The Cool Lada?
A cool Lada may sound like an oxymoron, but suspend your disbelief for a moment. Back in the nineties, the Lada was literally laughed out of the UK market.
Along with Skoda, it earned a reputation for making the ugliest, most useless cars you could imagine, and then something strange happened. Skoda was taken over by VW and underwent the greatest conversion since St Paul took the road to Damascus. It's now considered one of the most reliable and solid brands out there, making good-looking and clever cars to challenge even the premium names. But what happened to Lada?
Well, the Russian brand quietly went on producing its cars and selling them at home and abroad, even if the UK wasn't very interested. A few years ago, the Renault-Nissan alliance took a controlling stake in Lada. So far this hasn't really made any difference to Lada's image in the UK, but change could be afoot.
The Lada Niva is an interesting 4x4 which has achieved cult status globally. It boasts Land Rover Defender levels of agility and is rough and tough enough to stand up to any slurs upon its name. As the Defender takes its final bow, could the Niva carve out a new niche for itself in the UK market? While a replacement for the Defender is on its way, it is as yet an unknown quantity, but in the meantime the Lada Niva offers a similar range of virtues for the price of a small hatchback - £13,395 on the road.
The Niva boasts a fair amount of retro charm and looks like it should be driven by hipsters negotiating Californian sand dunes. You don't see many around, and it's sure to turn heads and leave people puzzled as they try to work out what it is. More importantly, it's a very competent car in mechanical terms.
Proper low- and high-range gear boxes and a diff lock are complemented by an elevated riding height and pressed steel wheels to make it very capable off the road, while its modest dimensions, neat turning circle and power steering make it viable as an everyday car. Lightweight construction gives the Niva an advantage over rivals in muddy territory, and it can confidently wade up to 600mm or climb up to 58%.
The Niva can be specified in white, red, blue or green, and the extras list is pretty much limited to a snow plough and a snorkel. You can choose an LPG conversion for £999 but will be compromising on cargo space. The Niva manages a reasonably respectable 33mpg and the engine meets Euro V emissions standards. You might have difficulty explaining to an insurer exactly what it is, but premiums are affordable.
The hot-air blower can cope with icy Siberian winters, so it should have no trouble with British weather, but there's little in the way of comfort apart from that. The aggressively basic interior is designed to be easy to clean after a day mudplugging, so it does without handy little gizmos such as a stereo system, central locking or electric windows. A warranty plan is on the way, and spares may take a while to get your hands on, but fortunately the Niva rarely breaks down so that's not too much of an issue. The importer is expecting the demise of the Defender to open up a gap in the market which should see those sorts of mainstream features become more easily available. You're also limited to left-hand drive for orders under 500 units!
The Lada Niva offers basic, no-frills fun. It's comfortable enough to drive and visibility is good, but luxury features are non-existent. While it feels smooth enough on the road, the single engine option, a 1.7 litre petrol unit, is a rowdy beast, and you won't squeeze any more than 91mph out of it - but then that's not why you'd buy one of these. What the Lada Niva does offer is a very credible budget alternative to the Land Rover Defender. However, it remains to be seen whether British buyers can overcome their badge snobbery enough to spot this diamond in the rough. Ultimately, that price tag could prove a massive draw to frugal buyers with a sense of novelty.