2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121

2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121

The legendary Lada Niva is not only still in production, it’s been back on sale in the UK in recent months… albeit not officially.


Words: Paul Jackson. Pics: Richard Gunn.

CLASSIC IN ITS OWN LIFETIME

TEST DRIVE: NEW LADA NIVA

Paul Jackson drives a brand new Niva, to see if it still captures our hearts the way it always did.


The list of vehicles still in production 45 years after they launched is understandably short. There are plenty of model names that have been around for longer, of course, but the cars themselves bear little resemblance to their forebears. And then there’s the Lada Niva, the ultra-rugged 4x4 that’s still in production in 2022, remaining faithful to the design that first arrived way back in 1977.


2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121

The Niva has been a major part of the East European motoring scene in particular throughout the last four and a half decades, and was once a fairly common sight in the UK. It arrived here at the end of the ’70s and remained available through to 1997, when Lada imports finally ceased. An effort was made to begin unofficial imports again in 2010, with Niva aficionado Mark Key bringing in small numbers of left-hand drive examples for a short time. But it was in 2021 that he had a second attempt, this time generating huge amounts of publicity and attracting punters willing to buy one of the hardest-working 4x4s of all time.


2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121

Naturally, we couldn’t resist borrowing Mark’s demonstrator for a few days when the opportunity arose – and it was a fascinating experience, largely because of the reaction from other road users. A brand new Niva attracts serious attention in the UK, with people puzzled as to how what looks like an old Lada happens to have a current-style registration number. Forget your six-figure price tag supercars; when it comes to maximum head-turning ability, the latest Lada Niva has few peers.


LOOKS FAMILIAR

Anyone who experienced the Niva decades ago will already be familiar with the latest model, now badged as the Niva Legend. It’s changed little over the years, with only minor trim updates (bumpers, grille and other details) to differentiate it. There’s the same boxy three-door styling, the same distinctive ‘eyebrow’ indicators up front, the same high ground clearance, the same short overhangs for off-roading. And under the bonnet there’s the same 1.7-litre OHC fuel-injected petrol engine that’s powered the Niva since the early 1990s, now with 83bhp for a top speed of 88mph.


2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121 - trunk

There may be a touch more black trim around the place, plus a redesigned (but still reassuringly basic) dashboard and marginally posher upholstery, but the latest Niva is essentially the same car it was all those years ago.

There are obviously downsides. The Niva is now produced solely in left-hand drive guise, which will no doubt deter some Brits. And, of course, it’s crude. Compared with a modern-day SUV that’s designed for everyday comfort and convenience, this Russian tool is hard work. The four-cylinder engine is smooth enough at tickover but sounds raucous as the revs rise (ear defenders for motorway cruising would be a wise investment), while the whining from the drivetrain and power-steering (a typical Niva trait) can be wearing.


2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121 - engine

The five-speed manual transmission is notchy but the Lada picks up speed reasonably well and keeps up with modern traffic. The disc/drum brake setup is effective and the all-coil suspension does a good job (by 4x4 standards) of smoothing potholes and rough surfaces. Throw the Niva into a corner and you’ll be either amused or alarmed by the body roll, but also impressed by the all-weather grip. There’s permanent drive to all four wheels; and when the going gets tough you have two extra ‘gearsticks’, one to select low-range and the other to lock the diff for extreme off-roading.

The one area where the Niva has changed is in its standard equipment, with ‘our’ Luxe version coming with alloys, electric windows and mirrors, air-con and even heated front seats. Bizarrely though, you don’t get a stereo; and the only airbag you’ll find is the side-impact one fitted to the driver’s seat. The hard-plastic dashboard isn’t the last word in ergonomics, and the exposed screw heads on the cheap-looking door cards are a reminder of the Niva’s age.


RUNNING ONE

This might be a brand new car but its spec is firmly in the 20th century, which brings advantages when it comes to ease of maintenance. Admittedly, there are no longer any Lada dealers in the UK, so you’ll need to make your own arrangements when it comes to servicing. But the Niva’s simplicity means any competent garage will be able to help, and it’s easy to buy parts and all consumables at reasonable cost via either the importer or from Lada specialists online.


2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121 - interior

After more than four decades in production, the Niva is a well-proven design. It tends to be inherently reliable (it’s built to work hard), although new ones come with a two-year warranty for extra peace of mind.

It was in 2021 that Mark Key recommenced imports of the Niva, bringing up to seven into the UK on a single transporter at any one time. And it didn’t take him long to build up a list of satisfied customers – the kind of people who value the Niva’s no-nonsense engineering and off-road agility more than modern-day refinement. Having said that, with the Niva being ULEZ-compliant, you’re as likely to spot one on the mean streets of London as you are traversing the Yorkshire Dales.

Each new Niva has to pass an Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) test, for which Mark has to change the headlights (for driving on the left), reinstate the rear foglights, swap the speedometer for a bespoke illuminated one showing miles-per-hour, carry out various wiring loom modifications, as well as add extra conduit for the wiring that runs beneath the vehicle. Once the IVA is passed, the Niva is registered as a brand new car and will be issued with an independent two-year mechanical warranty.

Prices for a road-ready Niva start at less than £19,000 for the basic Classic model, though the much better-equipped Luxe tested here is £20,000-plus.

Anybody wishing to buy a pre-prepared Niva and arrange for their own IVA can save a few thousand pounds, though – and if you’re VAT registered and opt for the two-seater van version, the price tumbles further once you’ve reclaimed the VAT.


OUR VERDICT

What we love about the Niva is that it provides a unique opportunity: a chance to buy a ‘brand new classic’, a machine that oozes 1970-style character. Yes, it has drawbacks; it’s tiring on a journey and it’s slow and unrefined by modern standards. But it’s also one of the finest off-roaders of all time, a machine capable of giving farmers and rural dwellers the reassurance of all-year-round mobility at a sensible price. That a new one also turns more heads than a Ferrari is the icing on the 4x4 cake.

But there is a downside. Since we sampled the Niva shown here, the world has changed. The war in Ukraine has tuned Russia into a pariah state as far as the west is concerned, with sanctions in place and motor manufacturers responding accordingly. So, has the Niva bitten the dust once again in the UK? Time will tell. Meanwhile, it remains on sale in Russia, with production set to finally cease at the end of 2023.

CONTACT

To find out more about the current-spec Lada Niva and the latest on the situation with UK sales, go to lada4x4.co.uk.


TECH SPEC2022 Lada Niva the ultra-rugged 4x4 VAZ 2121

  • ENGINE: 1690cc 4-cyl OHC
  • MAX POWER: 83bhp @ 5000rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 95lb.ft @ 4000rpm
  • MAX SPEED: 88mph
  • 0-60MPH: 16.2sec
  • FUEL CONSUMPTION: 25-34mpg
  • GEARBOX: Dual-range 4x4, 5-sp manual
Article type:
Review
16669
No comments yet. Be the first to add a comment!
Drives TODAY use cookie