, that was not at all how it panned out. In 1977, French Lada importer Jacques Poch visited Togliattigrad and was shown the new Niva. He stopped in his tracks, stared at it for a very long time and immediately pleaded that he be allowed to import these as early as possible. The car was slated to be shown at the upcoming 1978 Brussels Motor Show to make its Western European debut and Poch was adamant that a small contingent be shipped over to his network. The Soviets were a bit surprised by this display of unfeigned enthusiasm from one of their main Western importers, but decided to play along. After all, hard currency was always a high priority for the regime, especially as economic stagnation and increased military spending were squeezing the Eastern Bloc dry.
Poch’s inkling about the Niva’s sales potential was right on the money. The French could not get enough Nivas and soon the car also carved its niche in places like Australia, the UK, West Germany, Brazil, Greece, Canada and Scandinavia. There were a few other cheap 4x4s around by the ‘80s (e.g. Fiat Panda, Suzuki SJ), but Ladas were cheaper, were permanent 4×4 and had bigger engines, so they were essentially without competition. The 100,000th Niva was made by 1980 and production jumped to around 70,000 units per year by the middle of the decade – all to satisfy foreign demand.
The Poch network made several Niva specials and limited editions throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, as did importers in many other European countries. The cars that were shipped over from Togliattigrad always needed a substantial amount of tinkering to be marketable anyway, so re-spraying or re-upholstering them entirely was a sound idea.
For all its notoriously shoddy quality control and leaks, the Niva was appreciated as a very capable vehicle for off-road use. This was also proven on several tough trials, such as the grueling Paris-Dakar rally, where the Niva met with success. Jacques Poch did this with absolutely no backing from the Soviets, who still seemed to have less faith in their product than their French importer did.
The evolution of the Lada Niva was fairly limited, at least for its initial couple of decades in production. A fifth gear appeared on export models in 1985 and a Diesel version (Peugeot XUD) appeared in 1993 on some markets. But the first real facelift only took place in 1994, nearly 20 years after the car’s debut. This refresh was most visible in two places: the rear and the dash. Rear-wise, the original design’s horizontal taillights made for a very high hatch, which was one of the Niva’s least popular traits. The new vertical lights allowed Lada to redesign the hatch all the way down to the bumper.
Inside, the ‘70s-style dash with its five separate dials was replaced by a more modern instrument binnacle, together with a new steering wheel and a completely new centre console. The rest of the interior wasn’t changed all that much, though fabric seats started becoming available on some markets. Under the hood, the Fiat-derived 1.6 was replaced by a Russian-designed 1.7 litre providing 84 hp. This new engine was available with a GM-sourced EFI and catalytic converter in overseas markets (Lada switched to Bosch after 2000), enabling the Niva to comply with the latest EU emissions regulations. LPG versions were also made for some markets.
The Niva sprouted new LWB models, including a five-door version, but these were only for the domestic market, as far as I know. As the 21st Century dawned, the car remained popular in Russia and a number of foreign markets where Lada still had a presence, including Egypt, most Soviet successor states and, strangely enough, France. A new blue logo arrived on the car’s grille in 2002 and the Niva name disappeared from the rear hatch in 2006, but other than that, there were few additional exterior changes. Internally, the bulkhead structure had to be revised quite a bit to pass new EU crash tests. It seems only export models got these structural updates – Russian ones are still using the original chassis.
It seems AvtoVAZ were thinking of retiring the Niva at some point a few years ago. They signed a deal with GM to build a thoroughly revamped and restyled version of the 4×4, marketed under the Chevrolet marque in Russia and as a Daewoo in Western Europe. The Chevrolet Niva was a 100% Russian product, though. And it was an utter failure: too expensive, too big (it was based on the LWB Niva) and very poorly built, it ended up not being exported anywhere and sold in Russia only from 2005. The company kept making the old model anyway. Last December, AvtoVAZ (now controlled by Renault) announced they were buying out GM’s share of the deal, thereby regaining access to the Niva nameplate.
The 4×4-formerly-known-as-(and-soon-to-be-called-again)-Niva got a new round of minor changes in 2009 and has kept on going ever since. In 2010, Lada still produced about 40,000 units, half of which were exported. Most were still assembled in Russia, but some were also being put together in Egypt, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. I haven’t found any recent data, but it seems the assembly line is still going strong.
Exports are another thing, though: after years of dwindling sales, Lada-France, which took over from Poch as the marque’s importer in 1993, finally went under in 2018, but it seems German imports are still happening. In Russia and quite a few other places, the old VAZ 2121 is still alive and kicking. And because they were exported there for nearly four decades, Nivas are still seen in France on a fairly regular basis, and will be for some time yet. But just in case, I figured it would be good to document a fairly recent one in CC, as it’s probably the most successful Russian-designed car ever made – and still being made, 43 years and counting.
Curbside Classic: Lada Niva Pickup Truck, by David Saunders
COAL: From Russia, With A Whole Lada Love, by David Saunders
CC Capsule: Lada Niva For Sale, by Robert Kim
CC Capsule: Lada Niva–With A Drop Top And A Body Kit, by David Saunders