By on September 5, 2018

Image: Lada

We’ve all seen movies set in the perpetually grey, bitterly cold Soviet Union (later Hollywood films featuring Russia were apparently allowed to show sunlight), but if you lived north of the border a few decades ago, it wasn’t just the weather that looked familiar.

Lada Canada imported Iron Curtain cars for two decades (1979 to 1997), offering rudimentary, pinko automobiles to Canadian cheapskates for very few kopeks. Your author recalls entering the high school library at the dawn of the internet age and slowly booting up the Lada Canada website, where a five-door Samara was advertised for $4,995. Few of these showed up on local roads, as Hyundai offered slightly better no-cost transportation options.

However, there was one Lada vehicle that can truly be considered a classic, and it’s the one everyone remembers best. Sadly, after more than 40 years of production, the virtually unchanged Niva (now known simply as the 4×4) seems destined, like the Berlin Wall, to pass into history.

Last week, Lada revealed a concept vehicle that aims to bring the Niva/4×4 into the 21st century, just a couple of decades late. The 4×4 Vision concept heralds a successor to the classic, but not very safe SUV, borrowing styling cues seen on the popular (in Russia) Vesta sedan and wagon and XRAY crossover.

Image: Lada

Both of those vehicles, as well as the concept, are the work of Steve Mattin, the British designer who hopped to Lada parent company AvtoVAZ (itself owned by the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance) after stints at Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. With his help, Lada was able to modernize its lineup and regain lost domestic market share. There’s nothing Cold War-era about the design of the Vesta or XRAY, and the same can be said of the 4×4 Vision.

“We are preparing LADA’s future. Showing 4×4 Vision we demonstrate the potential of a unique, expressive, bold and energetic design embodied in a new SUV drawing the inspiration from the legendary LADA 4×4”, said Mr. Mattin in a clearly translated statement.

Image: Lada

Popular with tankies the world over but revered in its home country, the Niva entered production in 1977 after years of development. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Premier declared that his country’s auto industry must build a rugged yet “civilized” vehicle for proles — hardy, hopefully secular farming types — living in remote oblasts far from the gleaming lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg Leningrad.

Russian automaker VAZ developed the vehicle’s four-wheel drive system and suspension (independent in front, five-link live axle in the rear), crafted a simple body, and tossed in whatever Fiat-sourced parts were kicking around from its existing vehicles. Engineers then torture-tested the Niva in both Siberia and the Ural Mountains, where even experienced hikers can die unexplained, terrifying deaths. Eventually, the Niva was ready for prime time, which in the Soviet Union probably involved a lot of state-run television programming.

Image: Lada

The model, with its 1.6-liter four-cylinder and four-speed manual transmission, soldiered on through the 1980s and into a new era of capitalism, after which Lada made changes in 1993 to bring it up to date with the norms of the previous decade. Four speeds became five, the engine grew by one tenth of a liter and adopted a single-point fuel injection system designed by General Motors, and other minor changes abounded. Outwardly, it was still a Niva. Unfortunately, the model name eventually became the property of GM through a Chevrolet-AvtoVAZ joint venture, so Lada adopted the “4×4” name for its little box.

Currently offered in three- and five-door form, still with a sole 1.7-liter, eight-valve engine (83 hp, 95 lb-ft), the Niva/4×4 spawned many variants — including military vehicles and a pickup — that never made it to export markets.

Image: Lada

Before the Niva supply dried up on these shores, importers would add decadent Western content, most of it exterior appearance add-ons, and market them as the Niva Cossack. The name always made me pictured a big, furry hat. Simple, rugged, and distinctive (Seventies orange and olive green were popular colors, I recall, though rusty white seemed commonplace, too), the Niva was the vehicle you bought if a Blazer or Bronco seemed too dear, or if a Suzuki Samurai seemed too flimsy.

Every now and then I search for one online, and one inevitably appears within an hour’s drive of Montreal. Suffice it to say that the ravages of time and weather have not been kind to the remaining fleet.

Lada made sure to include certain heritage cues in the 4×4 Vision’s designs, which will no doubt carry over when the production models appears. When that will be remains a mystery. Situating the turn signals above the headlights, at the leading edge of the hood, is the biggest nod to Nivas of yore, as well as the upright grille. As the first Niva that comes to mind is the classic three-door bodystyle, Lada’s concept keeps its rear openings somewhat hidden, with concealed door handles. Phoney vents adorn the C-pillar.

Anyway, as you’re not likely to see Lada suddenly enter the U.S. market, this information is likely of little use of you. But it just goes to show that nothing lasts forever —  not in the automotive realm (as the recent death of the Land Rover Defender already showed), and not even in Russia. Our time, like the Niva’s, will come.

[Images: AvtoVAZ Group]

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34 Comments on “Niva No More? Lada Concept Vehicle Heralds the Demise of a Communist Classic...”

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I love it. Even though the upcoming Rav4 looks similar, this is so much cooler, given its roots. My favorite Top Gear is the “Communist cars” episode with Jeremy and Capt. Slow off roading in a Lada 4×4

    • 0 avatar

      Here some more pics of this thing – its brutal, especially interior.×4-vision-2018/

      I like 2 things:
      1 – it has something new for the entire automotive design field. Look at those rear lights!
      2 – it keeps some of the theme of the old one, which is cool

  • avatar

    I drove one in Canada once and absolutely loved it. The only thing I didn’t care for were the pedals being too close together. So, I had to drive it with my shoes off to keep from stabbing the brake and clutch at the same time, or catching the brake pedal when I went to let off the throttle, etc.

    Neat little vehicle, I’d absolutely love to have one. The new concept looks good, too. If we could eliminate the stupid 25 year ban, I’d love a Suzuki Jimny and a newer Lada 4×4 (newer so as to hopefully get one in good condition with little-to-no rust).

  • avatar

    I am sure, this is the case, when if you know right people in Russia, they can buy new, change all the documentation and ship it here as 25yo car

  • avatar

    I lived and worked in Moscow 1992 – 1998 and had a Niva and Lada Zhiguli 06. The Niva was OK, but the Zhiguli was a Fiat 128 which combined the best of Italian engineering with the best of Russian QC. A one-year-old Lada was worth more than a new one as the owner had a year to fix everything that was wrong with the car when it came out of the factory. Ah, those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…

    • 0 avatar

      Cool story, seriously

    • 0 avatar

      Fiat 124 actually. 128 was a different car.

    • 0 avatar

      “a Fiat 128 which combined the best of Italian engineering with the best of Russian QC.”

      I literally LOLed.

    • 0 avatar


      The key differences with the Fiat 124 were the following:

      -The Fiat 124 had an OHV engine with pushrods while the Lada 2101 featured a more advanced OHC design.
      -The Fiat has a horizontally mounted Solex carburetor while the Lada came with a vertical Weber-style unit.
      -The Fiat uses a dynamo, the Lada has an alternator.
      -The Fiat 124 has a cable-operated clutch while the Lada has a hydraulic one.
      -The Fiat had disc brakes in all corners while the Lada came with drums at the rear. However, the Fiat had a single circuit brake system while the Lada was upgraded to a twin circuit.
      -The Lada’s suspension was raised, beefed up and simplified to take the abuse equally well on and off the road, so the Fiat handles and rides better.
      -The Lada is made of thicker steel. Too bad they left the unpainted bodies outside just a bit too long, so rust was pretty much a given in a year after delivery.
      -Four lifting points on a Lada, only two on a Fiat 124.
      -The Fiat 124 has no skid plate. The Russians opted for one.
      -Coolant temperature is displayed on the Lada’s dash, but the Fiat only let’s you know when it’s already boiling.

  • avatar

    I was in Georgia (the country) and saw these and really liked them. Never had a chance to drive em, but it won’t surprise me if I end up importing one someday.

  • avatar

    I would imagine that the new Niva is about as reliable as the old one, but it does look spiffy. You could imagine that it is the new Ford Bronco or maybe a replacement for the Escape or the Edge.

  • avatar

    I too lived in ex-USSR for a few years. The thing that’s underappreciated in the west is…everything about these cars. They’re the centre of so many stories, all of them funny in retrospect.

    I’m getting old.

  • avatar

    This concept sucks compared with the honest looks of original. It reminds me Mercedes Benz and Hyundai.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    A friend of mine in High School lived in a pretty fancy neighborhood that was awash with BMWs and Mercedes – and the odd Ferrari and Roller. His Dad had three Ladas: 2 4X4s and the sedan, whatever it was. The Dad drove an S-Class that no one was allowed to even look at but the rest of the family was relegated to Ladas. My buddy loved the 4X4.

  • avatar

    I doubt this means the death of the existing Niva. The thing is already sold alongside its newer model ( The Chevrolet Niva ).

    Plus AutoVAZ likes to keep producing old models as long as they can sell them. They only recently stopped production on the Priora which basically dates to 1995.

  • avatar

    I’m in Russia right now and Nivas are absolutely thick on the ground in the rural villages of Altai (Southwestern Siberia). A lot of the same parts shared with the rwd ladas, cheap to buy and cheap to fix (always plenty to fix), and of course excellent traction and clearance. What most Western car guys don’t realize is that the Niva has a full time 4wd system with a center differential, with a locking feature and low range as well. For higher speed on road and mixed traction use the full time system is much more practical and effective than a simple part time system. The Nivas other big win is that owing to its unibody Lada-based construction with independent front suspension, it rides and handles much better than a traditional serious Jeep or SUV (especially the Soviets’ own UAZ 4wds).

    • 0 avatar

      Hope you’re enjoying your trip. :)

      • 0 avatar

        It’s good to see relatives and live the country life at my grandmas for a bit. Milk and sour cream from the neighbors’ cow, produce from our own garden, fresh local meat from the market. No shower, only a traditional Russian sauna. #2 strictly in the outhouse. For a car guy it is a fascinating automotive landscape, I think western Siberia is one of the most varied in the world. The general flavor is used right hand drive Japanese cars, the variety of that alone will make your eyes pop. All the different permutations and sport models and hard tops and weird compact vans, etc, etc. The boring lack of varity of Toyota’s lineup in the States compared to the stuff they make for their internal market is infuriating. Then there’s the German imports, fewer but present. I’ve even seen a few old American cars, a crown Vic parked by our apartment, a gen 1 Taurus in traffic on good shape, and a jellybean explorer in my grandmas village (that was a real surprise). The more rural you get, the more Russian stuff you see, including soviet era Ladas and moskvitches. The UAZ patriot is second only to the Land Cruiser Prado in the SUV space, looking around. Chinese cars are present but fairly rare. There are certainly many newer left hand drive cars, Land cruisers of all permutations, budget sedans and crossovers, Renaults and kias and Hyundais. Our rental was a Hyundai Creta. The space of large intercity trucks is fascinating as well. Mostly old used Europeans and Russian Kamaz trucks, but also big right hand drive Hino and Isuzu refrigerator trucks with twin front steering axles, and used American big rigs, pre-emissions Freighliner Centuries and Kenworths are well liked for their durability and relative simplicity. Smaller hauling is handled by Russian Gazelles and narrow body Mitsubishi Canters and Isuzus and Toyota “Aces” of various sorts.

        • 0 avatar

          Great posts gtem. You should write a feature article.

        • 0 avatar

          drive south towards Azerbaijdan and you will see a hellot of german cars…
          all lux and ALL stolen.

          • 0 avatar

            since i cant edit on this site for whatever reasons…
            there is a regular pipeline for stolen vehicles from germany to Azerbaidjan (or whatever its spelled —) all the oddicials are in on it- beyond corrupt.

          • 0 avatar

            iddqd the criminality of used imported autos runs deep all across the post soviet space. Stolen German cars are often given new VIN tags and “washed” in the Baltics and Belorussia. The story with JDM imports into Vladivostok in the 90s was truly the Wild West with whole ships robbed of their cargo, car runners flying East with bags of cash to buy a car for resale and shotguns packed in checked luggage for the trip back west, crooked cops informing road bandits of caravans coming their way, etc.

            Things are generally much more orderly now. IIRC since 2008 it’s gotten much harder and less profitable to import a grey market car into Russia. The profits are gone, and so has a lot of the criminality.

        • 0 avatar

          Another key fixture in rural Russia are the old Soviet ZIL and GAZ 2-4 ton trucks, banged up old beasts with wooden beds and lazy burbling gas V8 engines that happily run on low octane gas (about 76 AKI). Firewood, building materials, hay, etc. what you barely see at all are pickups of any kind or any age. Just a few UAZ Patriot pickups, several newer Hiluxes and Rangers. More common are cars hauling small trailers, or the aforementioned GAZelles or JDM trucklets. Rural public transport is mostly handled by Russian “PAZ” (Pavlovsky Avtomobilniy Zavod) 30ish passenger buses which haven’t changed much since the 70s. Many run those same understressed gas V8s (LPG converted) from the trucks, some locals have splurged on PAZes with more efficient diesels. It’s a rough slow ride on the inevitably horrible roads, but cheap and definitely part of the authentic Russian experience.

          • 0 avatar

            I love hearing about the authentic Russian experience from you, man. I would very much like to see it for myself one day.

  • avatar

    So AutoVAZ and GM produced a new Niva that is unrelated to this Renault based replacement for the actual Niva that can no longer be called a Niva?

    My head hurts.

  • avatar

    The concept trades the form-follows-function to form and overwrought styling over function. The wheels are much too large and the excessive and oversized creases, bends and folds make it look like a Hyundai on LSD.
    Shrinking the windows is oh, so trendy, but oh, so wrong.
    Steve Mattin has taken the rear end of a Civic and applied it to an entire vehicle.

  • avatar

    One of the coolest vehicle I have seen was a Lada Niva 4×4 owned by an artist couple in Montréal. From afar it looked great in a brilliant astroturf-y green color and when you got up close you realized that the car was covered in short-trimmed artificial grass, perfectly applied on all surfaces that would normally be painted.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I always thought the Yugo importer Malcolm Bricklin should have added the Niva to the line. It would have lasted a lot longer.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Still see a Niva (Cossack edition) in the area around York University in Toronto. Of course Lada’s head office was also in that area and as I have mentioned the large Lada sign and logo are still on 2 sides of the office tower where it was located. Not sure if it costs too much to remove it, if it is kept on for nostalgic reasons, or if the building’s owner expects Lada to return?

    Just like the Trabant featured in Sajeev’s post this week, the Lada was built with ‘in field service’ in mind. Although as GTem mentions there is/was nearly always something that requires maintenance/repair it is quite easy and simple to do so.

    I would bet that this new ‘Niva’ does not retain one of the most endearing qualities of the original, which is the ‘crank start’ that Ladas imported to Canada (with the exception of the Samara?) had.

  • avatar

    I had a Lada sedan, favorite thing was the seatbelts, they didn’t have a metal tab you inserted the webbing under a hook and latched it down- confused the heck out of passengers

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