By on August 10, 2016

Lada XRay

Times are still tough in Russia, and your average Moscovite or St. Petersburgian doesn’t want to risk buying a new car — unless it’s a vivid, modern new Lada.

Lada, the much-maligned butt of Western jokes for decades, has reaped the rewards of luring a British ex-Volvo designer into its fold. In a vehicle market that continues to contract like a dying star, Lada’s new models are a pinpoint of light.

Steve Mattin holds an impressive resumé. Before joining AvtoVAZ’s Lada subsidiary, the 51-year-old Brit rose up the ranks at Daimler-Benz, eventually becoming the automaker’s senior design manager. Mattin’s work includes the mid-2000s redesign of almost every Mercedes-Benz model, minus the E- and C-Class. After that, he hopped the Baltic to go work at Volvo, where he helped create the S60, V60 and XC60.

Since 2011, Mattin has served as Lada’s chief designer. His biggest task? Designing two new Westernized models to help Lada out of its sales slump. The models — a compact sedan and crossover — aim to beat back foreign rivals on Russian soil.

Lada Vesta

The Vesta sedan and XRay crossover are out now, and their arrivals come at both an unfortunate and opportune moment. Russia’s economy is in the dumps and vehicle sales are in a multi-year dive. After taking a look around the bleak landscape, some foreign automakers (such as General Motors) pulled out like the Germans at Stalingrad. That makes the market, shrinking as it is, more appealing for an aspirational domestic brand.

Lada (which still sells the 4×4 — a.k.a. Niva — by the way) saw an opening. The Vesta and XRay borrow Renault-Nissan’s unfortunately named BO platform and the company’s five-speed manual transmission, coupled (mainly) to a 106 horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder. The crossover offers a 1.8-liter upgrade for those looking to climb hills in the Urals. Combine that with fresh styling from Mattin’s drawing board, and Lada found itself with two winners.

According to Automotive News Europe, Lada posted a four percent year-over-year sales gain in July, even as overall vehicles sales fell 17 percent. In contrast, Kia sales fell 11 percent in July, while Hyundai sales slipped 12 percent. Ford, which stayed put in the marketplace, saw a seven percent drop in sales. Year-to-date Lada sales are still below 2015 figures, but the automaker reports strong demand for its new models.

Westerners can criticize the new Lada styling (Citroën C4 Cactus lovers might not), but Mattin seems to have pulled off the near-impossible task of boosting demand in a shrinking economy.

[Images: Lada]

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21 Comments on “Here’s What an Ex-Volvo Designer Did For Poor Old Lada...”

  • avatar

    Those indentations on the sides? That’s just goofy.

    • 0 avatar

      “Just Goofy” gives the individuality and style without really hurting the aerodynamics all that much. It’s amazing how just the perception of bulging fenders can add a sleek look to an otherwise boring vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Kind of like the reverse of the Mercedes-Benz “Pontoon” rear quarters on their mid-50’s early 60’s models.The latest E-Coupe has rear quarters influenced by them.

        • 0 avatar

          An older Focus and an Impreza hatch hooked up when no one was looking, then the Ford slipped into the next room to spend some time with a new Civic.
          There was definitely vokda involved.

    • 0 avatar

      Mattin must have been a ‘sleeper’, planted by one of its former employers at Lada to inflict harm in the cheaper SUV segment. Those ‘indentations’ are ghastly.

  • avatar

    Did Lada toughen these vehicles for Russian “roads” the same way it did the old Fiat-based products? The best thing about the old Ladas was that they shrugged off Russian road conditions.

    • 0 avatar

      Correct question. I lived and worked in Moscow from late 1991 to early 1994 and drove a Lada Zhiguli, the upgraded clone of a 1960s Fiat 124 sedan. With regular servicing, they were pretty bulletproof for a long time on the terrible Russian roads in that era.

    • 0 avatar

      dal the Nissan platform is designed with third world use from the get-go, The datsun variant has been for sale in Russia for a while now I think, along with the true-econo variant the Lada Granta. Ground clearance is generally 170-180mm (7.5 ish inches, more than most US CUVs). The Granta was intended to fill the huge gap in the market left by the retirement of the old Fiat-based RWD Ladas, which continue to be the staple of the vehicular landscape once you leave the Moscow/St. Petersburg and other major city centers. You’re more likely to see a Land Cruiser Prado than a Lada in better-to-do urban centers.

      Steph proportionally the Lada buyers tend to NOT be in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but more so smaller towns and cities, where cost trumps all. How much does it cost to replace a balljoint after I destroy it on a gruesome pothole? For a Russian car or something generic like a renault Logan or 1990s Toyota-sedan, any small shop will have the part you need, at palatable prices. These “upper market” Ladas compete against the likes of well trimmed Logans, Hyundai Accents, subcompacts bought on credit. Buyers tend to be current owners of Russian cars, folks upgrading from worn out Lada 2110s, or maybe a Land Cruiser driver that wanted to get his wife something to run to the store in. Folks from southern republics (Dagestan, Chechnya) have a real strong affinity for these Russian makes for some reason, the Lada Priora is to these fellows as a Chrysler 300 might be the stereotypical ride for an black gentleman here in the US.

      In fact, even these newer Ladas are unlikely to gain massive traction with rural buyers, even at the equivalent of $8000 new (500k rubles) that is crazy money. A used RWD Lada (or Volga for the brougham enthusiast) can be scooped up for about $500-1000 for an okay road-worthy variant, $2500 will get you a very fresh non-rusty example, a FWD Samara or 2110 in good shape, or even a 4wd Niva or UAZ.

      • 0 avatar

        Is the Granta on the Nissan platform?

        My relatives has one, and it look indigenous design underneath. Definitely doesn’t look like the BO platform. I could be wrong.

        • 0 avatar

          Same platform. In this article they compare the Granta and the Datsun (yes Datsun, not Nissan) “on-Do.” Pricewise, you get a higher trim Lada with the same 1.6L 87hp motor for the same money that would get you the base Datsun. The biggest distinction is ultimately availability of dealership service centers: 319 for the Lada, 61 for the Datsun.

          • 0 avatar

            Learn something new everyday. It seems to hold up pretty good in Russia and doesn’t look to hard to work on.

            My Russian is still terrible. Otherwise I’d read the article. One of these days…

  • avatar

    Say what you want about Lada, but having just come back from Serbia last week, you still see plenty of them on the road. They may not be fancy, but they sure do last a long, long time.

    • 0 avatar

      There is a pretty stable supply of these things, seeing as they were made from ’70 until 2010 or so. It is common to run a Lada until it is too rusty to weld and reweld (eventually the rear axle mounting points will detach from the body), then swap the running gear into a pensioner’s well preserved but non-running car. They are like Legos in that regard. Model age matters much less than condition, and in fact the Soviet built cars are considered much better put together than ones post-collapse. As an example, my great uncle before he passed went from a 1996 Lada 2105 (single square headlights), to a much older but rust-free ’82 21011. My grandma’s next door neighbor drove his ’95-ish 2105 as a taxi for about 16 years before retiring it in favor of a fresh, fuel injected 2107 (the one with the tall grille). The injected cars start and run better, but many are still leery of them after being used to garage and road side tinkering with carbs for decades.

      You’d be amazed at how well adapted the suspension is for rough roads. For being such a ‘tin can,’ they glide over road imperfections that shame much more technically modern Japanese imports. That neighbor’s 2107 was much less rattly for bombing around what passes for roads out in the sticks than my cousin’s ’92 Toyota Corona. The real masters of treacherous Russian roads are the Volgas and old RWD Moskvitches (AZLK-2140, Izh 412). Truly nothing available on the market today even among luxury vehicles rides quite as smooth. Of course, those Russian cars also handle like limp noodles. With how some locals treat each drive like their own personal time attack rally, it can be somewhat nausea inducing.

  • avatar

    Yeah, the Russians get all the colorful cars, we here in the US all get bland and boring.

  • avatar


    I can tell you are interesting in the cars of my Country, because each time I come here every week there is some article which is of pertinence and relevancy to my investigation of cars! Though often you can see old Lada models (like often when they were just an old Fiat fun.italian.automabile.touche?) underneath of their less-baroque exterior dimension for Eastern Blocs.

    Anyway, its’ good they decided to hire a design man from where there is Capitalism and good bureaucreacy in designs like in the EUropean UNion (ha ha !) because if the design has to pass a testing like the Euro NAACP ratings then likely it will be of a suitable place and durability for rough-and-tumbler countries like Serbia, Russia, Yuogslavekea, and est.

    Fortnuately they have added design detail of a little cut-out on either door, like a Troll or giant has picked it from the ground to shake “show me the quality!”

    Fun day,

    Grango Relago

  • avatar

    Steve Martin has done a great job of finding career opportunities.

    Peugeot/Renault has been making some interesting mis-steps, or maybe they are just being unintentionally humorous, naming a platform “BO”, and naming a car after an inanimate plant.

  • avatar

    They’re not bad looking. Wish the Datsuns were this good looking.

  • avatar

    I just want to point out that I think your auto journalism is greatly improving.
    Keep up the good work.

  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    Last I heard, Vesta and XRAY were on entirely different platforms. The XRAY was a lightly re-skinned Duster, while Vesta had some kind of ultramodern D-class platform. But I may be ignorant. I never heard of the “BO” acronym.

  • avatar

    “pulled out like the Germans at Stalingrad”

    Actually, the Germans did not withdraw from Stalingrad. Which was a mistake.

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