BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Tell your mates you're in the market for a second-hand Lada and chances are, they'll tell you to save up and buy something else. But if the budget is tight and you want a small off-roader, the Niva's what you'll want. It may not be the world's most advanced vehicle, but its simple mechanicals and basic equipment levels mean there are not too many things to go wrong. The Niva was sold in the UK from 1979 until 1997, when the importers regretfully closed the new car order books. Electronic engine management and fuel injection was needed for both the Niva and its family-car brother, the Samara, to meet EC exhaust emission standards. Strapped for cash, the factory simply could not afford to develop the new technology or buy it from the one American supplier that had the ideal system. Niva buyers have tended to be a mixture of dedicated four-wheel drive enthusiasts, farmers and those who fancy something like a big off-roader but whose bank manager disagrees. Enthusiasts now eagerly seeking out the last cars.
Models Covered:1.6 three-door Hatchback [4wd, 4wd Cossack] / 1.7 three-door Hatchback [Hussar, Cossack]
These cars were constantly, if none too dramatically, improved throughout their years on sale in the UK. The original version was released in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1976. The first Nivas reached these shores in 1978 but right-hand drive versions took another five years to arrive. The cars have always been somewhat less than luxurious but these older examples were really very basic. In 1986, the old four-speed gearbox was replaced by a five-speeder. The following year, a special-edition model, the Cossack, was launched. This consisted of some extra equipment like sunroof and graphics down the side to denote the new model. The Cossack eventually became a permanent part of the range, joining the base-model version. Mechanically, the biggest change was the end of the old 1.6-litre engine in October 1995. It was replaced by a new 1.7-litre design. At the same time, there was a facelift and the base model was re-named the Hussar. Both models continued until the last examples reached these islands in 1997.
What You Get
Something that's been designed for off-road use first and foremost, so don't expect it to drive like a miniature Discovery. The jazzed-up versions are perhaps not ideal, as the Niva was never designed to be a Suzuki Vitara competitor. It wears its frills a little uncomfortably. Go for the basic models - they're honest, rugged and cheap, to boot.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The transmission system on the Niva can give trouble if the high/low range drive has not been used regularly. It may get stuck and cause all kinds of drive problems. Check all the differentials, engine sump and gearbox for oil leaks. Alternators have been known to be unreliable, too. Corrosion can rear its ugly head in the doors (where they meet the glass) and the tailgate, so have a good look for bubbles in the paintwork. On the inside, believe it or not, the dashboard can work its way loose and come off at an inopportune moment, so check the mounting points. The rest of the interior also tends to be a little on the flimsy side, so don't be disappointed to find the odd switch or button missing and the seat fabric frayed.
(Based on a 1993 model) Here's where a Lada has the last laugh - prices are amazingly cheap. A new clutch is only about £70 and a full exhaust under £120. Brake pads are under £20, a headlamp is about £30, and a radiator is less than £90.
On the Road
A Niva is not at its best on the motorway, but it will be able to plough its way through a muddy field. If your daily grind is on greasy B roads, rather than the central London crawl, then your Niva will have a chance to show what it was designed for. Think of it as an off-roader that you can drive on the road and you'll be forgiving of the basic nature of its dynamics.
Not a vehicle for those who can't live without all the latest technology. For the money, a Niva is a good buy and its style of basic features with off-roading ability appeals to many. In fact, if you want to get into off-roading and money is tight, give the little Russian a try.