BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Forget the jokes; Lada Samaras are seriously cheap, if, admittedly, not overly cheerful. They were imported here between 1987 and 1997 and throughout that period, improvements and developments were continuous at a time when so much else in Russia seemingly became worse. The Samara has never pretended to be anything other than inexpensive and pretty basic transport for people who don't care too much about impressing the neighbours. These cars are bought by people who want something that's cheap to own, built to last and not stuffed full of gimmicky luxuries like electric windows, central locking and power steering, not to mention airbags. Yesterday's technology then - usually reliable if a little basic.
The Samara hit the UK late in 1987 and imports ceased in 1997, following the company's inability to adapt the engines to strict new exhaust emission regulations. There was a plethora of models over the years but the basic design remained the same. It should be pointed out that the Samara bears no relation to long-obsolete Fiats, unlike many other former Eastern Bloc cars, including Lada's own Riva. When launched, it boasted a standard five-speed gearbox, a modern 1.3-litre engine and a front-wheel drive chassis with a three-door hatch bodyshell. The engine was then developed into two other versions - a 1.5 and a 1.1. The latter is really too small however, for the weight of the car. The five-door hatches and saloons came later and were available until the end in 1997 with both 1.1 and 1.3-litre engines, though the last cars were base and S trim levels. New Ladas are apparently being designed and built in the former USSR and there is a thriving trade in exporting old UK examples back to their homeland!
What You Get
A luxury-liner it isn't, though all cars come with carpets, cloth upholstery and a rear wash/wipe. A powerful heater is far more important to motorists in Minsk than air conditioning or a CD autochanger, remember. So, it's a basic car, but all the essentials are there. Just don't expect to jump out of a small Japanese car and into a Samara without a moment of shock. Interiors and seat upholstery, in particular, are hard-wearing but so must their occupants' posteriors be. Lada rear seats are well known for their ruggedness (like their home-market drivers). Conversely, the front seats are generally far too soft! As for the rest of the interior, there's very little in the way of gadgetry to go wrong and the dash is functional with a capital F, if unremarkable for any other reason.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The build quality of the cars is usually fine, though there have been stories about dodgy panel-fit and poor paintwork in circulation over the years. The newer cars were certainly well built and solid. Early cars may leak in heavy rain so check the carpets for signs of staining, as well as any tell-tale corrosion bubbles at the base of the windscreen, where water is most likely to have dribbled in. Mechanically, you shouldn't have much trouble. The engines are fairly bullet-proof, if crude. Idling is known to be lumpy, so don't be concerned at the sight of the motor bouncing around a little on the mounts when cold. Chances are, it'll have you damp-eyed, remembering your old Morris Minor or Cortina from way back when Ladas were foreign and exotic.
(Based on both 1.3 and 1.5 models) Spectacularly cheap. A clutch will set you back a mere £70 and a full exhaust an amazing £100. Brakepads are under £20. Alternators and starter motors are both just over £100, a radiator is about £160. A front headlamp will cost about £40.
On the Road
But you pay in the end. Well, to be fair, cheap ownership rarely equals excitement. Nobody buys a car in this sector of the new or used market for enthusiastic driving anyway. What you will get with the little Lada is a capable runabout that, provided you stay out of everyone's way in the overtaking lane, will get you where you need to be safely and reliably.
One day not so far off, the Russians will put these cars in museums and wonder at how well they served people for so long. Until then, the Samara competes with the cheapest second and Third World machinery for honours as the bargain hunter's favourite.